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TSARAAM
Archaeological Project

Excavation of a Xiongnu royal tomb complex
in the Tsaraam valley [Trans-Baikal region of the Russian Federation]

The Xiongnu, otherwise known as the Asiatic Huns, headed a powerful alliance of cattle-breeding tribes in the late 3rd to early 2nd century B.C., and dominated the eastern part of Central Asia for two centuries. The military and political history of the Xiongnu has been documented in early Chinese historical texts, but information regarding their civilization, culture, and art have remained relatively obscure. The first Xiongnu archaeological sites were discovered in 1896 by the anthropologist J. D. Talko-Grinzevich in the area around Kyachta, now located in the Buryatia Republic of the Russian Federation. A later expedition by P. Kozlov excavated several Xiongnu barrows in the Noin-Ula area of Outer Mongolia between 1924 and 1925. These tombs were richly furnished with silver vessels, carpets, and jade objects. In recent years, some Xiongnu archaeological sites in the Trans Baikal area have been thoroughly and systematically excavated, including the Ivolga complex, the Dureny I settlement, the Dureny II settlement, and the Derestuy burial ground. However, elite barrows, which usually contain important information about social structure, material culture, and the art of a particular society, are neither well-known nor systematically investigated using archaeological techniques. 

The objective of the Tsaram Archaeological Project is to conduct a systematic archaeological excavation of a Xiongnu elite burial complex in the Tsaram valley. The Tsaram valley is situated 30 km to west of Kyachta, near the town of Naushky, not far from the Russian-Mongolian border. Twenty five tomb complexes have been discovered by preliminary reconnaissance at the site of Tsaram, most of which are large in size and have long entrance chambers projecting to the south. The Tsaram tombs are presumed to date to the Xiongnu period based upon their structural similarity to Noin Ula burials to the south. The Tsaram group, however, tends to be characterized by much larger burials on average and therefore is likely to be related to the elite of the Xiongnu alliance. 

In 1997, the Tsaram Archaeological Project, conducted by S. Miniaev of the Institute of History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Science, St. Petersburg, initiated the excavation of one of the central elite tomb complexes of the cemetery. The tomb complex consists of a large, central barrow which is plainly visible on the ground surface. The barrow construction consists of a quadrangle-shaped platform, the surface of which was prepared from clay. The size of the construction is approximately 29 x 28 m with a height of approximately 1 m. The entrance chamber is 20 m long and extends to the south of the central platform. The perimeter walls of the platform are sided with stone slabs and marking the perimeter of the walls, we discovered several stone steles, some of which were intact and some which had fallen away from the platform. From further excavation of the mound, we discovered that the upper part of the burial pit was divided into distinct sections by walls constructed of wooden logs, unfired clay bricks, and soil. The same wooden walls divided the entrance chamber to the barrow into western and eastern compartments. 

The vegetated soil surface surrounding the central barrow was cleared, revealing 14 additional burials of much smaller size which are currently interpreted as sacrificial Interments. Five of the additional burials are situated 25 m to the east of the central barrow and nine more are situated to the west. All burials located on the east side were excavated at 1998 and yielded a wide range of artifacts including iron arrowheads, iron belt plaques, bone and horn pieces of composite re-curved bows, and Chinese lacquered items. Interestingly, these five burials contained the skeletons of male individuals having different ages at the time of death. Future excavation is planned for the nine burials remaining to the west of the central barrow. 

We suspect that the interior of the main barrow will have an internal construction somewhat similar to the burials at Noin Ula, consisting of an external wooden chamber, an internal wooden chamber, and finally, a wooden coffin. Based on the types of artifacts recovered from Noin Ula, we expect to discover evidence for Chinese silk items, lacquered items, ceramics of indigenous and Chinese manufacture, felt carpets, and jade, bronze and iron implements. Future analyses of the construction of the central burial complex, the spatial relationships between complexes, and the artifactual and skeletal material retrieved through excavation, will almost certainly provide important insights to the society and culture of the Xiongnu alliance.