Eng Cn Translate this page:
Please select your language to translate the article

You can just close the window to don't translate
Your profile

Back to contents

SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Natural scientific methods in exploration of reference monuments belonging to Saka culture in the Kazakh Altai

Samashev Zainolla

Doctor of History

Chief Scientific Associate, State Historical Cultural Reserve Museum "Berel"

Z00M1E4, Kazakhstan, g. Nur-Sultan, ul. Kul'tobe, 11, kv. 182

Other publications by this author

Chotbaev Aidos Erbulatovich

Chief Scientific Associate, State Historical Cultural Reserve Museum "Berel"

B64T8P2, Kazakhstan, Almatinskaya oblast', selo Birlik, ul. M. Shulenuly, 50

Other publications by this author

Kurganov Nikolai Sergeevich

Senior Educator, the department of Reconstruction, Saint Petersburg State University; Junior Scientific Associate, Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences

199034, Russia, g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya, 7/9

Other publications by this author

Pankin Dmitrii Vasil'evich

PhD in Physics and Mathematics

Expert on the Raman Spectroscopy, Saint Petersburg State University

199034, Russia, g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya, 7/9

Other publications by this author

Povolotskaya Anastasiya Valer'evna

PhD in Physics and Mathematics

Deputy Directory of the Resource Center for "Optical and Laser Materials Research", Saint Petersburg State University

199034, Russia, Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya oblast', g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya, 7/9

Other publications by this author

Kurochkin Aleksei Viktorovich

PhD in Physics and Mathematics

Director of the Resource Center for "Optical and Laser Materials Research", Saint Petersburg State University

199034, Russia, Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya oblast', g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya, 7/9

Other publications by this author

Kitov Egor Petrovich

PhD in History

Senior Scientific Associate, Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences

119334, Russia, g. Moscow, Leninskii prospekt, 32a

Other publications by this author

Kitova Aleksandra Olegovna

Junior Scientific Associate, Center for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

117198, Russia, g. Moscow, ul. Leninskii Prospekt, 29, stroen. 8

Other publications by this author








Abstract: This article examines the ancient gold jewelry with inlay, which were discovered in the process of archeological excavations of grave sites located on the Eleke Sazy Plateau, Tarbagatay Ridge in the East of Kazakhstan in the burial of a notable young man, conducted in summer of 2018. It is attributed to Saka culture, and dates back to approximately VIII – VII centuries BC. Among  the objects, were found garments embroidered with gold, quiver with arrows, and bronze dagger in gold scabbard. This work examines the golden scabbard for the dagger. The scabbard consists of several parts attached to the wooden base and decorated with gold seeds and inlay. The inlay did not survive in many of the discovered items, but the traces of it remain. In the process of degradation, some jewels have changed their color, and currently look grey. Micro-samples for the research were selected from the crumbling fragments of inlay, acquired during restoration of the artifact. Modern natural scientific methods give broader opportunities for studying the material component of the objects of cultural heritage. Determination of composition of the object with most damage substantiates the reconstruction. In some cases, despite severe damage, the identification procedure can be conducted on the basis of the remaining particles, the size of which does not exceed tens of microns. Within the framework this work, the author examined the possibility for selection of such micro-samples with subsequent identification. The use of the Raman spectroscopic technique allows further examination of the selected micro-samples. Complementary methods of research include the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy for studying the organic substances the inlay was attached to.


Saka tribes, inlay, jewelry, lazurite, Raman spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, Scythians, Methods of Natural Science, Kazakh Altai, anthropology

Introduction.We have to start from the inlay of the golden scabbard belonging to the early Saka tribes of the Kazakh Altai, which were revealed in Yeleke Sazy. Yeleke Sazy is not a big mound with a diameter of 33, 25mm and the height of 1.6m high. It was surrounded by a two-row ring and a moat (1). The remains of 17-18 year-old were found in the burial chamber of the mound, who probably died about 2800 years ago.

Among the things belonging to the dead the most distinguishing is the golden lining of the scabbard, inlaid with colored minerals. The whole surface of the item is decorated with luxurious figures of various animals and symbolic signs made in the grain technique (2, 2A).

