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Origin of the Hsiung-nu


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Archaeology of the Hsiung-nu in Russia:
new discoveries and some problems

The Hsiung-nu (Huns of Asia) headed a powerful alliance of cattle-breeding tribes in the late 3rd - early 2nd century B. C., and dominated the eastern part of Central Asia for two centuries, laying the foundations for the emergence of tribal alliances there in the Middle Ages.

The military and political history of the Hsiung-nu has been well-documented in Chinese texts, but this people’s civilization, culture, and art have remained relatively obscure. Chinese written sources testified: "The Hsiung-nu had no towns, no settlements, no agriculture, they couldn’t sow, and they were only hunters."

The first Hsiung-nu archaeological sites were discovered in 1896 by the anthropologist J. D. Talko-Grinzevich in the area around Kyachta-town, now in the Buryatia Republic, Russia Federation. A subsequent expedition led by P. K. Kozlov excavated several barrows in the Noin-Ula area of Outer Mongolia between 1924 and 1925. These tombs held a rich hoard of silver vessels, carpets and jade objects. Repeatedly studied and published, these finds have until recently defined the typical forms of Hsiung-nu art.

In recent years some of Hsiung-nu archaeological sites in the Trans Baikal area have been thoroughly excavated.

1. The most detailed information comes from the Ivolga complex (a large fortress, a small fortification work, a cemetery; all excavated by Prof. A. Davydova, (see Davydova,1995; Davydova, 1996).

The complex is situated 16 km from Ulan-Ude, in the Selenga Valley. The size of the large fortress is 350 meters from north to south and 200 meters from west to east. The fortress was surrounded by defense ramparts, which had a 35-38 m wide common. In the southern part of the space enclosed by the ramparts, an area of 7.000 sq. m has been exposed. Fifty-one dwellings and 600 pits were found. Most dwellings were of the semi-underground type. In the northeastern corner of each house was a fire-place of stone slabs. The only surface building ("a house of a chief") was situated in the center of the site.

The site was built according to a plan, with dwellings arranged in rows, organized in blocks and separated by long ditch-like pits. Different finds from cultural stratum, from dwellings and pits, demonstrate that the inhabitants of the site were engaged in agriculture, cattle-breeding, hunting and fishing, and that their occupations included metalwork in iron, bronze, and precious metals).

Various objects of art with animal’s pictures and geometrical designs were found in the fortress (see for detail: A. Davydova, Ivolga fortress. //Archaeological sites of the Hsiung-nu, Vol. 1., St-Petersburg, 1995).

2. At the Ivolga burial ground, 216 graves have been completely excavated. Remains of clothing were preserved, and bronze plates made in the "Ordos style", unique types of beads were found (see for detail: A. Davydova, Ivolga cemetery. //Archaeological sites of the Hsiung-nu, Vol. 2., St-Petersburg, 1996).

3. Large-scale excavations have been conducted also on Dureny-1 settlement (excavation by Prof. A. Davydova). Ivolga-type dwellings were found here, demonstrating that their inhabitants were agriculturists, herdsmen, and craftsmen. This settlement occupies 11 km (!) along the Chikoy River. About 12, 000 sq. m were excavated. Ornaments of various types were found here, as well as a unique bronze seal with a representation of a mountain goat.

4. Dureny-2 (excavation by S. Miniaev) is a stratified site where eleven layers have been registered. The middle ones document the transition period, since layer 5 contains pottery of the Hsiung-nu types, while in layers 6 and 7 the Hsiung-nu ceramics occur together with the medieval ones. So a population which knew the Hsiung-nu cultural tradition lived in Central Asia not only during the last two centuries B. C., but also during the Middle Ages.

5. The Derestuy burial ground was subjected to detailed investigations over recent years (final report see S. Miniaev. Derestuj burial ground // Archaeological sites of the Hsiung-nu, Vol. 3., St-Petersburg, 1998). The cemetery is situated 200 km from the town of Ulan-Ude, in the Jyda-river valley. This site has yielded the most important evidence relevant for Hsiung-nu social history.

There were several groups of barrows at the Derestuj cemetery. Every group consisted of several complexes. The structure of every complex was: a central barrow (a big dimension, with stone slabs on the surface) and the "satellite- burials" around a central tomb (not marked on the surface). The deceased in these burials (women and children, as a general rule; were killed at the same time as the man in the central tomb) were sacrificed. Many "satellite-burials" were not disturbed by robbers.

The central barrow usually had a stone construction on the surface; the internal construction of the central barrow usually consisted of a wooden coffin placed into a stone cyst. In the central barrows several artifacts were found, but almost none in the accessory graves. In the central burials, both men and women were interred; the accessory ones contained remains of infants and juveniles, many of them bearing signs of violent death. The latter fact infers that the Hsiung-nu practiced human sacrifice.

A large number of artifacts were found in the graves, the most common ones being belts, bronze plaques in "Ordos" style, and other details of clothing, ceramics, glass and stone beads, etc.

Decorative bronzes were found in a set of women's and men's belts. The most completed belt pieces consisted of a central part (two bronze plaques as a rule, many plaques had a special wood-lining) and diverse other details - small plaques, open-work rings, small rings, fastenings, buttons, buckles, etc. All bronze plaques are scenes in the "Ordos style": skirmishes between horses, between a beast of prey and herbivorous, and fantastic scenes (a struggle between two dragons, for example).

The bronzes of Derestuy were found in ordinary burials, therefore they may be standard for Hsiung-nu belt sets. The collection considerably supplements our knowledge of Hsiung-nu art. The plaques with a scene of a skirmish between two dragons, and other plaques and plates are unique.


Excavations of the listed sites have resulted in a massive accumulation of well-documented artifacts from Hsiung-nu sites. It is now clear that the Noin-Ula finds alone cannot define the typical forms of Hsiung-nu art, but that this People also worked in the media of stone, horn, wood, felt and metal, particularly bronze. The finds also include many items in the style that has come to be identified with Hsiung-nu bronze plaques from the Ordos region of Inner Mongolia. The spread of Ordos-style bronze artifacts throughout eastern Central Asia would seem to indicate the extent of the Hsiung-nu domain, and their presence at a site helps to identify that site as Hsiung-nu.

Over the past ten years, excavations of several first century B.C. sites in the Buryatia Republic of the Russian Federation have begun to shed a certain amount of light on the habits, customs and lifestyle of the Hsiung-nu. Now we have much new information to discuss about the main problems of the Hsiung-nu history and archaeology.

Corrected by Barbara Hazard