Thursday, April 19, 2012


For my final post, I would like to discuss a rather large early Upper Paleolithic site found within Russia, that of the Sungir site.  Discovered on the outskirts of the city of Vladimir in the 1950's, it constitutes a rather large size, 1500 sq. m, which was excavated in several seasons between 1957 and 1964 (Hitchcock).

Compared to other sites found during the existence of the Soviet Union, the Sungir site appears to have drawn much interest from Soviet Archaeological groups.  According to this excerpt collected by Don Hitchcock, a well-traveled seeker of Archaeological knowledge:

"Under the guidance of renowned archaeologist Otto Nikolaevich Bader (Institute of Archaeology of the USSR), for 20 years field and desk work was carried out. In the laboratories of the Geological Institute of RAS, Gronningena universities, Oxford and Arizona the findings have been investigated, including radiocarbon analysis, the results of which indicate that the settlement Sungir existed sometime between 20 thousand to 29 thousand years ago."

Interesting it seems that the knowledge was shared with archaeologists outside of the Soviet Union, but to me that seems to further indicate the bonds all archaeologists share even against persecution, that of the desire to examine the past.  While the site is not the oldest site in Russia, it certainly seems to have had something that attracted the attention of so many archaeologists.

 Map of the area around the Sungir site.  It appears that the site is the area contained with the stark blue lines.

A sketch map of the Sungir site.

What was so remarkable about the Sungir site?  Well, the burial remains found were truly extraordinarily.  Within all of the evidence of past occupation, five sets of remains were found to be of the best preservation within the permafrost.  Don Hitchcock has compiled together some descriptions of the five individuals, the condition of their remains and how/where they were buried:

"According to Russian physical anthropologists (USSR Academy of Sciences 1984), these consisted of a 60 year-old man (S1), a 13 year-old boy (S2), a 7 to 9 year-old girl (S3), an unsexed (male?) headless adult (S4) and an adult female skull (S5).  The two adolescents and the adult male were buried in two shallow graves three metres apart, dug into the permafrost beneath the living surface of the site. All three of the corpses were laid on their backs with their hands folded across their pelvises. The fourth individual was represented by an isolated poorly preserved female skull placed beside a stone slab in an area stained with red ochre, and was found overlying the relatively well known man's burial. The fifth skeleton, that of a headless adult, was so poorly preserved as to be practically unrecoverable. It was found immediately on top of the two adolescents, who were buried together in a head-to-head fashion in the middle of an apparently abandoned circular dwelling structure "(Hitchcock).

Looking at this description, one would find this a somewhat odd assortment of individuals, as well as an odd assortment of levels of preservation.  The odd arrangement of the remains also begs into mind many questions, such as why and when they all were buried.  Were they all of the same social group as well?  The research conducted so far seems to indicate so.

Now, the most intriguing aspect about these burial remains was not actually the remains themselves, but the burial goods and personal effects found with them.  In particular, the two adolescents and the 60-year old male, were decorated with thousands upon thousands of beads.  These beads, the majority of which were formed from mammoth ivory, were shaped, painted, and detailed in countless extraordinary ways.

Photo of the 60-year old male.  Note the vast array of beads that would have been attached to the clothing.  On his head would have sat some sort of hat.

Photo of the two adolescents.  Amidst the almost countless number of beads present, there is also artifacts that indicate a sort of wooden spear may have present alongside the massive ivory spear that can be seen above the two skeletons.

Surely these three were of the same social group, perhaps even the same family.  The other remains found are sadly too badly preserved/incomplete to warrant a full answer to that question or others.

Another commonly found element in most of the burial sites was that of the presence of red ochre.  Most notably, a severed neanderthal femur containing red ochre powdered was found by the Sungir site head archaeologist, Otto Nikolaevich Bader.

In the end, the Sungir site represents one of the earliest sites that can be associated with almost religious-like burial rituals, with individuals adorned in thousands of intricate beads.  One can assume the individuals who occupied the region that Sungir lies withing were skilled artisans with either an extensive trade network or had a plentiful supply of animals such as arctic fox and woolly mammoth with which to craft these beads with.  Regarding the poorly buried remains of all but three of the known inhabitants, one could surmise that either time constraints or a change in cultural perspective could have been the perpetrator.  What is known though is that around 30,000 years ago, these inhabitants all died of uncertain circumstances.  Perhaps someday their story will be finally finished, or perhaps not though.


Hitchcock, Don. "Sungir/ Sunghir." 7 April 2012.  Web. 19 April 2012

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this was a great read. As an A-Level Archaeology student, I have already studied Sungir (1 and 2) but it was an interesting read :) Thank you!