N.Fedorova, D.Razhev. A Medieval Burial Place in the Polar Zone of Western Siberia The Results of Four Years of Investigation.


The final aim of any archeological investigation is the construction of a more or less trustworthy model of all the multiple forms of a culture with its economic, social and ethnic aspects. This makes culture a reflection of the life of its bearers. The question is: to what extent are we capable of perceiving this reflection?

For a period of seven years (from 1993 to 1999) the Yamal Archeological Expedition had been undertaking a study of the various types of economic adaptation of Iron Age people in the North of Western Siberia. Though we began almost from scratch (the extent to which the region had been archeologically studied is extremely unsatisfactory), we were able to construct a common, to some degree, model of the formation process of these types in the North of Western Siberia (the lower Ob area and the desYamal peninsula, bibliography see The next logical stage in our investigation is the ethnic, or to use a broader term, the ethno-cultural model for the Iron Age (the medieval period), for the reason that, first, it is expected of archeologists and second, because at present the study of ethno-cultural problems is at a very low level.

If taken in terms of scientific publications and mass consciousness, the ethnogenesis and ethnic history of the small-numbered indigenous peoples of the North of Western Siberia can be seen in the following way. “The period before written sources appeared”, i.e. prior to the 17th-18th centuries, is studied with the help of archeological excavations. More often than not, there is the usual description or mention of some global processes that occurred due to migration, sometimes there is mention of “the Ugrians in general” and “the Samodians in general”. The ethnogenesis of the northern Samodians, or to be more exact – the Nenetz, is depicted in this manner as being the result of migration from Sayano-Altai; the formation history of the Ob Ugrians, i.e. the Khanti and the Mansi, is always connected with the arrival of the Ugrian horse-breeders. The words “proto-Khanti” and “proto-Mansi” are often used to denote the ethnicity of the archeological assemblages. “The written language period” starts from the 17th-18th centuries, and from that moment, ethnographers begin to study the ethno-cultural processes in much greater detail. Thus we have a situation wherein a comparison of two absolutely incomparable sciences is out of the question. By using all possible categories of archeological sources, we shall try to reconstruct the true history of the formation of the Lower Ob ethnos, a history, which, as we think, had not been finally written by the 1930s when the political map saw the appearance of such names as “Khanti”, “Mansi”, “Nenetz”, etc. As any such ethnic history on the planet, it consisted of numerous great and small episodes (e.g., see Perevalova, 2002, p.38-56) that had, in one way or another, found its reflection in archeological sites. Thanks to written sources, we can trace similar episodes in some regions of Europe or Asia, particularly in the Iron Age. However, it would be absolutely impossible, when referring to these regions, to use the terms “proto-English” or “proto-French”.

Of no great help to investigators either is the fact that the North of Western Siberia has archeologically been studied extremely poorly, a fact only to be compared with the study of archeological sites of the northern areas of Eastern Siberia. This has led us to the conclusion that it has become imperative to begin a series of publications on the study of stationary archeological Iron Age sites where we could give very detailed descriptions of the archeological material with all the possible updated analysis of the excavation data. As we see it, this project will become the little foundation stone on which the model of the ethno-cultural processes in the region will be grounded. At present we are in the process of preparing for publication the investigation results for Zeleniy Yar, a medieval burial place, and this paper is a kind of an outline for a more generalized, broader work.

The general questions are:

1. Is there an analogy between the burial ritual and its components (construction, material used, clothes) of the Zeleny Yar medieval burial place and that of the modern northern ethnos, the Khanti or the Nenetz, in particular, and if there is an analogy, how obvious is it?

2. If such an analogy is found, can it serve as a basis for the construction of a rigid and direct retrospection traced back from the present period to the medieval times?

3. To what anthropological type did the people that left us the Zeleny Yar burial place belong? How does it fall in with the anthropological characteristics of the present aboriginal population?

4. Ethically speaking, do we have a right to study the ancient cemeteries in the areas where the indigenous peoples of the North live today?

History of study. We have already mentioned the fact that archeologically the area has not really been studied. At present the whole territory of the Yamal Nenetz Autonomous Region, which is about 750 square kilometers has just over 300 known archeological assemblages belonging to all epochs, with only less than ten of them having been excavated. The results of only two studies have been published, that is the fortress (sacred place) Ust-Poluy, diggings in 1935-36 (Moshinskaya, 1953, 1965; Chernetsov, 1953; Chernetsov, Moshinskaya, 1974) and the Tiutey-Sale 1 settlement (Fedorova, Kosintsev, Fitzhugh, 1998). Territorially, the closest burial sites that coincide in time to the Zeleny Yar necropolis are to be found in the Surgut region on the middle Ob, about 640 km to the south. Archeological excavations of a medieval burial place is a unique phenomenon for the North of Western Siberia, all the more so, because it was there that mummified remains of the buried, four children and an adult male, were first found on the territory of Northern Eurasia.

It was L.P.Khlobystin who was the first to visit the area in the vicinity of Zeleniy Yar, 40 km to the north of Salekhard, on the Poluy River, with the aim of carrying out archeological reconnaissance. The ceramic fragments he found on top made it possible for him to consider them to be the remains of a short-term stopping place of some Iron Age people. The name he gave to the site was Gorniy Poluy, after the rivulet that is there. In 1997, within the framework of the Russian-American program “Living Yamal”, the Yamal Archeological Expedition of the Institute of History and Archeology Ural Division of the RAS explored the banks of the Poluy from Salekhard to its middle reaches. Our American colleagues from the Arctic Center of the Smithsonian Institute (Washington DC) Bill Fitzhugh and Sven Haakanson took part in the work. Quite accidentally, one of the stratification digs fell on a burial, thus was found the Zeleny Yar burial place, then given its name after the Zeleny Yar settlement that is nearby. Later we learned that the place contained not only the remains of a necropolis with traces of funeral repast rites, but a more ancient than the burial place itself metal-working assemblage as well.

