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Sarmatian Kurgan, 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia. A dig led by Russian Academy of Sciences Archeology Institute Prof. L. Yablonsky excavated this kurgan in 2006. It is the first kurgan known to have been completely destroyed and then rebuilt to its original appearance.

A kurgan is a type of tumulus constructed over a grave, often characterized by containing a single human body along with grave vessels, weapons and horses. Originally in use on the Pontic–Caspian steppe, kurgans spread into much of Central Asia and Eastern, Southeast, Western and Northern Europe during the 3rd millennium BC.[1]

The earliest kurgans date to the 4th millennium BC in the Caucasus,[2] and some researchers associate these with the Indo-Europeans.[3] Kurgans were built in the Eneolithic, Bronze, Iron, Antiquity and Middle Ages, with ancient traditions still active in Southern Siberia and Central Asia.


According to the Etymological dictionary of the Ukrainian language the word "kurhan" is borrowed directly from the "Polovtsian" language (Kipchak, part of the Turkic languages) and means: fortress, embankment, high grave.[4] The word has two possible etymologies, either from the Old Turkic root qori- "to close, to block, to guard, to protect", or qur- "to build, to erect, furnish or stur". According to Vasily Radlov it may be a cognate to qorγan, meaning "fortification, fortress or a castle".[5]

The Russian noun, already attested in Old East Slavic, comes from an unidentified Turkic language.[6] Kurgans are mounds of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Popularised by its use in Soviet archaeology, the word is now widely used for tumuli in the context of Eastern European and Central Asian archaeology.[citation needed]

Origins and spread[edit]

Some sceptre graves could have been covered with a tumulus, placing the first kurgans as early as the 5th millennium BC in eastern Europe. However, this hypothesis is not unanimous.[7] Kurgans were used in Ukrainian and Russian steppes, their use spreading with migration into southern, central, and northern Europe in the 3rd millennium BC.[8][9] Later, Kurgan barrows became characteristic of Bronze Age peoples, and have been found from Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria (Thracians, Getae, etc) and Romania (Getae, Dacians), the Caucasus, Russia, to Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the Altay Mountains.[citation needed]

Kurgan hypothesis[edit]

The Kurgan hypothesis is that Proto-Indo-Europeans were the bearers of the Kurgan culture of the Black Sea and the Caucasus and west of the Urals. Introduced by Marija Gimbutas in 1956, it combines kurgan archaeology with linguistics to locate the origins of the peoples who spoke the Proto-Indo-European language. She tentatively named the culture "Kurgan" after its distinctive burial mounds and traced its diffusion into Europe. The hypothesis has had a significant impact on Indo-European studies.

Scholars who follow Gimbutas identify a "Kurgan culture" as reflecting an early Proto-Indo-European ethnicity that existed in the steppes and in southeastern Europe from the 5th millennium to the 3rd millennium BC. In Kurgan cultures, most burials were in kurgans, either clan or individual. Most prominent leaders were buried in individual kurgans, now called "royal kurgans". More elaborate than clan kurgans and containing grave goods, royal kurgans have attracted the most attention and publicity.

Scytho-Siberian monuments[edit]

The monuments of these cultures coincide with the Scytho-Siberian world (Saka) monuments. Scytho-Siberian monuments have common features, and sometimes common genetic roots.[10] Also associated with these spectacular burial mounds are the Pazyryk, an ancient people who lived in the Altai Mountains lying in Siberian Russia on the Ukok Plateau, near the borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.[11] The archaeological site on the Ukok Plateau associated with the Pazyryk culture is included in the Golden Mountains of Altai UNESCO World Heritage Site.[12]

Scytho-Siberian classification includes monuments from the 8th to the 3rd century BC. This period is called the Early or Ancient Nomads epoch. "Hunnic" monuments date from the 3rd century BC to the 6th century AD, and Turkic ones from the 6th century AD to the 13th century AD, leading up to the Mongolian epoch.[citation needed]



Burial mounds are complex structures with internal chambers. Within the burial chamber at the heart of the kurgan, elite individuals were buried with grave goods and sacrificial offerings, sometimes including horses and chariots. The structures of the earlier Neolithic period from the 4th to the 3rd millenniums BC, and Bronze Age until the 1st millennium BC, display continuity of the archaic forming methods. They were inspired by common ritual-mythological ideas.

