Published: June 2003
Masters of Gold
By Mike Edwards
Gold horses found in a 2,700-year-old tomb in Siberia.

From a pit twelve feet (3.7 meters) deep, Pavel Leus looked up at the three archaeologists standing on the rim. "Guys," he declared, "we've got a problem. We need the police."

Digging beneath a kurgan, or burial mound, in the Republic of Tuva, a little-known precinct of Siberia, Leus had just squinted into a log-walled vault. He saw two skeletons and the dim glow of gold. Lots of gold.

"First," he later recalled, "I saw a gold gorytus [a combination quiver and bow case]. Then I looked another way and saw more gold." There was a massive gold pectoral, or chest ornament (later weighed at 3.3 pounds [1.5 kilograms]); a smaller pectoral; two carved gold headdress pins, each about a foot (0.3 meters) long; gold-inlaid daggers; and a virtual carpet of other lustering metal.

A seasoned archaeologist—he had spent a dozen summers on Russian excavation teams—Leus had just become the first person in 2,700 years to look into this chamber, a royal tomb of the shadowy people we call Scythians. Nomads and fierce warriors, they lived in Central Asia as early as the ninth century b.c., and their culture spread westward to southern Russia and Ukraine, and even into Germany, before gradually disappearing early in the Christian era.

With Leus's terse announcement, the expedition leader, Konstantin Chugunov of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, dropped into the pit to have his own astonished squint between the logs of the chamber's roof. He was quickly followed by his expedition partners, Hermann Parzinger and Anatoli Nagler of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. "My God!" Nagler exclaimed as he peered down. "You're right. We need the police!"

In the Tuva Republic, a sparsely settled enclave of grasslands and snow-mantled peaks four time zones east of Moscow, the most common crime is cattle theft. Nevertheless, the archaeologists feared that anything might happen when word got out that a fabulous treasure lay in an open pit in an empty sweep of countryside. Chugunov hurried off to the town of Turan, ten miles (16 kilometers) distant, to summon his friend Nikolai Bondarenko to guard the trove with a hunting rifle until round-the-clock police protection could be arranged.

During the next three weeks, while guards' rifles bristled overhead, 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of gold was removed from the grave—far more than any archaeologist had ever found in a Siberian tomb.

A Scythian necropolis, the valley that holds this kurgan billows with scores of other burial mounds. Local people call it the Valley of the Tsars, as if all the mounds harbored kings. Some surely did.

Nearly all the kurgans are simple piles of earth, sometimes with a stone veneer. But four stand out because they are made entirely of stone. Chugunov, Parzinger, and Nagler chose as their target one of these, which they dubbed Arzhan-2 (Arzhan is the name of a nearby village). Hundreds if not thousands of Scythians had labored to build it, quarrying sandstone slabs at the edge of the valley, hauling them several miles, and stacking them in a circle. Seven feet (two meters) high and 90 yards (82 meters) across, it was a crown of thousands of tons of rock.

"I wasn't really expecting to find a lot," Chugunov later said. Archaeologists exploring Scythian burials know from sad experience that looters probably got there first, boring in, snatching gold and jewels, and leaving all else—human remains, weapons, food for the afterlife—in a chaotic jumble. Indeed, a depression in Arzhan-2's center suggested that the kurgan had been violated centuries ago. "Looters always dug into the center," Parzinger said, "because if a king was buried beneath the kurgan, that's where his grave would be."

Systematically the archaeologists began removing rock from the kurgan's perimeter, slowly clearing a swath toward the center, the presumed jackpot. Presently they spied a slight indentation in the newly exposed earth. It was well short of the center, some 15 yards (14 meters) from it. Still, could it be a burial? They began to dig.

On the fourth day of digging Leus's shovel thumped against wood—the roof of the vault, made of decay-resistant larch logs. Switching to a trowel, he cleared the logs of earth. It was then that he glimpsed the most spectacular Scythian discovery in decades.

In all, there were some 5,700 gold pieces, not counting handfuls of beads. Most were small animal figures, particularly felines that resembled lions or possibly tigers, and also boars. These evidently had been sewed to the costumes (which had not survived) of the man and woman whose skeletons lay side by side on the vault's floor. There were 431 beads of amber from the far-off Baltic, which must have reached Siberia as trade goods or booty. And 1,657 turquoise beads; arrowheads of bronze, bone, and iron; the remains of a bow; stone ceremonial dishes; and still other goods. "Even without the gold," Chugunov said, "this would have been an extremely valuable find." Radiocarbon dates placed the grave in the seventh century b.c.

Cascades of animal figures and beads lay close to the skeletons, as if both persons had been similarly adorned. "We don't know if the woman was a queen or a concubine," Parzinger said, "but since their ornaments were similar, both must have had high status."