Gratitude. We wish to express our thanks to the administration of the Yamal-Nenetz Autonomous District, which financed the excavation of the archeological site near the Zeleny Yar settlement from 1999 to 2002. Archeologists N. A. Aleksashenko, A.G. Brusnitsina, M. N. Litvinenko, O.V. Malozemova took part in the work, so did restorer I.A. Karacharova, as well as staff members of the Institute of History and Archeology V.G. Zhelezkin, N.A. Smirnova and others. Video and photography was by M. Yu. Shershnev and A. V. Shestopalov. K.A. Oshchepkov helped us to organize and carry out the work. Fauna remains were examined by staff members of the Institute of Ecology of Plants and Animals Ural Division of the RAS P.A. Kosintsev and his group; prof. S.G. Shiyatov dated burial place 27 dendro-chronologically; fur was examined by head of the branch of the Scientific Research Institute of Fur N. I. Mordvinov. We are also thankful to all our friends and colleagues for the work they did, without which the investigations could not have taken place. Grants from Russian State Scientific Fund No. 01-01-00412 and Russian Fund for Humane Research No. 02-06-96421 helped support the work.

Landscape and topography of the site.

The Zeleny Yar archeological assemblage is in the northern part of the West-Siberian plateau, on the bank of the Poluy, the right-hand tributary of the Ob, along its lower reaches (fig. 1). The site is on an island formed by the Poluy on one side and the Gorniy Poluy rivulet along the other. On the highest point of the island along the bank of the Poluy, stands the present Zeleny Yar settlement peopled by representatives of the northern Khanti. The burial place is at the northeast end of the island, 500 m away from the settlement, on the bank of the Gorniy Poluy rivulet. The terrace with the cemetery is about 5 m above the water level of the rivulet, if measured at the beginning of July. The bank itself is steep covered with short coniferous forest (spruce, larch) and leaf-bearing trees (birch, aspen), with shrubbery underneath (marsh tea, lingenberry, etc.). The width of the terrace in the area of the cemetery is about 30 m with a slight slope towards the east and a steeper one to the south where the rivulet forms a bog with its typical growth, sparse enough in places to make for small ponds. There is a slight slope from the eastern edge of the terrace to its western slope where it becomes narrower with a change of growth – more coniferous trees and sparser shrubbery.

There is a soil road from the rivulet that in summer is used for transporting to the settlement felled trees, which are later floated down the river. This activity has wrought destruction in the area: about 50 x 30 m of forest is gone, the shrubbery has been swept off, there is no turf left in places. In the daytime we can see numerous small hollows, some of which are rectangular in shape on that part of the terrace that has not undergone destruction. To all appearances, most of the hollows are directly related to the necropolis, but we cannot exclude the possibility that they were formed owing to permafrost processes. There are no more hollows beyond the lowering, a factor, which together with those already mentioned allows us to suppose that the border of the burial site runs exactly along the place where the terrace slopes down.


As we have already said, the northern Khanti populate the Zeleny Yar settlement. However, it is not a historical place of settlement for the Khanti, being artificially formed in the 1940s by a resettlement of these people. Some of its residents are newcomers – Russians, plus a mixture of Komi-Khanti-Nenetz population from other places and we even came across a Moldavian there in 1997. As a means of survival most of these people continue their traditional way of life, catching fish in summer and hunting in winter, with reindeer breeding reduced to a minimum. The reindeer are few in number; the residents of the settlement do not graze them, the work being done by shepherds from Aksarka and Gornokniazevsk. The reindeer are grazed on the very edge of the Polar Ural region and in the Baidaratskaya tundra, the winter being spent on the Poluy (data by E.V. Perevalova, the authors thank her for it). The women gather wild growing vegetation, make garments and do other things about the house. These Khanti have in the main retained their traditional world outlook, one that is based on belief in spirits, which are still brought sacrifices and in honor of which religious ceremonies are still held. This part of their life is still a mystery for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, the meaning of the rites becomes lost, with people explaining their actions as tradition: “because our fathers did so”. On the high bank not far from the settlement one can see a modern cemetery with a mixture of heathen, Christian and Soviet ritual in it: thus, some graves have sledges and other items lying next to them, others have remnants of food and gifts for the dead, still others have Soviet stars and Orthodox crosses fixed to the tombstones.

When we just began our work the local people showed a great interest to what was going on, often visiting the digs, asking in detail about how the work was progressing and what had been found. The same interest was manifested at the village meetings at the end of the season where we told them about the results of our work and the necessity of conducting archeological excavations there. But the ballyhoo in the mass media about the diggings, especially after the mummified remains of people had been found in the burial places, called forth an unfavorable reaction - anxiety that our digging might “wake the spirits”. Several women complained that they had seen dreams in which the people buried in the graves came to them and asked to be left to lie in peace. It must be mentioned that dreams play quite a significant role in the spiritual culture of the Khanti. We decided not to let the situation flare up and stopped our work on the burial place, though at first we had planned to excavate a much bigger territory.

A description of the excavation results

Within the borders of the dig the cultural layer is made up of three components. The first is made up of slightly colored layers with a small proportion of podzol (5-15 cm) that is saturated with early medieval ceramics of the 6th-7th centuries. The ceramic inclusions increase to become filled with various organic and scorched substances from the metalworking assemblage and the construction that was nearby. The second part is made up of earth that was thrown out of the graves when they were dug and then shoveled in again. There is also earth left by the looters there. Sometimes these layers contain ceramics from the earlier cultural layer. The third is saturated with organic substance and coals, or there are lighter layers left from the repasts, these layers are most powerful and intensive in the southwestern part of the excavation site where there are no traces of destruction. Among the finds here are mostly ceramics, among them those of the beginning of the II millennium AD. There are also ornaments and garment decorations made of bronze, silver and animal bone. Remains of the metalworking assemblage were found in the central part in between the road and the destructions – there the terrace is at its widest and the bank has a smooth slope, i.e. it is easy to get to the water. It is here that the local people today pull out the felled trees that are floated down the river. First, we cleared out several heaps of big stones, some of which were scorched by fire. Among the stones there was a dark, almost black cultural layer saturated with coals, ceramics, pieces of slag, and fragments of crucibles. About 20 to 25 cm from the surface down we saw remains of a rectangular construction about 5 x 3 m in size, stretching out along the line northeast – southwest. In the dark layer inside this construction, about 5 cm above the floor, we found a human skull and two iron knives. On the same level as the floor, in the center, we found remains of a clay oven made up of very fragile fragments of baked clay with a thick layer of tempered red earth (up to 20 cm) under it. The fire in the oven must have burned long enough and was strong, because the tempered sector is rather wide, exceeding, in any case, the area of the bottom of the oven. All this points to some work being undertaken with metal, most probably, the melting of copper or bronze, or bronze casting. Unfortunately, we have not found a single cast. The construction may be dated the 6th – 7th c. AD, if we are to go by the numerous ceramic fragments of the zelenogorsky type and the wineglass-like crucibles.