Common components[edit]

Inside view of the Thracian mound tomb at Sveshtari, Bulgaria

In all periods, the development of the kurgan structure tradition in the various ethnocultural zones is revealed by common components or typical features in the construction of the monuments. They include:

  • funeral chambers
  • tombs
  • surface and underground constructions of different configurations
  • a mound of earth or stone, with or without an entrance
  • funeral, ritual, and other traits
  • the presence of an altar in the chamber
  • stone fence
  • moat
  • bulwark
  • the presence of an entryway into the chamber, into the tomb, into the fence, or into the kurgan
  • the location of a sacrificial site on the embankments, inside the mound, inside the moat, inside the embankments, and in their links, entryways, and around the kurgan
  • the location of a fire pit in the chamber
  • a wooden roof over or under the kurgan, at the top of the kurgan, or around the kurgan
  • the location of stone statues, columns, poles and other objects; bypass passages inside the kurgan, inside tombs, or around the kurgan
  • funeral paths from the moat or bulwark.

Depending on the combination of these elements, each historical and cultural nomadic zone has certain architectural distinctions.

Pre-Scytho-Sibirian kurgans (Bronze Age)[edit]

In the Bronze Age, kurgans were built with stone reinforcements. Some of them are believed to be Scythian burials with built-up soil, and embankments reinforced with stone (Olhovsky, 1991).

Pre-Scytho-Sibirian kurgans were surface kurgans. Wooden or stone tombs were constructed on the surface or underground and then covered with a kurgan. The kurgans of Bronze culture across Europe and Asia were similar to housing; the methods of house construction were applied to the construction of the tombs.[13] Kurgan Ak-su - Aüly (12th–11th centuries BC) with a tomb covered by a pyramidal timber roof under a kurgan has space surrounded by double walls serving as a bypass corridor. This design has analogies with Begazy, Sanguyr, Begasar, and Dandybay kurgans.[13] These building traditions survived into the early Middle Ages, to the 8th–10th centuries AD.

The Bronze Pre-Scytho-Sibirian culture developed in close similarity with the cultures of Yenisei, Altai, Kazakhstan, southern, and southeast Amur regions.

Some kurgans had facing or tiling. One tomb in Ukraine has 29 large limestone slabs set on end in a circle underground. They were decorated with carved geometrical ornamentation of rhombuses, triangles, crosses, and on one slab, figures of people. Another example has an earthen kurgan under a wooden cone of thick logs topped by an ornamented cornice up to 2 m in height.

Scytho-Siberian kurgans (Early Iron Age)[edit]

Coloured lithograph by Carlo Bossoli (London, 1856)[14] of the so-called "Tomb of Mithridates", kurgan near Kerch

The Scytho-Siberian kurgans in the Early Iron Age have grandiose mounds throughout the Eurasian continent.[15]


Females were buried in about 20% of graves of the lower and middle Volga river region during the Yamna and Poltavka cultures.[16] Two thousand years later, females dressed as warriors were buried in the same region. David Anthony notes, "About 20% of ScythianSarmatian "warrior graves" on the lower Don and lower Volga contained females dressed for battle as if they were men, a phenomenon that probably inspired the Greek tales about the Amazons."[16] A near-equal ratio of male-to-female graves was found in the eastern Manych steppes and KubanAzov steppes during the Yamna culture.[16] In Ukraine, the ratio was intermediate between the other two regions.[16]

Archaeological remains[edit]

The most obvious archeological remains associated with the Scythians are the great burial mounds, some over 20 m high, which dot the Ukrainian and Russian steppe belts and extend in great chains for many kilometers along ridges and watersheds. From them much has been learnt about Scythian life and art.[17]

Excavated kurgans[edit]

Some excavated kurgans include:

