Tuesday 12 March 2024

The First Scythian King

The Origins of the Alans

The Ice Princess
In 1993 a team of Russian archaeologists led by Dr. Natalya Polosmak made a fascinating discovery on the Ukok Plateau, high up at 2,500m altitude in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, close to the borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. As they started excavating the burial mound they found a huge block of ice.

Tomb of the Siberian Ice Princess

This was a tumulus known as a ‘kurgan’ typical of the early Scythian culture. A kurgan is a type of barrow-like tomb with a mound constructed over a grave, sometimes containing just a single human body, sometimes more, accompanied with grave goods such as weapons, horses and distinctive animal art. 

The burial mounds of the Altai are different to the kurgans of the Steppes in containing burial chambers constructed from logs and then covered in a low mound of stone. In this case water had trickled through the stones then froze encasing the contents in a block of ice, preserved an almost perfect state.

On melting the ice the archaeologists found the mummified body of a 25-year-old woman termed the Siberian Ice Princess. This discovery provided a rare first-hand glimpse into the world of the Pazyryk culture, a nomadic people that inhabited the Steppe region of Siberia more than 2,500 years ago. 

Body Art of the Siberian Ice Princess

The Ice Princess, also known as the Altai Lady, and the grave contents had been perfectly preserved by the ice of the cold Altai Mountains. This lady was clearly of high status as she was accompanied by six sacrificed horses arranged in a radial pattern. Individual burials of this type were usually reserved for Royalty, hence her assumed designation as a princess. Her body had several tattoos including a deer-like creature with a griffon’s beak and a Capricorn’s antlers.  Her richly decorated skin had been peeled back and her organs removed, then neatly stitched back together. In addition to the tattoo of the deer-griffin-like creature, the Ice Princess's skin was preserved and embalmed with herbs, grasses, and wool to complete the mummification process. Covering her shoulders was sable fur over a silk blouse and striped woolen skirt confirming her royal lineage as silk was usually reserved for high status people of nomadic tribes. The Ice Princess wore a pointed conical felt hat which had led to the suggestion that she was possibly a shaman. 

Frozen Tombs of the Pazyryk Culture
Five other tombs had been found in the Ukok Plateau; the first, Barrow 1, was excavated in 1929 while Barrows 2–5 were excavated between 1947–1949. The content of these burial mounds were also preserved in a similar manner as the tomb of the Ice Princess, water seeping into the tombs in ancient times had frozen and encased the grave contents in ice, which remained frozen in the permafrost until the time of their excavation.

It is apparent that ordinary people were not interred, or at least not in large burial sites. The large burial mounds, or kurgans, along with their belongings, horses and sometimes attendants, was strictly reserved for the elite across the Eurasian Steppe.

Ukok Plateau, Altai Mountains

Lower in the Altai is the huge Tuekta kurgan also of the Pazyryk Culture. The region of these Pazyryk kurgans is given protection as the Golden Mountains of Altai UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, literally thousands of these kurgans cover the Eurasian Steppe.

The Eurasian Steppe
The Eurasian Steppe is a belt of grassland extending for 5,000 miles  (8,000 km) from near the Danube delta in modern Romania to Manchuria in north-east China. Since prehistoric times the Steppe has been a super-highway between Europe and Asia, inhabited by nomadic tribal confederations, the most well-known being the Scythians, Cimmerians, Sarmatians, Huns and Mongols.

With relatively low rainfall, typically less than 20 inches, the grassland is devoid of trees and does not support grazing for more than a generation or so requiring pastoralists to regularly move on to fresh pastures. Thus, the nomadic peoples of the Steppe left little in the way of permanent settlements yet their presence can be traced through their burial customs across the Steppe.

The Eurasian Steppe

To the north the Steppe is bounded by the forests of European Russia and Asian Russia or Siberia, to the south land becomes increasingly drier. The Steppe naturally narrows at two points, making, for convenience, divisions of three major regions.