To the southwest of the construction, which we have chosen to call “the casting shop”, we found the remains of another construction – a square-shaped pit situated along the line northeast – southwest, 3.5 x 2.2 m in size. It is quite possible that this construction was used as a storage house: it is rectangular, not very deep, there is practically nothing archeologically interesting on the floor, whereas the earth dumped into it contains a lot of ceramics. Besides, there is no fireplace in it. The size, shape and localization of the remains of the construction resemble “the casting shop”. They might have formed one production unit, which functioned at the same time and served the same needs. It is obvious that the floor of the original pit of the construction was, after a period of exploitation, cleaned out with a new layer of earth put in, a fact, which has made the new fill seem multi-colored with large inclusions in it, while there is practically no ceramics on the floor itself. At a later period, but still within the Zelenogorsk period, the place might have again been used for setting up a new construction in the same pit. With some caution we may call these remains “a storage house”.

Probably, the local population had retained memories of the metalworking assemblage, because a grave of the 7th-10th c. contained a bronze figure of a “blacksmith” – an anthropomorphic image of a male with smith’s tongs hanging on one side of his belt and a hammer on the other. To all appearances, it is not accidental that burial 27, the one with the mummified remains of a man, is located right on the spot where construction 1 (“the casting shop”) was. However, we cannot definitely state the time when the ritual that left behind it the human skull and the two knives took place. It seems almost obvious that these remains are not in any way connected with the period when the “casting shop” functioned, because they were found in a layer that was formed after the construction had been demolished, higher than the level of the floor. They might be connected with grave 27, one of the most significant burials of the later cemetery.

The necropolis (fig. 2-6) itself seems to consist of two parts of different periods – burials of the 7th-10th c. and those of the 12th-14th c. AD. Exact inner chronology is not easy because the items that could make it possible have been found only in a small number of graves. They have very much in common, but the differences in the burial rites and the attitude towards the buried in later periods are quite significant. To this moment 35 graves have been opened, 14 of which (Nos. 1 to 13, and No. 16) may be said to belong to an earlier period, the rest – to a later period. All the burial hollows are earthen, they are not deep, (from 20 to 60 cm down from the ancient surface), in narrow dugouts. There are no traces of any constructions above the graves. The interior of the burial pits is of 6 different types. The plainest contained a birch bark covering and the bottom of the pit was also lined with it, sometimes the birch bark had a layer of fiber on it. The second, a more complicated type, consisted of wooden constructions, which lined or enforced the sides of the grave, with birch bark lining the whole pit. The third type of burial is in a wooden boat. The fourth type of burial is in a birch bark cover sewn in the form of a boat. The fifth is inside closed wooden sarcophagi in the shape of a boat. The sixth is in a birch bark box. All these constructions, except the very first one, were covered with long boards or poles, after which the pit was filled to the top with earth.

Burials of the first type – there were seven of them, four of children, one not identified and one of an adult male – are all very shallow, almost at the surface. They are to be found only in the eastern part of the necropolis. It might even seem that all the earlier burials are concentrated in that spot. The second type of construction seems to belong to the earlier part of the necropolis as well. The later-dated part of the burial place has constructions of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth types. The burial constructions of the third, fourth and fifth types are boats, birch bark covers shaped as boats and sarcophagi. In three instances they were tied with twigs and organic fibers. The birch bark boxes (graves 15 and 20) showed no traces of having been tied, the buried were covered with stitched birch bark sheets, possibly sections of their tents (grave 30).

In cases when it was possible to identify, we could see that the dead person was placed on his back with hands and legs stretched out, head away from the river. Several burials of both the later and the earlier type (where the bones were still preserved) showed a special “ballet” position of the feet: they were placed one on the other, the fingers were stretched out along the axis of the body (burials Nos. 11, 14, 22, 25 and 27). Except for the bodies in graves Nos. 18 and 30 (the only group burials on the site – grave 18 had two bodies in it, grave 30 had three) and grave 15, before being put into the burial construction, the bodies were probably tied. Traces of bodies being tied can be found in many graves of both the earlier and the later necropolis (graves 11, 14, 16, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29). The bodies were tied around the shoulder blades, the chest, the legs – knees and feet. In addition to belts several of the child burials (graves 24 and 25) had the dead bodies tied with strips of copper plates cut out of the sides of the cauldrons. The buried were wrapped up or dressed in fur garments and fur footwear with a fur headdress resembling a hood on their heads. Quite often (graves 11, 15, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 30) we were able to see the remnants of a face covering made of fur, sometimes with plates cut out of the sides of copper cauldrons. Many adult (males - ?) burials in the later necropolis, except grave 27, were destroyed at a time not too far removed from the moment when they were buried. Traces of these acts are seen on the surface – they are those burial hollows that can be registered without being dug – they have all been looted. It is quite obvious that the aim of these acts was not only looting, and maybe not looting at all, but the destruction of that part of the burial place where the head and upper part of the body was: there weren’t many iron items in the graves to begin with, but what there was, was thrown nearby into the earth dug out by the looter, the bones often being thrown out of the grave or left right there in the earth that the looter had dug out.