The study of minerals by optical spectroscopy methods. Modern research methods of natural science offer significant opportunities to study the material science component of cultural heritage sites. Detecting the composition of the studied objects with serious losses applying these methods allows to talk about a reasonable reconstruction and a certain image. In some cases, despite the real loss, the identification procedure can still be carried out on the basis of the remaining particles with characteristic sizes not exceeding tens of microns. We have studied the possibility of sampling such micro-samples with subsequent identification. Over the next period of the research it allowed to study the selected microprobe using raman spectroscopy. Besides, IR Fourier microspectroscopy was used as a complementary method to study the organic substances on which inlay was attached. Clothes embroidered with gold, a quiver with arrows, a bronze dagger in gold anklets were discovered among the objects. Inlay is lost in many samples, some its traces are preserved. In the course of degradation several stones have changed their color and currently look gray. The chosen microsamples for the study are from the crumbling fragments of inlay obtained during the restoration works of the subject. While preserving, particles of blue, blue-green, and gray minerals were chosen from the attachment points of the inserts. Mastic samples were also taken from under the inserts. The identification was done using Senterra confocal Raman spectrometer (Bruker). It was a two-step process; firstly, a luminescent card was recorded upon excitation with wavelengths of 488 and 532 nm with preliminary local autofocus and subsequent normalization of the obtained spectra. Then its heterogeneities were determined. At the next stage, raman spectra using a 785 nm laser were recorded from these inhomogeneities. A deep blue mineral was identified as azurite. The green mineral malachite next to azurite was discovered, which may also be a product of degradation. Natural lazurite has been identified on gray inserts. This mineral has changed its color in the course of degradation. Turquoise was identified on blue-green inserts. Mastic samples by which inlay was attached were additionally investigated by IR spectroscopy.

Table1. Minerals scabbard inlay

Inlay description


Color of the mineral

Chemical formula

Inlay of grey color



(Na, Ca)8[(S,Cl,SO4,OH)2|(Al6Si6O24)]

Inlay is not available, samples are selected from the remains




Inlay of blue and green color


Blue and green


The study provides more accurate understanding about the type of materials used for manufacturing jewelry by ancient jewelers. The opportunity is given to present better the image of the ancient scabbard decorated with inlay. The location of the lost inserts by the smallest surviving particles was restored. It is important to note that such natural stones as lazurite and azurite are of the same deep blue color. Both of these minerals were used to inlay one item. In the Medieval European art history, there are cases when expensive lazurite was replaced by less expensive and more affordable azurite. However, no such examples are known about the Saka epoch. Some speculations can be made only on the arrangement of lazurite and azurite of similar color next to each other, which was done due to the scabbard design or due to the intentional substitution of stones or the repair of inserts that had fallen in antiquity. Knowledge about ancient minerals and places of their extraction helps to judge about the trade relations of the ancient Saka tribes. In the future the deposits from which these minerals could originate can be studied.

Other areas of technical and technological study of archaeological materials originating from the mound s of the Saka elite in the Kazakh Altai should be considered.

Chronological issues. With an aim to determine the most accurate dates of mounds construction numerous samples of organic substances and bone residues were subjected to radiocarbon analysis in scientific laboratories in various countries [1]. Due to this uncalibrated and calibrated dates were received, the diversity of which required their correlation with similar data for other monuments of the Pazyryk culture of Altai and adjacent regions. The data on the radiocarbon dates of Berel mounds, although they allow different dates (the most probable date of the construction of mound 11 is about 322 BC, but it also indicates the interval 355-280 BC, i.e. 95% probability). These data as a whole do not change our ideas about the chronological framework of the existence of the Berel version of the Pazyryk culture at the end of the 4th - beginning of the 3rd century. BC

Dendrochronology. The collection of wood samples from the Berel mound (32 specimens) was subjected to dendrochronological research at the same time. All samples (except one) belonged to larch (Larix sibirica). They were divided into two groups on the age of the trees: 8 samples belong to young 29–67 year-old trees and 23 samples are from 102 to 252 years old. Majority of the samples (18 of 32) had the last annual ring, which allowed to record not only the year of felling, but also the season. All the trees except one were chopped during the autumn – winter period, which corresponds to the technology of wood production. It turned out that only one log belonged to a tree cut down in the spring. All the trees were cut in different times. According to experts 21 years have passed between the cutting of the earliest and the latest specimen. The biggest part of information was received from tree which was used for making the deck. The tree comes from another group of trees, where the growing conditions were more favorable and, as a result the annual growth of the rings was faster and the growth minima were less pronounced in adverse years, which gave a much larger cross section compared to other trees of the burial construction. According to the dendrochronological method the date of construction of the Berel mound 11 was determined 297 BC [2]. Based on this, it is 66 years younger than mound 1 (363 BC). This mound dates to 297 (or 322 according to S-14) BC and totally corresponds to the proposed archaeological date of the monument.