The European, western end of the Eurasian Steppe begins near the mouth of the Danube and stretches to the southern end of the Ural Mountains, this is known at the Pontic–Caspian Western Steppe. In days of old it was bounded to the north by forest steppe, but in more recent times the forest has been cleared for agricultural land. To the south and east it is bounded by the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to the Caucasus Mountains.  Further west, the Great Hungarian Plain of the Pannonian Steppe is separated from the main Steppe by the Carpathian Mountains. 

Between the southern tip of the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea the Steppe narrows forming a natural division between the Pontic-Caspian Steppe with the Kazakh Steppe, where Europe meets Central Asia. The Kazakh Steppe, or Central steppe, forms the bulk of the Eurasian Steppe stretching from the Urals to Dzungaria, in north-western China. To the south it becomes drier, semi-desert and desert divided by the rivers Syr Darya (Jaxartes) and Amu Darya (Oxus) flowing into the Aral Sea. 

However, the Steppe has few natural barriers, the Urals, regarded as Europe’s conventional eastern boundary, regardless of its name as a mountain range is nothing more than a range of low hills and has never been a cultural barrier. Indeed, nomadic horsemen could ride unhindered from the mouth of the Danube in the west to the Altai Mountain range in the east where modern Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together in East-Central Asia. 

The Altai merges with the Sayan Mountains to the north-east, beyond this is the Eastern Steppe, stretching from the Altai Mountains in the west to the Greater Khingan Range in the east. The primary region of the Eurasian Steppe in East Asia is the Mongolian-Manchurian Steppe which covers large areas of Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the two divided by the high plateau of the Gobi Desert. 

The Eastern Steppe

Being of higher altitude than the Western Steppe, the Eastern Steppe is colder and more arid with greater extremes of seasonal temperatures making it one of the most severe climates on Earth. This harsh environment duly played a significant role in human migrations either southward and eastward direction toward Manchuria and northern China or westward, passing between the Altai and Tien Shan mountains through the valley of the Ili River and past Lake Balkhash and the more inviting grasslands of the Western Steppe. Migrating people would converge through the Dzungarian Gate.

The narrowing of the Steppe at Dzungarian is defined by the Tarbagatai Mountains to the west and the Mongolian Altai Mountains on the east, to the north the Tian Shan Mountains and the Tarim Basin to the south. The Dzungarian Gate is the only mountain pass in the 3,000 mile (4,800km) mountain-wall which stretches from Manchuria to Afghanistan, the most accessible pass for nomadic horsemen between the western Eurasian steppe and land to the east. The pass is associated with the modern conception of the Silk Road connecting China with the Roman Empire and Herodotus’s tale of the legendary Hyperboreans.

This natural boundary between the Eastern and Western Steppes, is where we find the ice tombs of the Pazyryk culture on the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains (as noted above) which have been dated to the 5th century BC. But these are not the earliest Steppe kurgans that have been identified to date, for that we must look at the cultures that preceded the Pazyryk.

Kurgans of the Western Steppe
The Greek historian and geographer, Herodotus tells us that the core area of Scythian tribes was around the northern shore of the Black Sea, modern southern Ukraine and southern Russia. The Royal graves of the Scythians in the steppe area north of the Black Sea were the first known and the first to be investigated in modern times. 

Western Steppe, north of the Black Sea

The kurgans of the Western Steppe were typically around 12–15m high, yet at Solokha on the bank of the Dnieper in Central Ukraine the kurgan was almost 18m high. At Chertomlyk, also in Ukraine, the kurgan was 20m high and 50m in diameter. Both are dated to the 4th century BC. The construction of these two large kurgans suggests a huge communal effort, yet the kurgans never contain burials of ordinary people being reserved exclusively for Royalty and the Elite, and on occasion their attendants.

The body in the kurgan at Solokha was wearing a gold neck-ring, gold bracelets, a gold-sheathed dagger, held a sceptre shaft in the right hand, and gold platelets sewn onto the clothing. Other chambers contained cauldrons, bronze and silver tableware, and Greek drinking vessels. Clearly this individual was interred with all of the status of a Scythian king or high chieftain.