Burial places of the earlier period - 7th to 10th c., also show traces of destruction, but they don’t seem to have any definite aim: graves 2 and 3 had the skulls untouched, whereas the rest of the bones had perished. Graves 1, 10, 11 had the skeletons practically intact.

We must point out some other very important elements of the burial rite.

1. Copper plates on the face and under the dead person’s feet. Here the shape and even the size of the plates is not important – what is important is that the plates were there.

2. The copper plates cut out of the sides of the cauldron are uneven, at times deformed. Where we could trace it we saw that they were sewn on to the face covering and inserted into the footwear under the heels. The legs are always tied together in several places, sometimes with boards placed on top of the feet (grave 30), sometimes a stone there (grave 27) or a stone weapon (grave 25).

3. We have already said that all the dead were clothed and wrapped in fur garments (or covers). We know that they were sewn from the fur of various animals: reindeer, sable (marten), beaver, glutton and dog. It has been repeatedly noticed that the footwear was made out of reindeer fur, the headdress and face covering out of glutton fur, sometimes with parts made of sable or beaver fur; a fragment of dog fur was often placed on the chest.

4. Grave 23, of a child, had a roll of fur placed under its head, and a gritstone in the mouth.

5. A rare item of the burial rite – cones (graves 27 and 34) rolled from the sides of a copper cauldron and placed at the feet of the body. Restorer O.N. Chenchenkova who worked with the cone from grave 27 thinks that some thick organic substance was poured into it, which had left streaks inside the cone with traces of it along the upper and lower edges as well.

6. A peculiarity of the burial ritual of the Zeleny Yar cemetery is practically the complete absence of ceramic or metal vessels in it. There are only two exceptions: there is half a ceramic vessel in grave 2, grave 28 has among the remains of fur placed at the knees of the body fragments of a spherical bronze cup. Some ceramic fragments that were found in the earth that filled the hollows could have got there from the cultural layer of the site. We can compare the burial rite of this site with analogous remains in medieval burial places along the Middle Ob, or with descriptions of new cemeteries along the Lower Ob: in both places vessels are an obligatory component of the burial items.


At present we are sure only about the dating of grave 27 – it is 1282 according to dendrochronological analysis (dated by prof. S.G. Shiyatov, The Institute of Ecology of Plants and Animals Ural Division of the RAS). We can suppose that graves 23, 24 and 25, that have similar planning and ritual items, belong to the same period, that is, the late 13th c. If compared to the finds from archeological assemblages on the Middle Ob (Semenova, 2001), in Perm Vychegodskaya (Savelyeva et al, 1999) and on the Upper Kama, places where they were most probably made, the poor quality silver pendants with a kalatch-shaped shield that were found by us in graves 24 and 22 may be dated as belonging to the period of the 12th - 14th c. Most investigators think that copper cauldrons appeared in the north of Western Siberia somewhere at the beginning of the 2nd millennium AD. Thus, we see that with the help of all this data the later part of the burial place can be dated more or less exactly.

The items with fixed dates in the burials of the earlier necropolis are few indeed. As far as their style is concerned, the anthropomorphic figurines from graves 10, 11 and 16 may be included in the group of artifacts belonging to the bronze casting of the West-Siberian craftsmen of the 8th-10th c. The tingling pendant shields from grave 7 are quite analogous to those from the Lomovatovo culture assemblages (Goldina. 1985), in which case they can be dated the 7th-8th c. The Skramasax knife from grave No.1, found in 1997 (Brusnitsina, 1999; Zykov et al., 1994), can be dated the 8th-9th c.

The funeral repast assemblages. The eastern sector of the dig showed, as we think, the remains of a funeral repast ritual in the form of several offerings, one of which was of very early origin, if compared to the date of the cemetery itself. This offering (sacred place assemblage 1) may belong only to graves of the 7th-8th c. It was found right under the turf near the northern edge of the dig and consisted of a broken vessel, which, judging by some of its fragments, was placed upside down. The vessel is stamped with a minute comb-like design and triangular scallops with a comb-like decor as well. Next to it was a belt - a leather strip with silver plates imitating clasps, some of them being heart-shaped, some elongated and some round. 15 cm to the east of the belt we found a bronze cast in the shape of an elk man (sulde). All the items showed signs of scorching. Analogues to the belt set are found all over the steppes, the forest-steppes and the southern forest zone of Eurasia from the Danube to the Yenesei, and are dated the late 6th-7th c. The belt found in Zeleny Yar is unique due to: first, well-preserved are not only the plates on top of it, which is not unusual, but the leather belt itself is in good condition, which makes it possible for us to see what early medieval belt-sets looked like and how they were composed; second, the plates on it are made of silver, not a frequent occurrence, en masse these plates were made of bronze; third, it is the first time that a set like that has been found so far north. Several hypotheses exist as to the place or places where these plates were made, but they all point to provinces of Byzantium or Central Asia ( Balint, 1992; Gavritukhin, Oblomsky, 1996). Thus we see that this belt is one of the earliest “faraway” imports in the north of Western Siberia. Of interest is the fact that it is combined with a “sulde” cast, which is typically a Kama plot.

The second consisted of a vessel placed upside down on a podzol layer and a Volga - Bulgar-style silver temple ring with one bead placed 17 cm to the east of it. Such rings are well known in West-Siberian material, their usage ranges from the 11th to the 14th c. The round-bottomed vessel is ornamented with a thin comb-like printed design, the slanted lines being made by a twisted back trowel.

The sacred assemblage is represented by ceramics from a broken vessel/vessels and two Ф-shaped tingling hollow pendants with an imitation enamel decor made of white bronze or silver. It has been dated by its 12th-14th c. analogues from the Komi Republic (Savelyeva et al., 1999). All the three assemblages were found right under the turf layer (or the destroyed top layer), there is no connection with the remains of any of the constructions.