  • The Ipatovo kurgan revealed a long sequence of burials from the Maykop culture c. 4000 BC down to the burial of an elite woman of the 3rd century BC, excavated 1998–99.
  • Kurgan 4 at Kutuluk near Samara, Russia, dated to c. 24th century BC, contains the skeleton of a man, estimated to have been 35 to 40 years old and about 152 cm tall.[18] Resting on the skeleton's bent left elbow was a copper object 65 cm long with a blade of a diamond-shaped cross-section and sharp edges, but no point, and a handle, originally probably wrapped in leather. No similar object is known from Bronze Age Eurasian steppe cultures.
  • The Maikop kurgan dates to the 3rd millennium BC.
  • The Novovelichkovskaya kurgan of c. 2000 BC on the Ponura River, Krasnodar region, southern Russia, contains the remains of 11 people, including an embracing couple, buried with bronze tools, stone carvings, jewelry, and ceramic vessels decorated with red ocher. The tomb is associated with the Novotitorovka culture nomads.
  • The Kostromskaya kurgan of the 7th century BC produced a famous Scythian gold stag (now Hermitage Museum), next to the iron shield it decorated.[19] Apart from the principal male body with his accoutrements, the burial included thirteen humans with no adornment above him, and around the edges of the burial twenty-two horses were buried in pairs.[20] It was excavated by N. I. Veselovski in 1897.[21]
  • The Issyk kurgan, in southern Kazakhstan, contains a skeleton, possibly female, c. 4th century BC, with an inscribed silver cup, gold ornaments, Scythian animal art objects and headdress reminiscent of Kazakh bridal hats; discovered in 1969.
  • Kurgan 11 of the Berel cemetery, in the Bukhtarma River valley of Kazakhstan, contains a tomb of c. 300 BC, with a dozen sacrificed horses preserved with their skin, hair, harnesses, and saddles intact, buried side by side on a bed of birch bark next to a funeral chamber containing the pillaged burial of two Scythian nobles; excavated in 1998.
  • The Tovsta Mohyla Kurgan belongs to the 4th century BC and was excavated in 1971 by the Ukrainian archaeologist Boris M. Mozolevsky. It contained the famous Golden Pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla that is now in exhibition in the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, which is located inside the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, in Kyiv. This pectoral is the most famous artwork connected with the Scythians. A beautiful sword scabbard was found in the same burial pre-chamber, which was never robbed, differently from the main chamber. A second lateral burial was found intact in the same Kurgan. It belonged to a woman and her 2-year old baby girl, both very likely related to the man buried at the center of the Kurgan. She was found covered with gold, including a golden diadem and other fine golden jewels. The Tovsta Mohyla Kurgan, 60 m in diameter before the excavation, is located in present-day southern Ukraine near the city of Pokrov in the Dnipro region.
  • The Ryzhanovka kurgan, a 10-metre-high (33 ft) kurgan 125 km south of Kyiv, Ukraine, containing the tomb of a Scythian chieftain, 3rd century BC, was excavated in 1996.
  • The Solokha kurgan, in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast of Ukraine, Scythian, dates to the early 4th century BC.
  • Mamai-gora, kurgan on the banks of Kakhovka Reservoir south west of Enerhodar (near the village of Velyka Znam'yanka). Known as one of the biggest tumulus in Europe. The height of the kurgan is 80 meters. Here were found remains of people from Bronze Age, Scythians, Sarmatians, Cimmerians and Nogai people.
  • The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, near the town of Kazanlak in central Bulgaria, is a Thracian kurgan of c. the 4th century BC.
  • The Aleksandrovo kurgan is a Thracian kurgan of c. the 4th century BC.
  • The Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, Bulgaria, is a Thracian kurgan of c. the 3rd century BC.
  • The Håga Kurgan, located on the outskirts of Uppsala, Sweden, is a large Nordic Bronze Age kurgan from c. 1000 BC.
  • The Pereshchepina Kurgan is a burial memorial of the Bulgarian ruler Kubrat from c. AD 660.
  • Noin-Ula kurgan, located by the Selenga River in the northern Mongolia hills north of Ulan Bator, is the tomb of Uchjulü-Chanuy (8 BC – AD 13), head of the Hun confederation.[22]
  • Scythian Kurgans tombs, located in Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • The Melitopol kurgan near Melitopol was excavated and its assemblage included Scythian gold jewellery, which is not in the collection of the Melitopol Museum of Local History.[23]

Kurgans in Poland[edit]

Memorial of the Battle of Varna, which took place on 10 November 1444 near Varna, Bulgaria. The facade of the mausoleum is built into the side of an ancient Thracian tomb.

