A New Kurgan Burial Ground of the Scythian Period in the Middle Don Region

Issues of Scythian archaeology have always been in the focus of Russian scholars. But with the disintegration of the USSR, most kurgans and fortified settlements associated with the Scythians are now located in sovereign Ukraine. In Russia Scythian artifacts and, especially, archaeological sites dated to the 5th–4th centuries BC, which is the gold age of Scythia, are found only in the Middle and Lower Don Basin.

At that time the Don Basin was the eastern extreme of the Scythian domain, but it does not mean that it was a far away and backwater province of European Scythians’ vast state. Major ancient trade routes crossed this borderline area, including the famous north-east route from the ancient Greek city of Olivia (located on the shore of the Dnieper-Bug silted estuary) to the Urals and the Altai, described by Herodotus. This evidence increases importance of Scythian artifacts found in the Don Basin for Russian scholars and urges them to intensify research in this region.

The Don Archaeological Expedition has been exploring Scythian sites in the Middle Don forest-steppes (Voronezh and Belgorod Regions) since 1990. Since then four fortified settlements and several kurgan groups (with more than 90 kurgans dating to the Scythian period) have been examined.

Research and publication of research results on a previously unknown kurgan burial ground of the Scythian period in the Middle Don Region is of real interest. This kurgan group is located between the Village of Devitsa and the Village of Boldyrevka in the Ostrogozhsk district, Voronezh Region, called Devitsa V by archaeologists.

The kurgan burial ground was discovered in 2000 during a fieldwalking expedition. Its topographical plan was made in the same year. Excavations at Devitsa V began in 2010. Over the past five years 13 kurgans have been explored (including 11 Scythian kurgans and 2 Bronze Age kurgans). The study of the unearthed materials has led to the following preliminary conclusions.

Firstly, all uncovered Scythian burials at Devitsa V can be dated within the 4th century BC. Secondly, regarding typical funeral customs (deep burial pits with beams; sacrifice food such as a horse carcass and an iron knife as an indispensible attribute) do not differ from the kurgan groups of the Scythian Middle Don variant discovered near villages of Ternovoye, Kolbino, Mastyugino, Russkaya Trostyanka and others, which are located nearby and have almost completely excavated. Thirdly, the set of grave offerings consisting of weapons (javelin-heads, arrowheads; plated armor; javelin and spear butts shaped as small wine glasses; a mix of bronze and iron socketed arrowheads in the quiver); horse trapping and ornaments is absolutely typical for Iron Age burials in the Middle Don Basin.

The Scythians attached extraordinary importance to gold in the funeral rite. At the funeral the dead were dressed in special garments embellished with gold plaques made of gold leaf with a zoomorphic or floral pattern and were decorated with gold jewelry such as rings, necklaces and bracelets, splendid headdress ornamented with gold pendants, etc. The latter find complete analogies in the Scythian ‘princely’ kurgans such as kurgan 8 of the Five Brothers Group near the Village Elizavetovskaya in the Don delta, the Big Ryzhanovsky Kurgan (near Kiev), etc. Devitsa V has yielded its own Amazon. A skeleton of a young woman of 20–22 years old heavily disturbed by looters and a set of weapon remains including three javelins and iron socketed arrowheads have been uncovered in kurgan 6 inside a grave made of timber and earth.

At the same time, despite striking similarity between Devitsa V and other Middle Don kurgan groups of the Scythian period, this kurgan burial ground has some local previously unknown traits.

For instance, instead of a usual funerary repast (a part of the horse carcass) with a knife the mound of kurgan 10 has yielded remains of two complete horse skeletons. This custom has been traced for the first time at the Scythian funeral sites located in the Forest-Steppe Don Region.

During the 2015 field season it is planned to excavate central mounds at Devitsa V that currently measure from 2.5 to 3.5 m in height. Preliminary work done by geo-physicists shows that there is a large pit rectangular in plan beneath each mound as well as iron objects, so it can be assumed that these kurgans are dated to the Scythian period.

V.I. Gulyaev,

A.A. Shevchenko

Digital Version of the Booklet