The southwestern part of the dig showed numerous remains of, possibly, large funeral repast ceremonies, represented by a cultural layer, organically saturated to a much greater degree than the same layer in other sectors of the dig. Of the constructions that might be related to the funeral repasts there are a few hollows filled with a layer of organic substance mixed with coals, a great number of disconnected artifacts being there as well. Two metal vessels were found in this way: a spherical Iranian cup of bronze and silver, and what might have been a Kama saucer; there was quite a number of Volga Bolgaria and Kama 12th-14th c. silver and bronze ornaments (fig. 8). It must be noted here that both vessels were placed upside down. In addition to that, we found a cup made of a human skull (for detailed description see below), several hare skulls and a bronze casting in the shape of a hare. Of note here is the fact that among the sacrificial offerings there are very few items made by West-Siberian smiths, actually, only two – the figure of a hare and a bronze handle with a zoomorphic finial, whereas the imported ones, mainly of Kama and Volga Bolgaria make, can be counted by the dozen, starting with the earliest offering – the belt and the “sulde”.

On the other hand, Kama and Volga-Bolgaria-made ornaments are almost absent from the grave finds – the one exception being the shields from the tingling Lomovatovo-type pendants in the early burials and the temple pendants with the kalatch-shaped shield in the later ones. There is a definite similarity between the spherical cup from grave 28 and the one in the funeral repast assemblage, and between the handle with the zoomorphic finial from grave 22 and the offerings in the funeral repast assemblage. The dates of the “funeral repast offerings” and the items of the later burials coincide as well. Unfortunately, up to this day the biggest part of this funeral repast assemblage is intact and uninvestigated, which means that there are still unknown constructions left for us in it.

Analogues of the burial ritual and its elements, unfortunately, are to be looked for in the far removed from the Poluy river region of the Middle (Surgut) Ob, where a great number of medieval burial places had been excavated, or in the “ethnographic” burial places of the 18th-early 20th c. and descriptions of burial ceremonies pertaining approximately to the same period made by ethnographers and religion scholars. In this case we sentence ourselves to conditions of territorial or temporal lacunas, which means that an unbroken retrospective chain cannot be constructed.

Quite a number of medieval burial places have already been dug and studied in the Middle Ob, the Tomsk-Narym Ob, the Territory of the Irtysh and on the eastern slope of the Urals (Ocherki kultorogeneza…; Semenova V.I., 2001; Zykov, Koksharov, 2001 etc.). Unfortunately, information about them is to be found only in descriptions. The degree of their preservation, and the details that the said publications contain, are not full enough for an all-round comparison with the Zeleniy Yar burial place. However, we can state that there are similarities between the Surgut and the Lower Kama burial places: in both cases the dead were buried in wooden constructions placed in shallow pits; the sides of the funeral pit were enforced by boards approximately the height of the body of the dead, sometimes boards were placed on top; there was birch bark at the bottom of the pit. In some cases tree trunks were hollowed out for the body to be placed inside. The dead person was put on his back and the hands were stretched out along the body. V.I. Semenova writes: “The dead were wrapped in birch bark and put into the hollowed tree trunks. The hollowed tree trunks were also wrapped in birch bark and tied with ropes at the ends, with boards placed on top” (Semenova, 2001, p.121). We came across a buried head both in the Saigatino III burial place and in the Zeleny Yar necropolis assemblage (grave 31) (Karacharov, in print).

But there are differences. First, the graves in the Middle Ob had ceramic vessels put into them, then when the latter went out of use, metal ones (silver and copper) or those made out of birch bark and wood were used. Secondly, the burial places in this area contain rather a large number of various metal funeral items – ornaments and parts of garments, weapons, and instruments. Thirdly, the burial pits are relatively wider than those prevailing in Zeleny Yar, and not once did we find a tied up body. Group (or paired) burials of the Saigatino III cemetery differ from those of Zeleny Yar where the manner of burial reflected the “unequal rights” of the buried: one of them was placed in a bent position at the feet of the other (Karacharov, in print).

The burial places on the eastern slopes of the Urals and the territory to the west of them are characterized by a ritual where the body was burned and of importance there also was how it was placed, whereas the cemeteries of the Tomsk-Narym Ob area and the southern forest zones of Western Siberia – the Irtysh and the Ishim areas – by the obligatory construction of mounds over the graves. Though sometimes we do see the same constructions inside the pits – the wooden frame around the inside of the pit, the birch bark wrappings or lining at the bottom, wooden boards covering the top, at times a hollowed tree trunk (Ocherki kulturogeneza, p. 303, etc.).

We can now definitely say – with the help of the most common features of the remains of the funeral structures and the position of the body – that certainly the Zeleniy Yar necropolis and the Surgut Ob cemeteries are much closer to each other than they are to the cemeteries of the eastern and southern (Tomsk-Narym Ob, Irtysh) areas or to the western (the territory to the east of the Urals) districts of that region.

Ethnographic cemeteries and information about the burial rites in ethnographic works

We do not have too many sources of this kind either. “Ethnographic cemeteries”, that is burial places of the 19th – early 20th c. on the Lower Ob, were studied at the very beginning of the 20th c.: D.T. Yanovich’s expedition in 1909 (results published: Murashko, Krenke, 1996, 2001) and S.I. Rudenko in 1913 (Rudenko, 1914). All the excavated burial places are along the banks of the Ob and the lower Poluy, i.e. in the area where the Ugrians and the Samodians (the Ostiaks and the Samoyeds, as they were then called) had constant contacts. This most certainly must have found its reflection in their burial rituals. As D.T. Yanovich says in his material, of the 154 graves of the Khalas-Pugor cemetery, only two are in pits, the rest are surface ones (Murashko, Krenke, 2001, p.29).