Geocryological studies. The works were carried out in the Berel mound 11, which is located at an absolute height of 1120 m above sea level i.e in the zone of positive average annual temperatures and there are no necessary conditions for the formation of permafrost. As a result the presence of frozen lens under this mound is qualified as an artificial formation. It was revealed that permafrost mass (overflow) is formed under the ground structure of metamorphic shale and lower Paleozoic siltstone, which has high thermal conductivity, as a result of convective-conductive heat transfer, which contributes to the accumulation of natural cold. Cold waves deeply penetrating into a great depth can be traced in natural conditions. Thus, coarse scree and landslide deposits without a fine-grained aggregate freeze much deeper in comparison with the adjacent sod areas. The minimum temperature in it reached –0.4 under the central part of the stone embankment up to 5.5–6 m from the day surface. The lens diameter is about 10 m. The permafrost lens thickness reached 3–6 m and completely covered the burial chamber measuring 4.9 × 4 m and a depth of 5 m. Only deep seasonal freezing is possible on the periphery of the stone outline outside the lens (up to 2.5 –3 m) and formation of permanent snow patch.

The model that reflects the possibility of the formation and preservation of various types of frozen rocks depending on the area and thickness of the stone mounds of a given mound of the mound 11, the permafrost lens at the beginning of June 1999, was located at depths of 3–3.5 It was developed by permafrost scientists A.P. Gorbunov and E.V. Seversky directly in the process of field research [3]. In Altai the periods of temperature fall were recorded at about 2000, 1200 and 600 years ago, and a significant onset of glaciers between 3000 and 1200 years ago was noted. In the course of temperature fall the average summer air temperature was 2–2.5 which is lower than today; therefore, during the construction of the mounds 11 had more favorable conditions for the formation and preservation of permafrost. Both natural and artificial fluctuations in soil temperature have occurred in this mound for more than two thousand years. The latter are connected with repeated burial and subsequent robbery. This had a negative impact on the stability of the negative temperature field under the mound and affected the preservation of organic residues. However, permafrost was found there up to excavations in 1998. Thus, under the landscape and climatic conditions of Berel, a permafrost frozen lens may form, but there will be no continuous ice cover inside the deck, as was recorded in mounds located at an altitude of over 2500 m above sea level.

Paleological and soil studies. The works showed that the bioclimatic and soil-genetic conditions for the landscapes development of the Kazakh Altai over the course of almost four centuries BC were close to modern. Environmental conditions of soil formation form the mountain-valley chernozem soil type, which was common for the Early Iron Age, when these funerary structures were built. Paleological soils shared a number of characteristic features under permafrost conditions including high phosphorus content. No agrohorizones were revealed in the profile of paleological soils [4].

Anthropology. Anthropological reconstruction of the skull of a leader from the mound 11 was done in the laboratory of anthropological reconstruction of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography. According to Ye.V. Veselovskaya the restored type belongs to the Caucasian forms of the Eurasian steppe, which have small but distinct features of a Mongoloid impurity [5].Two more anthropological reconstructions of the male and female skulls from the mound 16 done by A.I. Nechvoloda mainly demonstrate mixed types. This generally suggests heterogeneity of the physical type of Berel inhabitants, which really reflects the extensive ethnic contacts and interactions of the population in the region in the second half - late I millennium BC in the conditions of the existence of the "Pazyryk community".

Features and parameters of trepanation holes on some skulls originating from elite mounds associated with embalming the body of the dead are noted as well. There are some traces of “near-death decapitation”, a through hole and other features of the bones of people in the lower jaws of some individuals [6].

While studying the bone remains of a man from the solitary mound on the Solnetsnye belki in the Kazakh Altai by Kitov Ye. P. degenerative-dystrophic changes of the vertebrae with marginal bone growths and a slight decrease in the height of their bodies, the initial stage of aseptic necrosis of the heads of the humerus bones and others were noted.