The Scythian kurgans north of the Black Sea region typically contained catacombs, or subterranean chambers, underneath the burial mound. This would be entered through a passageway which led to the catacomb 10-18m deep with side chambers containing  further grave goods, tombs of their attendants and interred horses.

Consistently across the Eurasian steppe, the designated Scythian burial mounds from north of the Black Sea to the Altai Mountains, provide evidence that the tribal chieftain received preferential treatment after death, yet burial mound construction and grave goods could follow quite different traditions, in various regions such as southern Siberia. Dr. Hermann Parzinger has determined that “the complex structure of the kurgans should be considered as rituals which became architecture.

Until relatively recently the kurgans of the Western Steppe were thought to be the oldest Scythian burial mounds, apparently evidence of a culture that spread east as was the knowledge at the time. This was primarily because ancient historians in the west, Greek and Roman, made the first written records of these nomadic peoples and knew little of life beyond the Ural Mountains. Until the 19th century the kurgans of the Central Steppe and particularly the Eastern Steppe were less known, and until recent times very few had been professionally excavated.

But in the last 20 years or so several Russian–German archaeological teams led by Dr. Parzinger have studied the kurgans of the Ural region, the northern Caucasus,  Kazakhstan, and southern Siberia. 

As Dr Barry Cunliffe writes, “It is no exaggeration to say that the frozen tombs of Siberia have revolutionized our understanding of the first millennium BC nomads of the Altai region.”

The archaeological excavations of the Altai kurgans has shown that a vibrant animal art existed in south Siberia that was so similar to the Scythian animal art of the Pontic Steppe, north of the Black Sea, that we are forced to conclude that the two must have been part of the same cultural continuum. Russian archaeologists refer to this as Scythian-Siberian animal art. 

Scythian-Siberian animal art: Deer-shaped gold plaque (7th century BC)

In addition, three common types of object, known as the so-called Scythian Triad have been found repeatedly in kurgans across the entire Eurasian Steppe, from west to east: Horse Bridal - dagger/composite Bow - animal style art.

The First Scythians
Tuva in Southern Siberia is situated on the eastern flank of the Altai massif, about 100km east of Pazyryk where the famous Scythian frozen tombs were discovered.  

Here on a high plateau traversed by the Uyuk River, a tributary of the Yenisei River, and enclosed by the Sayan Mountains to the east and the Kuznetsk Atatau Mountains to the west, which merge into the Altai, we find the Tuva basin, the site of the early kurgan burials at Arzhan and the largest concentrations of Scythian burial mounds so far found. 

The Arzhan cemetery, Uyuk Valley

The Arzhan culture was preceded by the Karasuk culture centred on the Minusinsk Basin in the Altai-Sayan region of the South Siberian Mountains, northwest of Mongolia. The animal art of the Karasuk culture has contributed to the development of the distinctive Scythian-Siberian animal art style.

The origins of the Karasuk culture are complex, however, it seems to have formed out of the Andronovo culture, from 2,000 BC to 900 BC in Western Siberia and the Central Asian Steppe. Most researchers associate the Andronovo horizon with early Indo-Iranian languages.

In northern Tuva is one of the largest and most important kurgan cemeteries in Southern Siberia. Here we find all of the features that characterise Scythian culture further west on the Pontic Steppe actually emerged first in Southern Siberia.

As this is the same region where the Karasuk and the earlier Andronovo cultures developed, we can, with some confidence, pinpoint Southern Siberia as the ‘Scythian homeland’. Therefore, the arrival of Scythian culture in this region cannot be viewed as something that migrated from somewhere else, but is endemic. 