All the burials were in accordance with the inhumation ritual, stretched out on the back. Sometimes a sarcophagus resembling half a boat was placed inside a wooden box (holmera), it was covered over with another half-boat or sledge boards or sheets of birch bark from tents (ibid. p.31). Here we must note the fact that almost all the graves had household utensils inside, eating utensils were placed at the head, kitchen utensils - at the feet. As with the medieval necropolis, the common features and the differences concern only the most general characteristics of the burial structures and the position of items. We might put forth the statement that the most detailed information about the burial ritual and the ceremonies following it are to be found in the bulky work by K.F. Karialianen “The Religion of the Ugrians” (Karialainen, 1994). A mass of ethnographic information gathered at the turn of the previous century, a detailed study of all the written sources and scientific publications that there are, some of them not too easy to get at for the Russian investigator, a strict analysis of the collected data and the publication of it with indication of areas where it was found, all this makes the work invaluable for the scholar today.

We cannot here give you a full comparative description of all the ethnographic data and facts, but we shall dwell on some of the more outstanding coincidences, with indications in brackets of the Nos. of the graves where they were registered. Thus, “the last abode of the deceased in the land of the Ugrians is his grave, even though in cases it is not used. We have data confirming the fact that burials were sometimes carried out without it both in the earlier period and in more recent times” (Karialainen, 1994, p.79). A new boat or an old one may be used, often made out of a hollowed tree trunk. …but nowhere is it the only form of sarcophagus”. Bartenev says that the northern Ostiaks split their boat in two, one half becoming the sarcophagus, the other being its top” (Ibid., p.79). “In the northern regions where the pit is the depth of the grave itself it is not filled with earth, it is covered with sticks and birch bark…” (ibid. p.91) (almost all the graves have a board covering). “In Tremjugan (used by the author, now it is Tromjegan) the hands are stretched out along the sides, the body is tied with ropes: the male bodies are tied with ropes in fives places, the female ones in four” (ibid. p. 77) (graves 11, 14, 16, 22 and others). “The face (of the dead person – author) is covered with a plat, or it is fully wrapped in a large piece of material, or in elk skin with the fur turned in. Features of the face are indicated on the covering, with copper coins or copper buttons used to indicate where the eyes, nose and mouth were (ibid.,p.76-77) (graves 15, 23, 24). “In Tremjugan a stillborn child is put into a birch bark box,…with a small stone or piece of flint inserted in the mouth” (ibid., p.96) (grave 15 – in a box, grave 23 – with stone in mouth, grave 25 has flint placed at the feet). “In Salym…they take three red threads a bit longer than the grave and put them on top of the corpse, which is covered with a white plat, in such a way so that the ends hang over the edges of the grave” (ibid., p.77) (grave 27 – red strips of leather placed over the elk skin that covered the corpse).

Of interest are also some parallels between the descriptions of the cemeteries and the repast ceremonies and the studies carried out on the Zeleny Yar burial ground. K.F. Karialainen writes: “Naturally, the cemetery is a sacred place and no one is to touch the things placed there” (ibid., p.86). On the Zeleny Yar burial site we saw objects, which the contemporaries of the dead must have considered to be quite expensive: silver and copper ware, bronze and silver ornaments. All this was placed under the turf, i.e. it was not buried or hidden in any way. He also mentions that with the northern Ostiaks food for the funeral repast was brought by women (ibid., p.103) – the offerings on the graves consisted mostly of ornaments worn by women.

Thus, we may say that some Zeleniy Yar burial ritual features manifest a similarity both with the Surgut Ob medieval cemeteries, with behavior characteristic of the Surgut Ostiaks and the northern Ostiaks registered by ethnographers.

Anthropological studies

Age, sex and reason of death. Analysis of age and sex of the buried was carried out according to the chronological groups within the necropolis.

In the early burials we were able to determine the sex and/or age of 14 individuals, among them are 7 children, aged from 2 to 9, no adolescents, 6 adult males, sex not determined in one case. No definite indications in this group of any adult females.

Table 1
Anthropological remains of the earlier Zeleny Yar burial group according to sex and age

1 M 35-50 years
2 M 30-45 years
3 - 5-9 years
4 ? 20-30 years
6 - 2-5 years
7 - 5-9 years
8 - 4-8 years
9 - 4-8 years
10 M? 25-35 years
11 M 30-45 years
13 - 3-7 years
14 M adult
15 F ? 6-7 years
16 M 25-40 years

In the later burial group we were able to determine the age and sex of only 15 skeletons. Among them there were 4 children aged from birth to 4, one young man (or adolescent) of 15-25, and 9 adult males. Sex was not determined in three cases. Here, as in the earlier selected group, we were not certain of any female burials being found either. However, the size of the long bones that we found in graves 20 and 26 is rather small, a factor that could mean that they belong to females. But because we did not find any skulls or coxal bones in these graves, with the items placed in the graves giving us no definite sex indications, we cannot for certain claim that the small size of some parts of the skeleton means that they belong to females.

Table 2
Definition of anthropological remains from later Zeleny Yar burials according to age and sex

18 right skeleton M 30-40 years
18 left skeleton M 30-45 years
19 M 30-45 years
20 ?* 25-45 years
21 - 0-0,5 years
22 ? > 30 years
23 - 1-2 years
24 - 1-2 years
25 - 1-2 years
26 ?* >25 years
27 M >45 years
28 M 35-45 years
29 ? 30-50 years
30 skeleton 1 M 25-40 years
30 skeleton 2 M 25-35 years
30 skeleton 3 M >45 years
30 skeleton 4 - 7-10 years
31 ? 15-25 years
34 M? 30-40 years

Combined age data of two chronological groups of the necropolis is given in Table 3. Though the selected groups are small, nevertheless they do show both similarity and differences. This, however, still has to be verified.

Table 3
Age of the anthropological remains from the Zeleniy Yar burial site

Earlier burials
Later burials

A feature common for the whole burial place is the formation of a taphonomic complex consisting mainly of two groups: children aged from birth to 9 and adult males. This feature unites both chronological groups.

The differences, however, are the following: in the early group children (not older than 14) make up 50%, in the later – 30%. In the first selection it is children aged 4 to 9, in the second – they are younger (from birth to 2). The earlier group has no adolescents, the later one does (only 1).

