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HomeSpecial EventsSecond Shanghai Archaeology Forum 2015
Recent Studies at Noyon Uul Burial Mounds: Unknown Facts of Life of Central Asian Nomads
From:Chinese Archaeology  Writer:Natalia V. Polosmak  Date:2015-12-22
In the mid-1920s P.K. Kozlov discovered and partially studied the Noyon Uul barrow, one of the outstanding Xiongnu burial sites located 120 kilometers from Ulan Bator. Excavations of this site have significantly contributed to the development of Xiongnu archaeology. Specific environmental conditions in the mountain forests with an elevation of 1500 MASL, the severe climate of Northern Mongolia, and the depth of the tomb at over 18 m deep favored preservation of perishable objects, whose discoveries yielded unique information.

The South-Altai Archaeological Expedition of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS carried out a joint research project with Mongolian archaeologists at Noyon Uul. Many years have passed since P.K. Koslov’s studies and we have come back to Noyon Uul to resume the work of the Russian scientists.

We excavated the sites by hand without machinery in order to observe all the structural details of the burial constructions. Currently, these barrows look like rectangular platforms oriented with their long axis along the North-South line. A long bank representing the vault entrance runs from the southern platformwall. The central part of barrow has been damaged by an ancient looting pit. Geophysical survey has revealed stone constructions along the borders and inside the burial site. However, these data concern only the upper soil layers. Deeper constructions were unearthed during excavations. Mongolian students participating in these long-term field projects together with my Institute colleagues deserve special thanks for working hard every day and for their sincere interest in archaeological studies.

Chinese chariot

The Joint Russian-Mongolian Expedition has studied four large and four small Xiongnu barrows at the Noyon Uul burial ground. The excavation technique that was chosen from the beginning proved its value and revealed every element of Xiongnu elite burial sites. The excavated tombs were 18, 16, 13, 5 and 3.5 m deep. The burial construction size varies from 20 x 19 m at the largest feature to 3.1 x 1.6 m at the smallest one. The studied barrows were not the largest among other known Xiongnu tombs, yet they definitely represent Xiongnu elite burial sites. Several typical features in the burial constructions of this part of the Xiongnu society have been noted. The grave pits always have five steps leading to the steep pit, in which a double burial chamber was constructed. Nearly all the steps were paved with stones. These deep bu rial pits reinforced with wood structures were filled with the soil removed in the course of digging the pit.

It has been established that Han lacquer chariots with sunshade Yao Che were among the grave goods in male burials. Chariots were placed over the filled up steep pit. Wooden burial chambers were made of pine. The wooden walls were erected on the wooden floor and surrounded by layers of blue lacustrine clay and charcoal. The interior burial chambers were looted in antiquity. One tomb revealed a complete coffin. The coffin construction is basically thesame as those recorded in the Han burials. Scarce human remains have been discovered in Noyon Uul tombs. Any anthropological identification was hardly possible, yet palaeogenetic analyses have shown that two men and two women were buried in the four large barrows. Human remains recovered from small barrows are still being studied.

Personal ornaments, pieces of attire, lacquer dishes and felt carpet fragments were recovered from coffins and vault interiors. Major findings were recovered from the space between the exterior and interior burial chambers. The western and eastern corridors in men’s tombs yielded horse trappings with decorations of high artistic value. Silver plaques bear images of imaginary beasts, such as the unicorn and dragon. Numerous hair plaits, commonly discovered in Xioungnu burials, are now interpreted as representing ornaments of horses and horse trappings.

View on the stone pavement and Chinese chariot shadow.

The most amazing and rare findings from the studied barrows include embroidered woolen curtains, caftan’s fragments, pants, shoes, and numerous silk fabric pieces bearing embroidered and woven patterns. The textile collection from these barrows is unique because the original state of preservation was extremely bad. Textile pieces discovered by P.K. Kozlov demonstrated a significantly better state of preservation. This situation is possibly the result of deterioration of the natural deposition conditions. The bad state of preservation is possibly due to ground water in the burial chambers.

Field studies of Xiongnu barrows have shown that elite Xiongnu burials are the repositories of cultural remains from the whole epoch. The artifacts from Xiongnu elite burials represent the products of not only the first nomadic civilization in the world, but also other states that contacted the Xiongnu directly or indirectly.