Molecular genetic and biomedical studies showed that the man buried in the mound 11 belonged to a mixed anthropological type, this is also confirmed by anthropological reconstruction of the skull. Detecting DNA from the bones of several buried, analysis of embalming traces and other manipulations with the bodies of the deceased provided with the data necessary for a comparative study [7].

While studying human soft tissues, biologists identified species of ancient parasites that have local distribution zones [8].

Morphological, paleopathological and morphometric studies of the horse remains. To date, more than 90 horses remains have been identified in Berel mounds. In the permafrost lens of the mound 11 the organs and tissues of horses partially preserved, which made it possible to carry out unique studies of hematological and cytological blood indices and ultrastructural changes in shaped elements and to reveal the phenomenon of their transformation into bone tissue. Different osteopathological changes in the spine, musculoskeletal system, craniocerebral injuries and other diseases of horses, resulting from intense draft and horse loads were identified [9].

The comparative study was carried out based on morphometric data by comparing with data received from other monuments, which identified common characteristic of the size of the horses of the Altai of the Pazyryk time [10].

Palino complexes were identified from the digestive tract of some horses, the analysis of which indirectly indicates the length of time when they were buried in the mound 11 [11].

Therefore, interdisciplinary studies of data from archaeological excavations, especially of the Saka era, provide interesting results that can be used for conducting further researches on the history of Kazakhstan.

Fig. 1. Yeleke Sazy, mound 4, where a dagger in a gold scabbard with inlays was found

Fig. 2. Gold lining of the dagger scabbard

Fig. 2A. Graphic drawing of the dagger scabbard lining

1. Nigmatova S. On the reconstruction of the climate and the characteristics of the economic and cultural type of the ancient nomads of the Kazakh Altai based on palynology. Nomads of the Kazakh steppes: ethnological and sociocultural processes and contacts in Eurasia of the Scythian-Saka era. Materials of International Conference. Astana. 2008. P. 347349. (In Rus.).
2. Kashkinbaev K.A. Berel horses. The paleopathological aspect of the study. Materials and researches of the Kazakh Archaeology. Astana, 2013. P.378 (In Rus.)
3. Kosintsev P., Samashev Z. Berel horses. Morphological research// Materials and researches of the Kazakh Archaeology. Astana: Pub. FIA. 2014. N5. P.386. (In Rus.)
4. Baizhanov M.Kh., Berkynbai O., Samashev Z. (2000) Parasites found in human remains//Herald of the National Centre of Agrarian Researches. N.7.P.49-51 (In Kaz)
5. Dzisyuk N.V. (2003) Comparative molecular genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA polymorphism of modern Kazakh populations and ancient people from the Berel necropolis of the East Kazakhstan region: Abstract dis. biol. sciences. Almaty (in Rus.)
6. Kitov Ye.P. Post-mortem injuries on the skulls from Berel burial ground (New data on mummification)/Works of the Branch of A. Kh. Margulan Institute of Archaeology. 2013. N. 2. P. 237241. (In Rus.)
7. Veselovskaya Ye.V.(2004) View from the past//Works of the Central Museum. N1.P.271-280 (In Rus.)
8. Samashev Z., Faizov K.Sh., Bazarbaeva G.A. Archaeological monuments and paleological soil. OF Berel. 2001. P.107(In Rus.)
9. Gorbunov A.P., Samashev Z.S., Severskiy E.V.The treasures of frozen Burial mounds of the Kazakh Altai. Publishing House. Almaty: LLC Archaeology. 2005.P.115. (In Eng.).
10. Eurasia in the Scythian Times / A.Ju. Alekseev, N.A. Bokovenko, S.S. Vasil'ev, V.A. Dergachev, G.I. Zaitseva, N.N. Kovalyuh, G. Kuk, J. Pliht van der, G. Possnert, A.A. Semencov, E.M. Skott, K.V. Chugunov. St.Petersburg: Teza, 2005. P.290. (In Rus.)
11. Slyusarenko I.Ju. Dating Scythian Antiquities of Eurasia: Current Trends, Achievements, Problems, Prospects. Materials of International Symposium Novosibirsk.2011. P. 239251. (In Rus.)