The immense valley of the Uyuk River encloses a huge cemetery of a thousand large earthen or stone-built mounds dated to the 1st millennium BC, the Bronze and Iron eras. The largest reach more than a 100m in diameter and up to 6m high and often in a straight line, suggesting a relationship between the deceased. Especially numerous are cemeteries in the valley near Arzhan, which the local people have termed the ‘Valley of the Kings’. The importance of the site has been recognised by its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Warwick Ball, The Eurasian Steppe, Edinburgh University Press, 2021.
Barry Cunliffe, The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe, Oxford University Press, 2021.
Richard Foltz, The Ossetes, IB Tauris, 2023.
Ravi K. Mishra1,  The ‘Silk Road’: Historical Perspectives and Modern Constructions, Indian Historical Review, 47-1 (2020), pp.21–39.
Dr. Hermann Parzinger, Kurgans: Ancient Burial Mounds of Scythian Elites in the Eurasian Steppe, Journal of the British Academy 5 (2017), pp.331-335.

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Sunday 28 January 2024

The Grail and the Alans

“In the summer of 376, a large force of Goths came to the river Danube, the north-eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and asked for asylum. Two Gothic kings had just died, and another been deposed, as they tried — and failed — to hold in check the expansion of Hunnic tribes into their territories on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Within two years, the Goths had precipitated, in turn, a crisis for the Roman state. On 9 August 378, just outside the city of Hadrianople (modern Edirne in European Turkey), they defeated and killed the Emperor Valens, ruler of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, along with two-thirds of his army.”1

The victory of Fritigern’s Goths at Hadrianopolis (Adrianople), on 9th August AD 378, resulting in the death of the emperor of the east and annihilation of two thirds of his army, unleashed a chain of events which changed the course of European history that many see as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire in the west; just one hundred years following the Goths’ crossing of the Danube saw the fall of the last western Emperor in 476.

Several reasons have been put forward for the failure of the Romans at Adrianople, described as their worst defeat since Cannae in 216 BC, among them that Valens engaged the enemy without waiting for co-emperor Gratian’s forces from the west owing to his jealousy of his young nephew’s recent success against the Alemanni and wanted the victory for himself; Roman intelligence massively misjudged the numbers of the Gothic army; ill-discipline in the Roman ranks led to an outbreak of fighting before the command was given.

All of these may have played a part in the devastation of the Roman war machine at Adrianople; however, a decisive factor seems to be the role of the Gothic cavalry that hit the Roman army in a lightning blitz attack. The Gothic cavalry contained a large contingent of Alans which had not been spotted by Valens scouts, or had been deliberately hidden by Fritigern, and came from nowhere to hit the Roman flank.

Who Were the Alans?
The Alans who fought alongside the Goths at the battle of Adrianople never limited their allegiance to one particular people; they were first recorded as fighting with the Huns against the Goths, on other occasions against the Huns, and throughout their travels into western Europe often employed by the Romans, sometimes fighting for the Empire, sometimes against. Alanic horsemen were highly valued by the emperor Gratian and were part of his entourage.2 Resentment of Gratian’s favouritism shown to his Alan auxiliaries seems to have contributed to his downfall in 383.

Around eighty years after being driven from their Black Sea homelands by the Huns, the Alans fought alongside Romans and Goths in the major defeat of the Huns at the The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in Gaul (AD 451), the last great Imperial victory in the west. 

The history of the Alans is a complex story; they are the only non-Germanic tribe to permanently settle in Western Europe during the migration period.3

The Asiatic Alans (Latin: Alani or Halani) were Iranian nomadic pastoral people of the North Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, their warriors were mainly cavalry units of mounted archers who disliked fighting on foot.4 As nomads the Alans resided in wooden wagons that were the hub of family life. The wagons had canopies constructed from bark and were drawn by cattle. As they travelled from place to place they drove herds of horses and cattle and flocks of sheep with them.

The Alans, like other tribes of the Asiatic steppe, bound the heads of some of their infants, creating deformation of the skull. These distinctive, elongated skulls have been found at a number of sites claimed to have been settled by Alans that have been excavated in modern-day France.5 

However, it would be wrong to assume all elongated skulls found at places with ‘Alan’ place names in Gaul were all Alanic as this practice was typical of many tribes from the central Asiatic steppe. Binding the heads of infants before the skull bones fused to form the characteristic elongated shape was a common practice of the Huns and some of their European neighbours adopted this practice for a brief period at the height of Hunnic power in the mid-5th  century.6

