Southern Siberia was a region of particular importance in the Proto-Scythian period in the history of the Great Steppe. The Turan-Uyuk Valley in Tuva Republic (Russia), known also as ‘the Valley of the Kings’ is considered one of the richest and archaeologically most important regions of Asia, with hundreds of bar-rows and other ancient monuments associated with Scythian nomadic royalty. In this international and in-terdisciplinary project we aim to acquire and interpret new bioarchaeological data to better understand the development of the Early Scythian cultures in Central Asia. The key point is to study the settlement pat-terns, residential mobility of nomadic communities and their dietary habits, dated to the 9th-6th centuries BC in northern Tuva. This period is of crucial significance in the formation of Scythian-type cultures, which dominated the Steppe Belt of Eurasia in the following millennium. The project will focus on a group of elite sites associated with the Aldy-Bel culture, among them the famous royal tombs of Arzhan-1, Arzhan-2 and Chinge-Tei-1. This high impact project relies on strong cooperation with the Hermitage Mu-seum and Russian Academy of Sciences, and the application of novel techniques creates great and unique opportunities to study world-class archaeological sites.

The Turan-Uyuk Valley in Tuva Republic became world famous due to excavations of elite early Scythian barrows of Arzhan-1 and Arzhan-2, however it features also other tombs dating back to Bronze and Iron Age (1st millennium BC). The mounds form lines, which may reflect kinship relations of the deceased. The volume, wealth and artistic quality of archaeological materials recovered from already excavated tombs cannot be overestimated. Scythian treasures from this region have not been exhibited outside of Russia due to costs of insurance solely, and normally the access to these materials is strictly limited. Working in close collaboration with the Hermitage Museum and the Russian Academy of Sciences, this project aims to ac-quire, analyse and interpret new bioarchaeological data to better understand the development of the Early Scythian cultures in Central Asia.

Scythian origins and migrations

With the onset of the Subatlantic period (mid-9th century BC) came a fluctuation in climate in Siberia, probably caused by the reduction of solar activity. Climate changed significantly towards more humid and cold one. These changes, well documented and dated in Europe and resulting in such phenomena as floods in the Volga River basin had detectable impact on Eurasian steppes as well. Climate-related factors may have been responsible for the rise and spread of the Scythian model of culture. Communities inhabiting Tuva at the turn of the Iron Age are known as the Mogun-Taiga culture. There is no direct continuity be-tween pre-Scythian and early Scythian horizon in the region. Scythian cultural model is represented straight from the beginning in its full form by the Aldy-Bel culture (Tuva), especially in Arzhan necropo-lis. The appearance of nomads in valleys of Tuva was linked to climate fluctuations, when the Tuva eco-systems reached maximum bioproductivity.
Contacts with ancient China were established during the Iron Age, and cultural impact of northern China and Kazakhstan is reflected in archaeological materials. Strontium-based analyses of individual mobility patterns, in an attempt to reconstruct migration processes, opens up a good opportunity to investigate the nature of contact among particular South Siberian tribes.

As evidenced by monumental tombs, undoubtedly belonging to rulers exerting authority over vast areas, the Turan-Uyuk Valley was one of the important centres of this world. One can expect to find evidence for the inflow of specialised craftsmen or warriors, and for intertribal marriages. The presence of foreign arte-facts cannot be such proof in itself, because these objects may well have been traded, without a physical presence of foreigners. In this project we intend to combine anthropological assessment studies with stron-tium isotope analysis (Laser Ablation ICP-MS), including human remains from the royal barrows Arzhan 1 and Arzhan 2, thanks to the cooperation with Russian and Polish partners of the project.

Financed by Stiftelsen Lars Hiertas Minne.

Project leader: Dalia Pokutta