These states are China of the Han period, Parthia, Khorezm andBactria in Central Asia, small states in the Tarim Basin; Xiongnu burials also revealed Egyptian and Roman products.

The recent excavations of Noyon Uul barrows yielded a large collection of various archaeological objects that were subjected to multidisciplinary studies. The obtained analytical data make it possible to reconstruct certain ancient technologies, determine the origin and purpose of certain unique objects and to restore their original look. Complex dendrochronological studies of more than 400 samples from Xiongnu burial sites have been carried out for the first time. The tree-ring analyses resulted in creating a generalized floating dendrochronological curve for all the barrows containing wood in the Noyon Uul Mountains.

Studies of Xiongnu elite burials have shown the significant, though quite specific, impact of Chinese culture on nomads. The majority of grave goods of elite Xiongnu members were produced in China or by Chinese artisans. Some artifacts were imported from the west. These represent Chinese goods produced in the Emperor’s workshops, of which attribution to Han culture is without question. They include lacquer cups bei , embroidered silk goods, woven silk fabrics, numerous thin gauze fabrics, gold and jade ornaments, lacquer chariots Yao Che , tortoise shell pins, mirrors bearing hieroglyphic characters and lacquer coffins. Chinese products also include goods whose origin is not so apparent. These include silver and bronze ornaments of horse trappings, such as copper cheek and forehead pieces. The majority of these goods were the gifts of the Chinese Emperor to Xiongnu chiefs Chanyus that were distributed among members of the Chanyu ’s inner circle. Other Chinese goods that were not produced in the Emperor’s workshops represent the spoils of war from the Chinese frontier regions. Some goods might also have been produced by Chinese artisans through Chinesetechnologies in towns in the Xiongnu territory. Xiongnu burials also contained imported goods from “Western countries.” These include high-quality woolen fabrics and textile goods. In addition, Xiongnu graves revealed some jewelry of high artistic value that was produced in Mediterranean countries. The “western” imported goods were transported along the portion of the Silk Route in proximity to China, which was largely controlled by Xiongnu over the period in question.

Rich and diverse grave goods from Xiongnu barrows provide important information concerning sedentary life among Xiongnu tribes, particularly the role of towns and farming in their life.

Many researchers argued that towns were mostly populated by immigrants and captives from agricultural communities that did not belong to Xiongnu ethnos. Archaeological materials from the Noyon Uul barrows produce additional information on the origins and consumption of crops by Xiongnu. This is an important issue because presence and absence of millet crops indicate the features of a settled way of life in the nomadic communities. Abundant vegetative remains were recovered from the floor of burial chambers at Noyon Uul. The vegetative remains included roughly thrashed grain and inflorescences. Dr. E.A. Koroliuk determined the vegetative remains as millet and green foxtail. We do not believe that occurrences of grain in Xiongnu burials can be interpreted as evidence of the importance of crops in the subsistence of steppe population. It does not seem wise to overestimate the role of grain in Xiongnu diet. Scarcity of grain, for example, did not produce the same grave effect as cattle loss. The Xiongnu diet, similar to that of many other nomadic tribes, was mostly based on milk and meat products and included various wild plants as a source of vegetative food. Xiongnu did not need to sow grains. Chinese chronicles nevermentioned that Xiongnu were engaged in soil cultivation. On the contrary, it was always stressed that they were not interested in this activity.

What new information can be gained from the recent excavations of the Noyon Uul barrows? The Xiongnu elite burials represent the standard of earth works at that time. The surface features are not as impressive as the subsurface structures.