Kurgan building has a long history in Poland. The Polish word for kurgan is kopiec or kurhan. Some excavated kurgans in Poland:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2019). "Kurgan". Dictionary.com. Random House.
  2. ^ Kipfer 2000, p. 291.
  3. ^ Mallory & Adams 1997, p. 339.
  4. ^ Етимологічний словник української мови: В 7 т. / АН УРСР. Ін-т мовознавства ім. О. О. Потебні; Редкол. О. С. Мельничук (головний ред.) та ін. — К.: Наук. думка, 1983. Т. 3: Кора — М / Укл.: Р. В. Болдирєв та ін. — 1989. — 552 с. стр. 152
  5. ^ Acta philologica. Vol. 5. University of Warsaw. 1972. p. 175.
  6. ^ Vasmer, Max (1953–1958). Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Heidelberg: Winter. p. 2424. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  7. ^ Govedarica 2016, p. 85.
  8. ^ "Kazakhstan will provide tourists with an access to Saka kurgans". www.advantour.com. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
  9. ^ Turbat, Tsagaan. "First Excavation of Pazyryk Kurgans in Mongolian Altai". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ Akishev K.A., Kushaev G.A., Ancient culture of Sakas and Usuns in the valley of river Ili, Alma-Ata, Kazakh SSR Academy of Sciences publication, 1963, pp. 121–36
  11. ^ "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden". PBS – NOVA. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
  12. ^ "Golden Mountains of Altai". UNESCO. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
  13. ^ a b Margulan A.N., "Architecture of the ancient period" in the Architecture of Kazakhstan, 1956, Alma-Ata, (pp 9-95)
  14. ^ British Museum
  15. ^ "Salbyksky mound". unknownsiberia. Retrieved 2014-05-09.
  16. ^ a b c d Anthony, David W. (2007). The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-05887-0.
  17. ^ John Boardman, I.E.S. Edwards, E. Sollberger, N.G.L. Hammond. It The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press. (1992), p. 550 [ISBN missing]
  18. ^ Rose, M., Cudgel Culture Archaeology, March/April, 2002[dead link]
  19. ^ Honour and Fleming, 124
  20. ^ Honour and Fleming, 123
  21. ^ Piotrovsky, 29
  22. ^ "Hsiung-Nu", Siberia, Hostkingdom, archived from the original on 2007-01-27, retrieved 2018-12-12.
  23. ^ "Мелитопольский городской краеведческий музей - MGK Мелитополь". www.mgk.zp.ua. Archived from the original on 2022-12-04. Retrieved 2022-03-10.
  24. ^ Polish Wikipedia
  25. ^ Mogily, PL: GDA, archived from the original on 2006-11-08, retrieved 2007-04-11
  26. ^ Skalbmierz, PL: Krakow.
  27. ^ Cieciorkami, PL: Ugzambrow, archived from the original (JPEG) on 2007-02-22, retrieved 2007-04-11.
  28. ^ Mounds in Jawczycach, Odyssei, archived from the original on 2016-03-03, retrieved 2007-04-11.
  29. ^ Historycy.
  30. ^ Odkrywca. nr1(25), 01.2001, Historycy, archived from the original on May 14, 2013.
  31. ^ Polish Wikipedia


  • Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, 1st edn. 1982 (many later editions), Macmillan, London, page refs to 1984 Macmillan 1st edn. paperback. ISBN 0333371852
  • Govedarica, Blagoje (2016), Conflict or Coexistence: Steppe and Agricultural Societies in the Early Copper Age of the Northwest Black Sea Area
  • Kipfer, Barbara Ann (2000), Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer
  • Mallory, J.P.; Adams, Douglas Q. (1997), Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Taylor & Francis
  • Piotrovsky, Boris, et al. "Excavations and Discoveries in Scythian Lands", in From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U.S.S.R., 3000 B.C.–100 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 32, no. 5 (1974), available online as a series of PDFs (bottom of the page).

Further reading[edit]

  • "In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth" by J. P. Mallory, ISBN 0-500-27616-1
  • "The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe: Selected Articles Form 1952 to 1993" von Marija Gimbutas u.a., ISBN 0-941694-56-9
  • "Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture" ed. James Mallory, D. Q. Adams, ISBN 1-884964-98-2
  • D. Ya. Telegin et al., Srednestogovskaya i Novodanilovskaya Kul'tury Eneolita Azovo-Chernomorskogo Regiona. Kiev: Shlyakh, 2001. Reviewed by J.P. Mallory, JIES vol. 32, 3/4, p. 363–366.
  • "Reconstruction Of The Genofond Peculiarities Of The Ancient Pazyryk Population (1st-2nd Millennium BC) From Gorny Altai According To The mtDNA Structure" Voevoda M.I., Sitnikova V.V., Romashchenko A.G., Chikisheva T.A., Polosmak N.V., Molodin V. I http://www.bionet.nsc.ru/bgrs/thesis/99/.
  • O. Ismagulov 'Population of Kazakhstan from Bronze Epoch to Present (Paleoanthropological research)', Science, Alma-Ata, 1970

External links[edit]