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Unique Late Scythian Necropolis Tells of Demise and Transition

Unique Late Scythian Necropolis Tells of Demise and Transition

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Russian archaeologists have spent the last several months thoroughly exploring an ancient Scythian necropolis discovered in 2018 in southwestern Crimea, near Sevastopol. This Scythian necropolis, which has been dubbed Kiel-Dere 1, has been dated to the Late Scythian period (approximately 200 BC to 375 AD). This was the time when the last remnants of the once mighty Scythian culture were struggling to survive on the Crimean peninsula, where they’d retreated after suffering defeats at the hands of their rivals in the east. 

Dispatched to the site in September 2020 by the Russian Academy of Sciences, the archaeologists have been rushing to get their work finished, in anticipation of a highway construction project that is scheduled to pass through the area in the very near future. 

So far, approximately 75 percent of the large Scythian necropolis has been explored. Despite heavy looting that has disturbed much of the site, the archaeologists have been able to confirm that Kiel-Dere 1 was reserved as a burial ground for important and influential people.

An aerial view of the Scythian necropolis in the Crimea, which was determined to be an elite burial ground.         (Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS)

An aerial view of the Scythian necropolis in the Crimea, which was determined to be an elite burial ground.          (Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS )

They were able to make this determination because of the discovery of dozens of decorated tombstones, which were placed exclusively in the tombs of wealthy people and individuals of noble birth in Scythian communities at that time and place in history.

Scythian Necropolis Tombstone Revelations

In approximately five months of excavations, more than 1,200 funerary items have been discovered, inside of 232 separate  subterranean tombs  or burial chambers. This includes many pieces of intricately crafted pottery, some broken and some intact, samples of various precious metals, and other interesting items that reveal details about the funerary practices and beliefs of the Scythian residents of the southwestern  Crimea.

But the most notable finds of all have been the tombstones or stone stelae. Up to this point the archaeological survey has recovered 63 of these heavy stone columns, which are engraved with anthropomorphic imagery in some instances and with mysterious oval-shaped masks in others. The archaeologists know that other tombstones have likely been stolen by the looters who’ve pillaged and plundered the cemetery repeatedly since it was originally discovered, which means the total count buried at the site may have been much higher. Two more of the “unique” tombstones found at the Crimean Scythian necropolis. (Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS)

 

Two more of the “unique” tombstones found at the Crimean Scythian necropolis. ( Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS )

Several other burial grounds have been excavated in this region of the southwestern Crimea over the years. Most of these sites have been traced back to the same period as Kiel-Dere 1, reflecting the fact that this area was densely populated during the Roman era (the Crimea was a Roman colony from the first century BC until approximately 375 AD).

In all the other excavations combined, only 15 stone tombstones similar to those unearthed at Kiel-Dere 1 have been found. This leaves little doubt that this new necropolis was largely reserved for the tombs of important individuals, presumably aristocrats, political leaders, wealthy merchants, and their kin. 

The stelae are not inscribed, so there is no narrative history for the archaeologists to decode that might reveal who exactly these people were. But knowing that elites were buried at Kiel-Dere 1 offers important context that will allow researchers to assess and analyze the artifacts they’ve discovered with a more focused eye.

The contrasts between the items and structures found here and those unearthed at nearby Late Scythian sites will also make it easier to distinguish between the practices and customs of the elite and those of poor and middle-class citizens, who would have been entombed at the other locations.

The Scythians And Their Neighbors In The Crimea

During the Roman era, Scythians in the Crimea were living far differently than their ancestors. In the past the great Scythian nomadic culture reigned supreme on the expansive  Pontic steppe  to the north and east. But by 200 BC their authority and influence in the region had collapsed, most likely because of military defeats at the hands of the  Sarmatians. What was left of the Scythians retreated westward and settled in the Crimea, where they took up more sedentary activities like agriculture and trading. 

Here, they lived alongside  Greek settlers  who’d created multiple colonies on the Crimean Peninsula several hundred years earlier. Greeks continued to reside in the region in large number even after the arrival of the Romans, who came as conquerors at first but eventually formed a relatively amicable working relationship with the Greek-influenced  Bosporan Kingdom , which functioned as a Roman Empire client state. 

In their new adopted homeland, the Scythians assimilated with Greeks and the Tauri, a people who came from the mountains of Crimea. They also assimilated to some extent with the Sarmatians, who were the people most responsible for driving the Scythians away from the Pontic steppe.

Late Scythian culture reflects the evolution of this once nomadic people. They became increasingly Hellenized, and the influence of the Tauri and Sarmatians on their practices and beliefs were also significant. Yet they still retained their distinctive sense of identity during the Roman era, which was most strongly preserved at Scythia Neapolis, the largest Scythian settlement in the Crimea, located approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) inland from Sevastopol (where Kiel-Dere 1 lies).  

What emerged in Late Scythian culture in the Crimea was an amalgamation of ancient traditions and Greek, Tauric, and Sarmatian influences. It is this culture that archaeology is now learning more about, thanks to the fascinating and enlightening discoveries that have been made at the Kiel-Dere 1 Scythian necropolis.

Some of the ceramic artifacts found at the Crimean Scythian necropolis. (Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS)

Some of the ceramic artifacts found at the Crimean Scythian necropolis. ( Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS )

Late Scythian Culture Only Survives In Archaeology

Scythian culture was ultimately fated to disappear from the face of the Earth. Military defeats, assimilation, and the invasions of the  Goths, Huns and other nomadic peoples that coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire combined to erase their distinctive identity from the pages of history. 

While the Scythians are now a lost people, they are far from forgotten. The artifacts they left behind have a story to tell, and archaeologists are working hard to keep their memory alive.  

Top image: Two of the distinctive tombstones found at the Crimean Scythian necropolis, which suggest that the people buried here were of elite status. Source:  Russian Institute of Archaeology RAS

By Nathan Falde

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