3,000-Year-Old Grave of Charioteer Could Rewrite Siberian History
In the remote hinterlands of southern Siberia, Russian archaeologists recently unearthed something unprecedented. While performing excavations as part of a railway expansion project, they discovered a perfectly preserved grave that contained the skeletal remains of what they now know to have been a horse-drawn chariot driver, also known as a charioteer.
Current estimates are that this ancient charioteer lived and died around 1,000 BC, give or take a century. This is extraordinarily significant, because up to now archaeologists and historians didn’t believe chariots were being used in this part of Asia that long ago.
The 3,000-year-old charioteer was discovered in the Askizsky region of Khakassia in Siberia, during work ahead of a railway expansion. (IAET SB RAS)
Grave of Siberian Charioteer Reveals Perfectly Preserved Secrets
Working under the authority of the Siberian branch of Russia’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, the archaeologists were digging in the southern Siberian republic of Khakassia when they uncovered the charioteer’s burial site. The skeleton inside the grave was found intact and there was a curious object comprised of a long metal rod with curved hooks on each end laying across the body’s waist area.
This device was actually designed to be attached to a charioteer’s belt. The charioteer could wrap the reins around the belt to control the horses pulling the chariot, allowing them to rest their hands during the journey. This was an item of convenience for a charioteer and its telltale appearance leaves no question as to the identity of the deceased person who was buried with it.
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Siberian skeleton with the metal rod for helping in controlling chariots in the foreground. (IAET SB RAS)
Interestingly, this type of artifact has been found before, at other archaeological sites in Russian territory. But the object’s shape was so unusual that at first the archaeologists didn’t know what it was used for. “For a long time in Russian archaeology, this was called a PNN — an ‘item of unknown purpose,’” Novosibirsk State University archaeologist and Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology consultant Oleg Mitko told Live Science.
But the mystery of the anomalous metal hooked rods was eventually solved. In recent years, archaeologists working in Mongolia and China have unearthed the tombs of multiple Bronze Age charioteers, along with their buried horses and chariots. The metal rods were there inside the tombs as well, making it clear that they were an accessory used by chariot drivers in ancient times.
“This fact, along with direct analogies in burial mounds of China, allows us to determine [it’s] purpose a little more confidently,” Russian archaeologist and Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology expedition leader Aleksey Timoshchenko stated when discussing the hooked charioteer’s rod just discovered in Siberia.
Now that the person buried in the newly discovered grave has been identified, Russian archaeologists know for sure that horse-drawn chariots were used throughout the region 3,000 years ago. It is believed that they were prevalent in the lands of southern Siberia as well as in China and Mongolia.
This is fresh knowledge, they note in a statement issued by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology. This means that it requires a reappraisal of past assumptions about how Siberia’s Bronze Age people actually lived.
Did the Siberian Charioteer Belong to the Lugav Culture?
The railway expansion in Siberia is a huge project covering a vast area. As a result of the size of the site the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology archaeologists have been excavating in Khakassia has taken many years. During this time they have been doing their best to uncover and preserve significant artifacts from ancient eras. Recently, their work has centered on unexplored lands outside the village of Kamyshta. It was here that they discovered and unearthed the undisturbed grave of the charioteer.
Various clues suggest this individual belonged to the Lugav culture which inhabited this part of Siberia approximately 3,000 years ago. These Bronze Age people were cattle breeders, and apparently owned horses they could use to pull carriages or chariots as well. The Lugav culture remained in the region until the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age around 800 BC, which means the charioteer must have lived before that time.
The Lugav people seemingly respected their charioteers, who would have helped them explore the surrounding landscape and likely establish trading relationships with groups of people living in the region. Reflecting this high regard, the grave they constructed for the charioteer was a relatively elaborate affair. It was built in a square shape, lined with stone and covered on top by a protective earthen mound. This is why the grave and skeleton were in such good condition despite the immense passage of time.
The Siberian tomb did feature other grave goods besides the charioteer’s belt. These included a bronze knife and several pieces of jewelry made with bronze plates, all of which further link the tomb and its occupant to the southern Siberia’s Bronze Age (2,400 to 800 BC).
The tomb contained a Siberian charioteer along with grave goods, including a bronze belt piece, dagger and jewelry. (IAET SB RAS)
Trade and Mobility (and Warfare?) in Ancient Siberia
As the archaeological project has progressed in Khakassia, the Russian archaeological team have unearthed sites and artifacts linked to three distinct Bronze Age civilizations. These would be the Karasuk culture, which lasted until the 11th century BC, the Lugav culture of the 11th through the ninth centuries BC, and the Tagar culture that arose in the eighth century BC, bridging the gap between Siberia’s Bronze and Iron Ages.
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Taken together, the sites that the archaeologists have discovered so far paint a picture of a region where populations moved in and out and demographics changed over time. They believe ancient trade networks may have spurred much of the movement, as trade activity encouraged mobility and exploration.
Horse-drawn chariots would have played a role in all this, as these conveyances would have dramatically expanded the distances people could travel. Chariots could also have been used in warfare, should conflicts have arisen between neighboring groups.
The railway expansion project is far from finished, which means the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology team will have more time to search for new sites that will deepen their understanding of life in Siberia thousands of years ago. They hope to find artifacts from more recent times as well, as they look to establish a clear and descriptive timeline of population changes in the area.
Top image: The Siberian charioteer was discovered with a long metal rod with curved hooks on each end laying across the body’s waist area. Archaeologists believe this was once attached to a belt to help the charioteer tie the reins and free up their hands. Source: IAET SB RAS
By Nathan Falde