Tests on the bones put the man's age at 40 to 45, the woman's at 30 to 35, at least a decade younger than the typical Scythian death ages. They were buried at the same time, meaning that in all probability she was sacrificed to join him in the afterlife. In male-dominated Scythian society it wouldn't have been the other way around. "Maybe she was poisoned," said Chugunov, "or maybe she chose to die to be with her husband."

Last summer, in the second season of excavation, I watched day after day as the team cleared rock across the 90-yard (82-meter) width of the kurgan. I'm accustomed to seeing archaeologists wield small tools: trowels, knife blades, artist's brushes. But this job required muscle. Chugunov and company hired a hundred young laborers; pop music blaring from their radios was punctuated by the scrape of shovels and the thud of rocks heaved into dump trucks. As the kurgan diminished, a small mountain of spoil grew beside it.

Many more burials were discovered in the mound, some beneath the stone, some secreted within the slabs. At summer's end the total stood at 26. Amazingly, not one had been ransacked by looters. "In Siberia that's unique," said Chugunov. "Archaeologists have opened about 30 monumental kurgans like this one in Siberia, but never have we found a whole burial complex undisturbed."

From recovered grave objects the archaeologists concluded that half the burials were non-Scythian. Turkic nomads who began arriving in later centuries often chose existing kurgans as the final resting place of their own kin, burrowing shallowly into kurgan surfaces.

Scythian burials—Chugunov counts 12 plus the king's grave—were found in scattered sites beneath the kurgan's sprawl. Though not rich in goods, they contained clues to the quality of Scythian life in a time frame little known to scholars. Said archaeologist Nagler, "This may be the most informative of all the Scythian kurgans ever excavated."

Ruthless warriors who used their victims' skulls as drinking cups—that's how the Greek historian Herodotus described Scythians. Most scholars believe they belonged to an Iranian language group. Though they left no written record, "from ancient sources we know the names of several tribes, and they seem to be Iranian names," Parzinger said. "They were different groups, but they had the same way of life and similar burial customs." Thus, to scholars "Scythian" doesn't mean a united people but numerous tribes with a shared culture.

One of the major cultural markers is the depiction of animals in art. Fish tattoos have been found on the frozen bodies of Scythians in the so-called Pazyryk burials in the Altay Mountains southwest of Tuva, and the Arzhan-2 trove includes several golden fish. Moreover, Arzhan's thousands of small feline figures have counterparts in the lions depicted on some of the most exquisite Scythian ornaments ever found, in kurgans near the Black Sea. Scythians who flourished there in the fourth century b.c. were in contact with Greek colonies (Herodotus may have learned about Scythians in travels to some of those colonies) and evidently the Scythians commissioned Greek smiths to fashion golden goods.

Twenty burial mounds rose within my gaze as I looked one evening across the Valley of the Tsars from a kurgan 25 feet (7.6 meters) high and ten miles (16 kilometers) from Arzhan-2. In Scythian times the valley must have teemed with horsemen and their flocks. The later Turkic arrivals, whose descendants are the largest group of Tuvans today, also pastured sheep, goats, and horses among the mounds. As recently as two decades ago there would have been many animals and probably several people in my sight, for state farms grew grain and kept large herds in the valley. But today the Valley of the Tsars is a lonely realm. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, nearly all the farms—heavily subsidized by the government—also foundered, and many residents moved away, abandoning hay mowers and plows to rust in the fields. On this evening I could see, far off, only one small band of cattle.

The valley's four stone kurgans stand in a row, each a mile (1.6 kilometers) or so from another. Chugunov, Parzinger, and Nagler speculate that they were built for successive rulers in a dynasty. Russian archaeologists opened one, named Arzhan-1, in 1971, and found it to date back to the end of the ninth century b.c. or the beginning of the eighth—one of the earliest known tombs in the entire Scythian world. Though it had been thoroughly looted, the archaeologists gleaned enough information to conclude that it must have been a royal burial complex, with the king's grave in the center.

At Arzhan-2 Chugunov and his partners puzzled over the off-center location of their fabulous discovery. Did it mean an even richer grave awaited at the core of the kurgan? Last summer the archaeologists dug into the center and discovered not one but two slight depressions in the earth, as if—could it be?—a pair of tombs awaited.

Diggers began to excavate one of the presumed graves. Six feet down, ten, twelve (1.8 meters, 3 meters, 3.7 meters). Finally, bedrock. The pit was clean; nothing whatever had been buried in it. They turned to the second depression—and found another pristine hole. "We've never come across such a thing," said a baffled Chugunov. Parzinger speculated: "These holes may have been decoys to fool looters. Maybe the people knew looters always started to dig in the center and so they hid their ruler's grave to one side."

