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17 March 2012
Artefacts show sophistication of ancient nomads

Ancient Greeks called them 'nomad', meaning 'roaming for pasture' - people who lived on the wild, arid Eurasian steppes stretching from the Black Sea to the border of China. They were wanderers and, not infrequently, fierce mounted warriors.
     They themselves left no writing. To their literate neighbours, they were the Scythians or the Saka - perhaps one and the same. Grave goods from as early as the eighth century BCE show that these people were prospering, maintaining networks of cultural exchange with powerful neighbours like the Persians, and later the Chinese.
     Some of the most illuminating discoveries are coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders with Russia and China - burials of the society's elite in the late fourth and early third centuries BCE.
     Almost half of the 250 objects in a new exhibition, "Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan," are from burials of a people known as the Pazyryk, and can be seen at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (USA), on loan from Kazakhstan's four national museums. Two spectacular examples are 13 pieces of gold jewellery representing fanciful animal figures, known as the Zhalauli treasure; and the Wusun diadem, a gold openwork piece with inlaid semiprecious stones from a burial in the Kargaly Valley near Almaty, in southern Kazakhstan.
     Excavation at the Altai kurgans, near the village of Berel, was begun in 1998 by a team led by Zainolla S Samashev, director of the Margulan Institute of Archaeology - four long lines, at least 70 clearly visible on a natural terrace above the Bukhtarma River.
     Dr Samashev says that his international crew, limited by climate to working only from June to August, have excavated at least one kurgan a year. Of 24 investigated so far, Dr Samashev says two were among the largest. The mounds, about 30 metres in diameter, rise about 3 to 4.5 metres above the surface. The pit is about 4 metres deep and lined with logs.
     Permafrost preserved much of the organic matter in the graves. Looting long ago disturbed permafrost conditions, yet enough survives to tell that some of the people had tattoos and been embalmed. Hair of the buried men had been cut very short and covered with wigs.
     Burials of lesser figures were usually single burials - a man and one horse. Kurgan 11 held a man, a woman, and 13 horses. Leather saddles with embroidered cloth survive, as well as bridles and other tack decorated with plaques of real and mythical animals.

Edited from The New York Times (12 March 2012)

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