Bronze Age Kurgans in the Central Fore-Caucasus

Over the past decades the Institute repeatedly undertook excavations of Bronze Age sites in the Central Fore-Caucasus. In 2014 the Kendelenskaya I excavation project at the Baksan River Gorge (Kabardino-Balkaria) located 60 km east of the Elbrus piedmont was implemented. This site containing kurgans was first discovered and partially explored by the North-Caucasus expedition of the State Academy of Material Culture History (GAIMK) led by A.A. Miller, one of the founders of Russian Caucasian studies, in the early 1930s. Since then no large-scale scientific studies of the site have been conducted.

In 2014 a group of five stone-and-earth kurgan mounds, which contained 73 graves and were attributed to various stages of the Early and Middle Bronze Age dating to mid-4th – first half of the 3rd millennia BC, was explored. Burials of the early period are referred to the Majkop culture; burials of the middle period are referred to the North Caucasus archaeological culture.

Cultural processes unfolding in the North Caucasus at that time were related to the rise and development of metallurgy and metalworking production, producing forms of economy, social and religious concepts. The latter were subsequently translated into a large-scale kurgan and megalithic construction. During the Early Bronze Age these processes were closely related to the impact made by technological advances of the Near East civilization on the local population, but from the early 3rd millennium BC onwards the North Caucasus populations chose their own way to develop. Looked at from the archaeological point of view, this fact is confirmed by grave offerings.

The research has revealed a number of funeral assemblages containing unique sets of implements and jewelry pieces. The most spectacular is the grave of a young woman whose garments consisted of 550 items, which is unprecedented for funeral assemblages of the Middle Bronze Age. Among other things it included a set of bronze and silver temple pendants; a necklace made of seven types of bronze and paste jewelry pieces; a bracelet of singular bronze pendants. The most outstanding components of the funeral garment are the so called belt sets made of several hundred items used both as ornaments and as ritual objects. The ritual purpose of these items is manifested in the most dramatic items from the assemblage, namely, two bronze pins, some kind of religious fetishes of the time; two semi-spherical plaques with a solar ornament; and two miniature bronze models of vessels.

It should be noted that some types of jewelry pieces similar to those discovered in this grave are found relatively frequently at Middle Bronze sites located in the northern steppe areas. These imported goods is an evidence of close contacts maintained by the piedmont populations with the steppe people. Yet it is logical to assume that such contacts were not one-sided. A number of assemblages unearthed in 2014 suggest that the steppe people also influenced the culture of the piedmont residents, which is confirmed by finds of boat-shaped axes that appeared on the steppe earlier than in the piedmont areas and therefore they have a steppe origin. More importantly, finds of an ornamented bone plate with bronze rivets, a horn pin with a simple zonal pattern and a set of flint arrows is another sign of the northern influence. Analogies to these objects and their sets lead directly to the steppe areas of the Fore-Caucasus. Therefore, the examined sites is a strong case in favor of the hypothesis on mutual enrichment of the North Caucasus steppe and piedmont populations in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC.

The 2014 excavations of the kurgans at Kendelenskaya I contributed to establishing a complete and continuous chronological timeline of the complexes dating to mid-4th–first half of the 3rd millennia BC.

A.A. Kleshchenko

Digital Version of the Booklet