To this we can add that the second group has group burials, whereas the first one doesn’t. Basing our opinions on the age and sex classifications, we can make a guess by saying that there was a difference in the attitude of the members of these two groups to those who were buried there.

The age and sex classification and the style of burial in both burial places does not let us draw the conclusion that all these people died due to the same reasons (e.g. an epidemic or sacrifice). As we have already said, most of the burials are destroyed and the remains have not been well preserved at all. In this case, we do not know why they died. But the burials with the mummified bodies do not bear any signs of similar diseases neither do they bear any signs of violent death.

However, the skeletal remains in some of the graves do make it possible for us to state the reason of their death. For example, the mummified body of a small child from grave 24 had a stomach full of cloudberry seeds. It is possible that the child died because it suffered from an illness connected with impassability of the alimentary canal.

The later group twice showed us collective burials. Such finds always raise questions: was it a burial vault, or were they waiting for another to die to bury them together, or did these people die at the same time?

While studying the remains of double burial 18, we found an unbroken arrowhead in the skull, in the right temple to be exact, of one of the adult males (its length is 3.5 cm, the length of its point is 2.5 cm, it is flat). The arrowhead was near the squama of temporal bone, level with the right eye-socket. Its long axis is the same length as the skull axis, the point being turned towards the back of the head.

The position of the arrowhead lets us suppose that the arrow hit the man in the eye, penetrating it to a depth of 9 cm. If the man was standing (quite probable), then the arrow flew parallel to the earth and was sent with great force (as is demonstrated by the way it penetrated the victim, being parallel to the earth). The wound must have caused the man’s death. To all appearances, the man died in battle. This lets us suppose that the other man in this grave was killed in the same battle, even though his wound was not in any way reflected in the fragmentary remains that we have studied – but then how do we explain the fact that they were buried together, in a grave constructed at the same time.

Another collective burial - No. 30 (fig. 6), contained the remains of three people (the grave was not well preserved with practically all the upper parts of the buried missing, up to the hip bones and even knees in situ. Many bones have been discovered in the refill where the looters dug. There also we found three bones belonging to a child. It seems quite probable that these bones came to be there by chance. Besides the bones, we also found the right side of a male thorax with the soft tissue mummified. The skin on the back had two open cuts: one in the lower corner of the shoulder blade (21 mm long), the other on the lateral fold in the middle of the thorax (23 mm long). The edges of the cuts were somewhat apart, their color and that of the underlying tissue was dark red, practically identical to the surrounding skin.

These penetrating wounds were inflicted on the back by something with a sharp edge. Because the wounds did not heal we can say that the man did not live long after they had been inflicted. Thus we can say that this man must have also died in battle. This allows us to say, if we mean grave 18, that the other two men did not survive the conflict either.

Apart from that, we find traces of wounds or other traces of armed conflicts in three more cases. They all belong to the 12th-14th c. Burial 31 contained only the head - the skull of an adult male with a triangular opening (10x12x14 mm) on the right side of the bone at the back of the head, next to the coronal suture. The edges are somewhat scraped, though it is clear that they are even and the opening widens inside. Thus we see that the internal opening is bigger than the external one. This opening, to all appearances, is the result of a penetrating wound inflicted by something triangular. The penetrating wound and the fact that the head had been severed from the body clearly show us that the burial took place due to some violence having occurred.

In the second case traces of a wound, which might or might not have been inflicted in battle were found on an adult skull that was lying in the turf layer. The left parietal bone of this skull has numerous cuts that were inflicted by something with a sharp edge. The wound is of a dark brown color, as are the bones surrounding it. The incisions are parallel to each other on the back of the bone and form one line. The edges of the incisions are even.

These incisions correspond to those left when scalping occurs. Similar wounds were discovered on the territory of Western Siberia in the Saigatino VI burial place dated the 10th-12th c. AD. (Karacharov, Razhev, 2002).

We have to be especially careful when classifying the third case as “a battle wound”, but there is no doubt that it is directly related to the armed conflicts.

The southwestern sector of the dig, as we have already said, came up with an unbroken skull cap with the bone tissue very well preserved, a factor that sets it aside from the other remains. The edges of that fragment of the skull are even, at about the same level. The color of the inner surface of the bones is light brown, of the external - dark brown. The color of the cuts corresponds to the color of the surrounding compact.

To give it a definite shape, the edges of the skull cap, to all appearances, were cut with a very sharp weapon. The condition of the bone tissue makes it possible for us to suppose that the bone had undergone some process that made it different from those that were naturally preserved.

The shape of the fragment, its edges and the hollow it forms bring us to the conclusion that this item might have been a cup made out of a skull. This artifact, found together with hare skulls, might be attributed to the funeral repast ceremony of the later period of the necropolis.

Racial characteristics. Craniological data is most important when determining the racial characteristics of an ancient group. Unfortunately, we have been able to measure only three skulls. At this, we managed to measure the face of one skull only, and even here the measurements were not full. That is why, in this case, we will try to use other sources to determine the racial type.

In the process of analyzing a child mummy from grave 15 a group of geneticists from the Institute of Molecular Biology of the RAS working under the guidance of A. B. Poltaraus were able to extract an ancient mitochondrial DNA (mt-DNA). Various sectors of this nucleotide sequence (mitotypes) were analyzed to help discover to what race the buried belonged.

The examined mtDNA sequence of the mummy differs from the so-called “Cambridge” sequence by one nucleotide substitute. “The Cambridge” mitotype is mostly present in the modern European population (about 20%) and is practically absent (less than 1%) in the Mongoloid population. Basing our claims on data received for the mitotype, we can with definite certainty say that the analyzed individual belonged to the European group (E.E. Kulikov, A. B. Poltaraus, 2002).

Thus, to our surprise, we learned that the analyzed child was a European. Unfortunately, the authors of the work did not check the statistic authenticity of this statement. But even after the calculation had been made, according to Bayes’ formula (Bailey, 1970), the probability of referring the individual with a “Cambridge” mitotype to Europeans is equal to 95.2% (20% : (20%+1%)), to the Mongoloids of Eastern Asia – 4.8% (1%:21%). So the claim receives additional confirmation.

