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 Skeleton found at the Nikolyskoye nomad burial site

Farmer Unearths Elite Nomad Burials and ‘Laughing Man’ Elongated Skull

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In Southern Russia, an elite nomad burial site has been unearthed. While working on his lands, a farmer stumbled across burials that appear to have belonged to a nomadic culture. Archaeologists have found several skeletons and many grave goods that are expected to transform our knowledge of nomadic society 2000 years ago.

The find was made near the village of  Nikolyskoye, in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia, to the north of the Caspian Sea. A local farmer, Rustam Mudayev, was digging when his shovel struck something metallic. He found a copper pot that was clearly very old, and he took it to the local Astrakhan Museum. The experts recognized that the farmer had possibly made an important archaeological discovery, and when the weather improved, they launched a mission to Mudayev’s farm. They suspected that the farmer had uncovered a burial mound known as a Kurgan.

“They often contain the burials of elite members of ancient groups,” reports Fox News.

The Bronze cauldron found by Rustam Mudayev in southern Russia

The Bronze cauldron found by Rustam Mudayev in southern Russia. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Astrakhan Region)

A Kurgan or noble burial mound

The Daily Mail quotes the museum's scientific researcher Georgy Stukalov as saying that ‘after inspecting the burial site we understood that it to be a royal mound’ and it was 2,500 years old. They believe that it was a site where nomads buried members of the upper echelons of society.

The team soon established that the burial came from the Sarmatian culture. It had been robbed by looters at some stage but it was largely intact much to the delights of the experts.

The Sarmatians were a powerful nomadic people who dominated an area from the Caspian Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. They were an Iranian people who dominated the Russian Steppe, from the 5 th century BC until the coming of the Huns (4 th century AD). They frequently fought the Romans and one group even established a powerful state in central Europe. These nomads were famous for their heavily armored horsemen and were eventually absorbed by the Slavs and other nomadic peoples.

Sarmatian nobleman

In the space of only twelve days, the team from Astrakhan made a number of very important discoveries. They found a noble buried in the remains of a wooden coffin. According to the Daily Mail, ‘he was buried with his head raised as if on a pillow and wearing a cape adorned with gold plagues.’

He was unearthed with weapons, a mirror, pots and jewelry ‘decorated with turquoise and lapis lazuli’, reports Live Science. A tiny gold horse head encrusted with miniscule precious stones was found between his legs. The quality of the jewelry came as no surprise, to the archaeologists as the nomadic people were renowned for their metal working skills.

Gold horse head and other jewelry were found adorning the body. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Astrakhan Region)

Gold horse head and other jewelry were found adorning the body. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Astrakhan Region)

Near the chieftain or noble, the team found a grave that contained a female buried with a bronze mirror and some enigmatic stone artifacts, which may have had some symbolic meaning. The team also found the bones of a lamb who appears to have been some sort of sacrifice. It is not known if it was a sacrifice to the dead or some underworld deities.

Another burial found was that of an elderly man, but sadly his remains had been disturbed by an excavator. Curiously a horse’s head was found in the grave and according to the Daily Mail ‘its skull still dressed in an intricate harness richly decorated with silver and bronze’. There have been many examples of horses being buried with nomads, such as the Scythians, on the Eurasian Steppe. This find may indicate that the Sarmatians had been influenced by previous nomadic peoples or that they even emerged from the Scythian group of tribes.

Another burial had an egg-shaped, open mouthed skull

Another burial had an egg-shaped, open mouthed skull. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Astrakhan Region)

Laughing man skull

Then the archaeologists made a somewhat shocking discovery, they uncovered a skeleton of a male with a skull that appeared to be laughing. The laughing skull was also said to be ‘artificially deformed egg-shaped’ reports the Daily Mail.

The shape of the dead man’s cranium would indicate that his head had been bound when an infant to produce this shape. Having an elongated skull was often seen as a sign of nobility in nomadic societies. This deliberate deforming of skulls was popular with many Steppe peoples including the Huns.

Fox News reports that the ‘remains from the newly found kurgan are being taken to the Astrakhan State Museum’, Here the age and the cause of death of the nomads will be established. Work is continuing on the kurgan and it is expected that more discoveries will be made. The elite burial site is offering us unprecedented insights into the Sarmatians who dominated the Steppes for over a millennium.

Top image: Skeleton found at the Nikolyskoye nomad burial site.                Source: Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Astrakhan Region

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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