Thursday, 16 October 2014

Horse sacrifices found in luxury tombs in Xinjiang

The Kelasu cemetery is located at Habahe County, Aletai Region, Xinjiang. The archaeological team from the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics conducted the excavation of the site during May and July in 2014. According to the preliminary assessment 53 burials, over 600 cultural relics are recovered including stone, bone tools, potteries, bronze, iron and gold artifacts.

tomb mound of M13

Tombs are scattered over a wide batch of land. Tomb mounds are usually made of rock stacks whose diameters range from 6 to 38m in general. There are stone circle under the mounds. Most of the tombs are rectangular in plane while their structures vary. There are 3 side-chambered tombs, 4 stone-coffined tombs, 2 tombs with wooden inner coffins and stone outer coffins, 1 wooden-coffined tomb and 43 earthen shaft tombs. Horse sacrifices exist in 16 tombs. Most of these tombs have been unfortunately disturbed. 42 of them are along the northeast-southwest direction.

archaeologists collected horse head from the tomb M13

M13 and M15 are two significant discoveries during the excavation. The two tombs have wooden inner coffins and stone outer coffins.

M13 is situated in the north part of the cemetery where many tombs are clustered. The mound is made of a low-rising stone stack which is 22m in diameter and 1.5m in height.  A ring of stone slabs is placed under the mound with a diameter of 17m. The tomb is a rectangular earthen shaft pit, which is 3.6m in length, 3.1m in width, and 3.4m in depth. A wooden inner coffin and a stone outer coffin were discovered. 7 horses (4 in the upper layer and 3 in the lower) were found buried to the west of the wooden coffin and 6 of them are buried with their heads. Bronze ornaments and gold-covered bronze ornaments cover the face of No.5 horse. In addition, a bronze bell is tied around its neck. A bronze bowl with one handle is deposited closely next to the coffin. Horse No.6 is decorated with golden belt around its abdomen. Though human bones within the coffin have been disturbed, we can roughly estimate that there are two skeletons, which are one male and one female. Golden foils are scattered around the skeletons. 3 potteries are found situated between horse sacrifices and the wooden coffin, two of which are kettles while the remaining one is unclear. The gap between the north side of the coffin and burial chamber is filled by sands and stones with pottery kettles and bronze ornaments on the bottom.

coffin and horse remains distributed in M15

The mound of M15 is also made of low stone slacks which is 34m in diameter and 1.5m in height. The stone circle under the mound is 22m in diameter. The burial is rectangular earthen shaft pit with length of 5.8m, width of 4.9m and depth of 5.2m. Both wooden inner coffin and stone outer coffin are recovered. 11 horses are buried in 3 columns on the north platform. There are 3, 3 and 5 horses in each column separately. There are traces of woven mat on the head of east most horse. A large number of golden foils and a few flakes of red lacquer are also discovered around the same head. Bone tools such as shafts and buckles are clustered around the horses lying in the middle. The wooden coffin is fixed with robust bronze nails and nuts. Skeletons within it are randomly buried. A red pottery pot, bronze mirror with handles and a gold-covered bronze artifact are located in the southeast corner of the inner coffin. Fragments of a red pot are found in the northeast corner where a broken iron knife is situated next to it. In the middle, lies 3 pieces of bronze ornaments with gold-covered tiger head. A pair of double handled bronze cups and a bronze mirror are buried in the west. Horses are decorated all over their bodies with mainly bone artifacts, bronze artifacts, golden foils and flakes of red lacquer. Evidences show that the tomb was robbed shortly after its burial. The robberies dug a tunnel through the burial passage, then destroyed the bodies and took some of the burial goods away.

golden foils found on the cover of the wooden coffin in tomb M15

golden foils sacttered in tomb M15

golden foils  with traces of woven mat from tomb M15

 gold-covered  bronze ornaments in the shape of tiger head from M15
Besides, iron horse stirrups, quivers, sheaths and hamlets from the 7th century are recovered from M18, M19, M23 and M24. Theses quivers and sheaths are made of birch barks, decorated with bronze artifacts, which obviously have been delicately worked.

plan of the stone-sarcophagus tomb M4

The discovery of the Kelasu cemetery performs a significant role in establishing the cultural profile of the Aletai region, thus contributing to our understanding of cultural development along the Altai Mountain. Although the number of tombs excavated is limited, the chronology of these burials is long and clear spinning from the Iron Age to the 7th century. M15 is the largest and the highest ranked tomb with rich funeral goods. It is also the burial with the highest of number of horse sacrifices discovered in Xinjiang so far. Therefore, it is salient to help us deciphering the funeral tradition of early pastoral civilization across the Eurasia steppe.    (Translator: Dong Ningning)

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