However, first, these calculations refer only to the “Cambridge” sequence, and the child’s mitotype differs from it by one substitution; second, data on peoples of Western Siberia were not used for comparison, this category belonging to a special racial type different from the Europeans and the Mongoloids and having specific genetic peculiarities (Moiseyev, 2002); third, the mtDNA was received only once. Repeated attempts to extract it from this body and from the other remains failed.

Thus, we cannot categorically claim that the child from grave 15 belongs to a European type. Further discussion of this question seems possible only after positive ancient DNA results are received from the remains of other bodies in this necropolis.

One more source that can help to form an idea of the racial type of the people that left us this burial place is the well-preserved face of the mummified remains of a male adult from grave 27 (fig. 7). In this case senior researcher of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the RAS G.V. Rykushina carried out a morphological analysis.

This is the conclusion she made:

“The way the man was buried (with metal plate on face and chest) helped to preserve parts of the skin and hair. This gives us a possibility to study his racial type in more detail. The hair on his head had lost its original color, but it was soft and probably wavy. There is not much growth on the face, though there is growth where the moustache is, less on the chin. The protrusion of the bridge of the nose is not strong, it is concave, the nostrils having a transversal axis. The eye is slanted, with the fold above the eye heavy. The cheekbones are broad, protruding, facing out. The lips are thin, and the mouth is wide. The man was a brachycephal. The face is rather large and flat. These characteristics, undoubtedly, point to a Mongoloid racial type, specific for representatives of Northern Asia, especially for one of the more Mongoloid varieties of the Ural races, which the Nentsi and the Nganasan belong to today.”

We do not doubt that this description is professionally correct, but let us draw your attention to the fact that racial characteristics belong to a whole group, so it would not be proper to consider the racial diagnosis of one man as a racial characteristic of the whole population, all the more so, because there has always been a constant changeability of race on the territory of Western Siberia (Aksianova, 1992, Davydova, 1989, Zolotareva, 1974, Ocherki kulturogeneza…)

So, at present, unfortunately, we cannot be absolutely sure of the race the people, who had left us the cemeteries we have studied, had belonged to. Still we are able to draw some conclusions. It seems that we have more reason to trust the somatic description than the genetic analysis. So we can define the race of the studied people (at least from the later burial place) rather as being “Mongoloid”, which is characteristic of the modern population of the northern territories of Western Siberia, directly related to the Siberian types of the Ural race (Aksiakova, 1976, 1992).


We have answered the first, the second and partly the third questions that were put by us at the very beginning of the paper, that is: yes, several features of the burial rites at the Zeleny Yar cemetery, both of a common character and those that have specific forms, coincide with those that had been discovered as belonging to the “Ugrian” peoples, the Ostiaks and the Voguls in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Moreover, most of these similarities are to be found in territories where the Surgut and the northern Ostiaks live. Though some of the similarities – the wooden sarcophagus or the boat, the wrapping of the body in birch bark – have all been registered as being true for the Nenetz as well (Khomich, 1995. P.222), but in their case, the rituals, including the burial rites, are dominated by the reindeer theme: sledges and “khoreys” (special kind of Nenetz lance with two ends, one to prod the reindeer, the other to defend oneself from possible enemies) are left on the graves, reindeer are sacrificed, bells are hung on a crossbar over the grave and so on.

We cannot at present construct a direct retrospection with resulting “ethnic” conclusions, or at least we consider it untimely, because the ethnic processes in the area, as we have already said, were much more complicated, more discrete, if you like, than can be demonstrated by a linear retrospective chain. In spite of that, we shall risk voicing several hypothetic suggestions.

The burial place of the later period makes it possible for us to say that the racial type of the buried is more or less Mongoloid, which is common for the population of the northern territories of Western Siberia today because they belong to the Siberian type of the Ural race (Aksianova, 1976, 1992).

We have repeatedly stressed the variety of burials at the site, which seem to be more clearly visible in its later part due, as we think, to the following reason.

The first is that most of the buried are adults, not old people or small children. There are practically no graves of other age groups or of women.

The second is that this very small group has traces of numerous injuries received in some kind of battle.

The third is that the population that buried them was anxious to safeguard itself from the dead, a factor depicted by the numerous “means of defense”: the buried were all tied with bands or copper plates, sometimes the grave being symbolically tied as well. This factor might also be evidenced by the multiple traces of destruction that the upper part of the burials had undergone in later periods.

The fourth is that there is an absolute absence of any kind of reindeer breeding culture in the items found in the graves and in the assemblage itself, though in the 13th century reindeer breeding in the tundra and the forest tundra was almost as developed as it is today.

The above-mentioned makes it possible for us to suppose that the burial place contained a group of people that had only recently come to this region, possibly from the Middle Ob. It is quite probable that the migration took place in several stages. Thus, the chronological groups of the burials that we have analyzed correspond to two or more waves of settlers.

And finally, the fourth question that was raised by us at the beginning of the paper.

Is it ethically correct to dig cemeteries in regions populated by the indigenous people of the North? As we have now come to realize the situation has no simple solution. It is complicated by the fact that the peoples of Western Siberia today, in our case the northern Khanti and Nenetz see archeological sites, especially the burial places, as something that was left to them by their ancestors. Here we may only voice our own opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, at present there are no other ways of adequately learning the history of peoples, who had no written language, except through archeological excavations and the consequent study of the material. The suggestion not to excavate, but to study what has already been excavated is heard more and more often, but it does not solve the problem of the far north because there is too little archeological material, sometimes none at all, for all the periods, including the Middle Ages. Actually, we can make either choice: 1) let “the land of the fathers” be, in which case the history of the northern Khanti and the Nenetz will remain on the level of semi-legendary and fragmentary information that we now find in various publications; or 2) to continue our diggings, burial places included, but do it extremely tactfully with explanations to the local population why we are doing it and what the results are; in each case we should try and receive the consent of the thinking part of the population in each district. We prefer the second position.


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