The Research Project
Towards the end of the third century BCE larger nomadic tribal groups developed in the north of China. Of key significance was the multiethnic confederation of early Asiatic Huns referred to in written Chinese sources as the Xiongnu, who spread into Central Asia and southern Siberia and became powerful opponents of the Chinese Han dynasty. In the year 55 BCE the Huns split into northern and southern confederations. Whilst the southern Huns were forced to submit to Chinese rule, the northern Huns migrated westwards and, in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, even reached Europe. The Huns’ invasion of Europe around 375 CE triggered mass migration, and their advance was not definitively halted until the defeat of Attila by the Romans and Visigoths in the year 451 CE at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.
At present very little is known about the origins, the structure of government and the social and religious life of the nomadic empire of the early Asiatic Huns. Archaeological finds are few and far between, and written records can only be found in sources from the enemies of the Xiongnu, the Han Chinese. An important reminder of the sepulchral culture of the Xiongnu is the burial ground of Noin-Ula in northern Mongolia. Russian archaeologists excavated six princely tombs here as far back as the 1920s. At the time, their discovery was an archaeological sensation, and the magnificent finds (including rugs, metal objects and items made of gold and jade) are now exhibited in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. At the bottom of each of the grave shafts, which are between 9 and 18 metres deep, there are two solid wooden-beamed chambers, one inside the other. The walls of the inner chamber were decorated with ornate felt carpets, and inside archaeologists found ceramics, parts of bows, arrowheads, lamps and mirrors made of bronze, enamel cups, silks and gold plates. The finds prove the Xiongnu had contact with the West and show that this was a multi-ethnic empire led by one ruler. The harsh climate of the mountains of Noin-Ula has meant the contents of the grave are exceptionally well preserved, and thanks to the specific conditions of preservation, even organic materials have remained within the graves. Up to two thirds of the contents of the graves consisted of organic material, which would never normally be preserved for such a long time. Although the graves of Noin-Ula were plundered, they still contain a large number of finds that give us valuable insights into the life and the material culture of the Xiongnu and provide an extraordinary view into the past.
Since 2006 a team of Russian archaeologists has been working on the burial ground of Noin-Ula under the leadership of Professor Natalia Polosmak from the Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, based in Novosibirsk. Whilst previous excavations revealed only part of the finds and many of the historic, archaeological and anthropological discoveries were lost, the researchers are now working with the most up-to-date methods archaeologists have at their disposal. The team is therefore excavating the grave, which is like an upside-down pyramid pointing down into the ground, by hand, layer by layer, in order to get accurate details for the first time about the construction of the graves and the building and burial processes, as well as about how plunderers made their way into the grave. These careful, but very labour and time-intensive methods also make it possible to find imprints of lost materials in the earth, such as colourfully painted spoked wheels from Hunnish war chariots, which were buried alongside the rulers. During the course of the 2006 dig, more than 300 objects were found during excavations of the wooden inner chamber of a princely grave, including silver plates with images of animals, which were used as decorative elements on the horses, iron buckles, fragments of jade artefacts and personal items like mirrors and small gold ornaments. Of particular interest were the remains of organic materials, including pieces of textiles made of wool and Chinese silk, felt work and painted objects. Sample pieces from all the groups of finds were processed in Novosibirsk.
The aim of an excavation campaign funded by the Foundation in the summer/autumn of 2009 was to excavate one of the last remaining large princely graves of the Xiongnu at the Noin-Ula burial ground, investigate and restore the finds and thus shed new light on the history of the early Asiatic Huns. This campaign is documented in the form of a L.I.S.A.video in ten episodes. During the excavation campaign, the remains and the entire contents of the wooden coffin were removed from the open grave in one piece, in order to ensure the organic material in particular remained in the best possible state for further processing at the Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk. There the finds were examined and restored as part of a follow-up project also funded by the Foundation.
The majority of the items were severely damaged and consisted of non-organic (metal, stone) and organic (textile, paint, wood, horn) materials. All were treated using special restoration and conservation methods, some of which had never been applied anywhere else in the world, and were then prepared for subsequent exhibition in Mongolian museums. In the process, the researchers managed to restore several enamel cups – extremely rare archaeological finds – which were considered luxury goods by the nomads and point to the high social rank of those buried in Noin-Ula. The excavations also brought together a unique collection of textile finds, among them an embroidered rug that must have served to line the burial chamber during the burial ceremony.
In the summer of 2012 Professor Polosmak continued her work in Mongolia and excavated another kurgan – the last large one – as part of an archaeological salvage dig. The background to this is, on the one hand, global warming, which means that conditions for the preservation of organic finds in Mongolia are becoming less favourable in general. Another problem, however, is the increasing industrialisation of the region, which is worsening the conditions for archaeological research in Noin-Ula: Underground explosions in the gold mines in the immediate vicinity are destabilising the ground layers in which the material lies and illegal gold hunters are taking possession of the often auriferous rocks that mark the graves. Incidents of plundering in the graves of the Noin-Ula burial complex have increased ever further in the last few years, and Professor Polosmak’s team has already documented a number of uncontrolled test shafts. The archaeological material found as part of the salvage excavation comprises more than 100 objects, including silver jewellery with depictions of unicorns for horse harnesses, the remains of Chinese chariots, jade, smaller items of gold jewellery and fragments of silk, wool, felt and fur. As shown in the current series of films, the finds are being scientifically processed and restored in Novosibirsk in cooperation with other research institutions.
Prof Dr Nataliya PolosmakLocation