There might be other explanations, Chugunov acknowledged, but said, "If you accept the idea of decoy graves, it suggests that when the Scythians made this kurgan they were unsure of their future and whether the grave of their tsar could be preserved. Maybe some other group was threatening them. We know that at the end of the sixth century b.c. or the beginning of the fifth other tribes came into this territory." Who were they? Not the Turkic people who dwell in Tuva today; they arrived centuries later. Perhaps the early intruders were nomads from what is now central Kazakhstan or Iran, Chugunov said.

While pondering the mystery of the empty center, the archaeologists turned their attention to the lesser Scythian graves scattered in and beneath the rock. All the burials apparently took place at about the same time the king and his consort were interred. Several skeletons were adorned with jewelry that ordinary people would not have owned, such as gold earrings and a silver choker. "These persons were related in some way to the nobility," Chugunov said. "In a royal kurgan like this one, no person was buried incidentally. Some might have been kin, others servants." Two men interred in graves at the kurgan's edge might have been guards.

I watched Chugunov and Leus excavate number 20, a double grave. Carefully they sliced earth away from the skeletons with knife blades. Leus uncovered a green smear. "Bronze—better than gold!" exclaimed Chugunov. Copper salts—the source of the green smear—help preserve organic material, he explained. Sure enough, a bit more blade work uncovered, along with bronze arrowheads and an ax, part of a leather belt and a tuft of wool felt, clinging to a fragment of a wooden ax handle. "So we learn that the ax was probably in a felt sheath," Chugunov said. "The belt probably held it at the waist."

Grave 13 was a formidable challenge. Day after day Svetlana Burshneva and Natalia Vasil-yeva, conservators from the Hermitage Museum, worked on their knees to clean the three skeletons there, and to capture a trove of valuable information, for some of the garments of these persons—all women—had survived under a mantle of impervious clay. To my eye what was left of the clothing looked like bits of scorched paper or mats of fiber.

Around one skeleton Burshneva uncovered the remains of orange-colored cloth. Vasilyeva cleared the outline of a coat sleeve along a skeletal arm. "It was a fur coat," she pronounced. "Maybe deer." With tweezers, the conservators collected this friable stuff to take to the Hermitage's laboratories for analysis. Jewels and gold also came to light: Gold earrings were found beside one woman, and necklaces of turquoise, glass, and carnelian beads next to all three. One of them had been buried with a gold feline figure identical to those in the king's tomb, a clear sign that this grave contained someone linked to the royal family. "This grave will enable us to reconstruct Scythian costumes," Chugunov said. "That hasn't been possible for Scythian burials as old as the seventh century b.c."

And DNA tests on bones might prove that at least some of the persons buried in Arzhan-2 were blood kin, helping scholars understand relationships in a royal family. "We expect to get a lot of other information from the skeletons," Nagler declared. "Not just basic information such as sex and age; analyses can tell us about diet and diseases and whether there were periods of famine in a person's life."

Eventually, the gold from Arzhan-2 is to be turned over to the government of Tuva, once it builds a museum in the capital, Kyzyl. For now, it resides in a safe in the Hermitage.

A major question: Who made the splendid gold pieces discovered at Arzhan-2? Because Greeks fashioned the famous Scythian gold ornaments found around the Black Sea, some scholars have concluded that Scythians had little artistic skill. Parzinger and Nagler presume, however, that the Arzhan-2 ornaments were created by Scythians who lived somewhere nearby. There's no evidence that other people, more advanced, lived in the region in the seventh century b.c. Nor did the opened graves contain evidence of contacts between Scythians and Greeks in that era. But, as Parzinger added, "It's hard to imagine that these fine pieces were made by nomads living in tents"—the way Scythians have usually been depicted. He believes settlements existed where non-nomadic craftsmen wrought gold objects. Chugunov noted, cautiously, that no remains of settlements have been found. Gold undoubtedly was at hand, however; in the Tuva Republic today, miners collect at least a ton a year by washing the gravel of mountain streams.

The ornaments of Arzhan-2 "exhibit workmanship of the highest quality," Nagler said. "The people were excellent craftsmen. This puts the Scythian quality of life in a new light. It rejects the stereotype that Scythians were just wild horsemen and warriors, migrating and destroying other people. They had a high level of cultural development." But isn't it true, I asked, that they fought and pillaged, as Herodotus wrote? "Yes," Nagler replied, "but so did other peoples with well developed cultures: the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans."

Indeed, it seems likely that Arzhan-2's trove of artifacts will inspire new thinking about the supposedly coarse warriors who once roamed much of Central Asia and eastern Europe. As for Tuva, "we didn't have a lot of information about the Scythians here," Chugunov said. "Tuva has always been an archaeological white spot."

Now it has a color: gold.