In the 370s the Alans living on the plains between the Don and Volga Rivers, the area north of the Black Sea, were attacked by another Asiatic tribe known as the Huns. Some Alans submitted and joined the Huns, while others fled to the west across the river Don. After being devastated by the Huns the Alans never again managed to come together as one cohesive group, but splintered into several tribal groups that seem to have had no common interests. Of all barbarian peoples the Alans were the most fragmented; as Wolfram says, they appeared ‘everywhere and nowhere’.7

After first storming and subduing the Alans the Huns then displaced the Gothic tribe known as the Greuthungi who inhabited the lands between the Don and Dnieper Rivers, and then the Tervengi Goths who lived between the Dnieper and the Danube Rivers. The pressure from the Huns resulted in displaced Goths, Alans and Taifali massing on the north bank of the Danube. Valens permitted Fritigern’s Tervengi to cross the Danube and enter the Empire, but the emperor refused to allow the Greuthungi across.

By 377 some Alans and Greuthungi had joined the Tervengi south of the Danube. After being poorly treated by the Romans the Gothic federation rebelled, culminating in the Battle of Adrianople the following year, where as we have seen, the Alanic cavalry played a significant role in the Emperor’s downfall. The number of Alans at Adrianople was probably no more than 3,000, it is likely that a number of these Alans remained with Fritigern’s Goths.

A group of Alans was later settled in the province of Valeria, in Pannonia, attaching themselves to the Hasding Vandals. Despite very different ethnic origins the Alans found much in common with these Vandals. These barbarian groups would move westward and eventually settle within the western Empire. The Alans entered Gaul through two main groups; the main group, in alliance with Vandals and Suevi, crossed the Rhine in 406–407 and spent the next three years journeying through Gaul.

Other units of Alans broke away from this main group and took service with the Romans, first in the Rhineland and then in central Gaul. Alans are recorded as besieging Bazas around 414 and another Alan group is mentioned thirty years later as settled near Valence. The main group stayed with the Vandals and eventually settled in Spain. The Vandals crossed to Africa in 429 and captured Carthage ten years later.

Another contingent of Alans, some remnants of Radagasius’s army that attacked Italy in 405-6, some descendants from the Alans who fought at Adrianople that had remained with the Goths, entered southern Gaul in the Gothic federation of Athaulf following the sack of Rome in AD 410 by Alaric. Some of these Alans were settled with this group, now known as Visigoths, in southern Gaul, the region traditionally associated with the Grail legends

The Sarmatian-Alanic Connection
In 'From Scythia to Camelot' the authors, C Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor argue that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions derived not from Celtic mythology, but rather from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia (what are now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes).8

It is argued by the authors that this fusion of folklore came about through a detachment of Sarmatians posted to Britain in the 2nd century AD, coming into contact with a Roman officer named Artorius, the Latin origin of the name Arthur, and thus the Arthurian legend was born. 

However, THIS Artorius, serving as the camp prefect for Legio VI Victrix at York, made such an insignificant impact during his time in Britain that he was totally forgotten, until modern scholars told us he was the origin of the Arthurian legend. [see: Artorius: A Nation with Amnesia ]

Later, so the story goes, in the 12th century when the Arthurian legend was taken to the Continent it collided with the folklore of the Alans, the Iranian nomadic people and neighbours of the Sarmatians on the Black Sea in antiquity, and the Arthurian Cycle and the Story of the Grail was created. 

Is it possible that the folklore of the Alans could have survived the 9,000 km journey, and several generations later, from their Black Sea homelands to their settlements in the western Empire in the 5th century to re-emerge as the stories of the Grail in the 12th -13th centuries?

Notes & References
1. Peter Heather, The Goths, Blackwell, 1996, p.1.
2. Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, University of California Press, 1988, p.239.
3. Torsten Jacobsen, A History of the Vandals, Westholme Publishing, 2012, p.49.
4. Bernard Bachrach – A History of the Alans in the West, 1973, p.89.
5. Bachrach, p.68.
6. Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.586.
7. Wolfram, p.238
8.  C Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, 2000.

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