Graves go down five steps and ended with the steep and deep pit. Special digging platforms were constructed inside the graves; traces of such constructions were noted in the grave walls at Noyon Uul barrows 20, 31 and 22. A dromos leads to the upper portion of the grave. A hoist was used for dropping wooden elements of the burial structure and coffin with the dead body into the tomb. The burial construction resembles the Zhou, Qin and early Han tombs in China. Given the elaborate subsurface construction required highly skilled labor, such large-scale earth works could not have been executed by nomads. The large and deep grave had to be dug out and filled, a procedure that also required particular knowledge. Filling the grave was executed according to a specific procedure: wooden frames were erected inside the grave and every step was paved with stones, which was necessary for compacting  the soil inside the pit and avoiding the collapse of pit wall. Wooden constructions on the bottom of the grave including double chambers of pine logs with floors and pillars supporting the ceiling represent the standard work of professional carpenters who had the skills and the necessary labor tools, such as saws, planes, chisels and axes among others. All these features point to a high standard of woodworking. Burial chambers were also made with high skill. The wooden chambers were blocked with a layer of specially transported blue lacustrine clay that hermetically sealed the chamber and protected the burialfrom external influences. A charcoal layer was also added to absorb moisture. This Chinese tradition is well known from the Early Han tomb 1 at Mawangdui cemetery; it has been reported at many other burial sites of various social rank members. At Noyon Uul, this tomb construction was initially noted in tomb 20 and later in tombs 31 and 22. The complicated construction of pine coffins, in which separate boards are fastened together through x-shaped grooves, is also similar to that recorded in some Han tombs in China. The coffins at Noyon Uul were often placed on two beams parallel to one another and crosswise the burial chamber that is also similar to Han burials. Some coffins, e.g. the coffin from tomb 20, were coated with lacquer bearing the remains of decorative patterns. Another similar feature is silk blankets placed over coffins belonging not only to the high-ranked Xiongnu members. Thus, detailed analysis of Xiongnu burial constructions has shown that engineering support was carried out by Chinese artisans. The Xiongnu burial constructions did not illustrate the habits and skills of nomads, but evidenced adoption of the Han China culture and technology by the steppe population, a process that can be explained by the long-term and close contacts between the soil cultivating population of China and nomadic herdsmen. When P.K. Kozlov first saw the Noyon Uul burial mounds and the grave goods, he believed, not without reason, that he had discovered tombs of Chinese princes.

The burial constructions of Xiongnu chiefs and other highranking tribesmen emerged on the steppe in the threshold of the eras. These constructions resembled the burial sites of the Qin and Early Han nobility. However, even the largest Xiongnu barrows were small and could have impressed nomads, but not Chinese citizens who had already constructed the Qin Shi Huangdi burial complex, Mawangdui Mounds and sepulchers of Qin and early Han noblecitizens. It means that the splendor of Xiongnu tombs is relative. Xiongnu resources were minor compared to the potentials of Han leaders. The tombs of Xiongnu chiefs clearly demonstrate the dramatic differences between these two civilizations during their fluorescent periods and greatest military conflicts.

In sum, I would like to note that the absence of urban culture in the Mongolian steppe did not depreciate the role and significance of the Xiongnu in the history of Central Asia and world history. A different way of life does not mean inferiority. Baabar, a Mongolian historian and the author of a book on the History of Mongolia from world supremacy till the Soviet satellite (2010), wrote that a nomad is indifferent to the concept of construction; he neither constructed any building nor knew how to build it.

It should be noted that elite Xiongnu burials filled with Chinese products, mostly luxury pieces that indicated status and prestige in the steppe rather than their practical value attested to the fact that the well-being of the Xiongnu herders was poorly connected with the Chinese economy, but depended mostly on their own resources.

New and original information on the Xiongnu way of life has been collected through archaeological studies of this population that had no written language. Studies of the elite Xiongnu burial sites are most informative because they accumulate the whole variety of intrinsic and sporadic goods.
Natalia V. Polosmak

Natalia V. Polosmak is an archaeologist, Doctor of History, Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Leading Researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Natalia Polosmak is a laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 2005 for scientific achievement: the discovery and study of unique archaeological sites of the Pazyryk culture of the 6th – 3rd centuries BC in the Altai Mountains. She was also awarded with the National Prize for Russia cultural heritage maintenance in 2006 – for the high scientific level of archaeological research. N.V. Polosmak is the author and coauthor of more than 170 scientific publications including eight books. She has been leading archaeological studies in Western and Eastern Siberia, Altai, Tuva and Mongolia for over thirty years. Her studies of the burial mounds with “frozen” tombs in the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains have become known worldwide. During recent years, N.V. Polosmak has been working on elite Xiongnu burial mounds in Northern Mongolia. Her major fields of interest include archaeology, ethnology, andart of the peoples of Central Asia and Siberia.

(Natalia V. Polosmak     Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences)

(Source: Research Center for World Archaeology, Shanghai Academy)

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