Burial Excavation at Begash

Begash is a prehistoric pastoralist settlement located in the Dzhungar Mountains (Koksu River Valley) of Semirech’ye in present day Kazakhstan. In contrast to the idea that pastoralist camps are short-lived and ephemeral, Begash’s chronology and archaeology illustrate more than 4000 years of locally reiterated construction technology and pastoral strategy, as well as continuous historical investment in the local landscape on the part of its prehistoric and historical inhabitants. The site’s stratified phases of architectural construction and smaller encampments document a pattern of long-term re-use of a particular settlement location by mobile pastoralists throughout prehistoric and later periods, indexing localized continuity in the seasonal habitation and social landscape of local pastoralists.

The site’s importance in the landscape of the Koksu River Valley is also indexed by two large associated cemeteries, Begash-2 and Begash-3, located close to the settlement. Test excavations in 2002 and 2005 revealed stone cist burials characteristic of the late Bronze Age, as well as kurgan burials that illustrate continuity of use in the burial ground in the Iron Age (based on regional analogues).

Begash was excavated in 2002, 2005, and 2006 (Frachetti 2004; 2006).   The site is located at ca. 950 m above sea level in the piedmont zone of the Dzhungar Mountains, which opens to a riparian terrace of the Zhalgyzagash River—an upland tributary of the Koksu River.  The settlement is located on a flat ravine terrace (approx. 2500 m2) enclosed by steep canyon walls on the North, West, and South, and situated along a spring-fed stream that today has water year-round. The excavated area was centered around visible structures from the most recent period of habitation and on the basis of shovel tests, and is considered to be the center of habitation at the center of the terrace.

Excavation Findings:
The settlement of Begash is surprisingly rich in material finds and interesting archaeological contexts.  Abundant ceramics, limited bronze metals, and worked stone represent the primary “cultural” artifacts. However, surprising paleoethnobotanical and archaeozoological evidence has placed Begash at the center of key debates about the nature of Early Bronze Age pastoralist economies and the interactive arenas available to steppe and mountain nomads as early as the mid-3rd millennium BC. Recent discoveries of the earliest known domesticated grains in Central Eurasia have caused a reconsideration of the pathways of trade and interconnectivity between Bronze Age communities in Xinjiang and southern Central Asia. 

Cemetery of Begash-2:
The cemetery of Begash 2 is located 1.3 km to the northwest of the modern village of Begash, on the piedmont terrace of the Chibandy Mountains and 500m to the Northeast of the prehistoric settlement “Begash” discussed above.   The cemetery is situated on a wide flat terrace on the left side of a small stream, which finds its source in the Chibandy upland springs.  Altogether the cemetery consists of 33 stone formations and 6 kurgans, though the exact number of burials is difficult to assess from the surface.  The burials themselves appear as rectangular, oval, or circular stone configurations, with between 1-5 stone box-like cists with flat capstones inside the stone formation.  Some of these are only partially visible on the surface due to alluvial depositions on the terrace as well as grass coverage.

The excavations of burial-1 were carried out from the 12th of July 2002, at the center of the Bronze Age cemetery.  The excavation was oriented on a N-S axis, measuring 3.70 m from east to west, and 3.50 m from north to south.  Cleaning the surface revealed an oval stone configuration with a diameter of 3.50 (east to west), made of large stones.  Inside the stone formation were two stone cists. 

Burial-2 is located 22 m to the north of Burial-1, and excavation began on the 16th of July 2002. Before excavation the edges of a rectangular cist were visible on the surface, with an orientation along a north-south axis. The excavation was oriented in cardinal directions, and a 3 x 2.66 m area was opened surrounding the single, central cist.  After cleaning of the topsoil, a rectangular stone configuration was revealed, with irregular corners and made with medium to large stones. The southern side of the stone fence was displaced, perhaps for an extension of the burial.  The rectangular configuration measured 2.10 m from north to south, and 2.30 meters east to west.  A single stone lined cist was located at the center of the stone configuration, measuring 1m from north to south, and .70m east to west.  The depth of the cist was .45 m. The cist was covered by a thick flat capstone, though the stone rested slightly askew over the vertical cist walls. The cist was covered on the western wall by a second flat stone plate.  Inside the cist, neither skeletal nor cultural materials were found, suggesting that the burial was either never consecrated, or was thoroughly robbed of all materials.  In most cases, robbed cists still contain fragments of bone, which suggests that the former interpretation is more likely.

Cemetery of Begash-3:
The grave complex of Begash-3 is located across а shallow ravine, adjacent to Begash-2, though offset to the southeast approximately 200-300m.  Ten stone cist burials were recorded at Begash-3, though the burials were far less visible on the surface than those of Begash-2.  In addition to cist burials, at least 7 earthen kurgans occupy the same terrace as the cist burials, in some cases actually superimposing them.

Excavations of Burial-1 began on the 19th of July, 2002.   After opening a trench 3.25 x 4.10m, oriented in cardinal directions, a stone configuration of semi-rectangular form made of large stones was discovered.  Within the stone fence, two stone cists oriented east to west lengthwise were revealed.  The cists are constructed from flat stone plates, set on edge and aligned from end to end.  The two cists are situated parallel to one another, with a shared wall separating the two chambers.


Discovery Highlights:

Girl with the bronze earring
Begash Site 2, Burial 1: Cist 1:
At a depth of 20 cm from the surface a number of broken bones were detected, including disarticulated and fragmented human rib bones and skull fragments. As these loose bones were removed and the cist was further cleaned, the skull of a young female (sex preliminarily based on size of teeth and dimensions of the skull & long bones) was uncovered in situ on the southern side of the cist.

The skull of the interred individual was in a fragmented state and poorly preserved, though enough of the skull and teeth were in situ to enable the determination that the individual laid on her right side.  In the vicinity of her left ear, a bronze earring was found .

The earring was made of bronze in a funnel or bell shape, with a hook on the upper part.  The only known comparison of this type of earring is known from late Bronze Age burials located nearly 1000km to the north, in the forest-steppe zone of Siberia (sometimes known as the Elovskaya culture).  However, preliminary dating of this burial suggests that it dates to around 1700 BC, 500 years earlier than the analogous materials in Siberia (at least according to the traditional chronology). 

Golden hair spirals
Begash Site 3, Burial Site1: Cist 2:
In this site, the wall of Cist 2 was out of place on the eastern side and a displaced capstone was found in the western part of the burial.   A fragment of a decorated ceramic vessel was found on the western end of the cist, decorated with small pits, typical of the late Bronze Age.

In the northwestern corner a gold “temporal spiral” was found under a mass of broken stones.   The spiral was made of bronze and then covered with gold foil.  Temporal spirals are thought to have been attached near the temple to a hanging braid or lock of hair, worn down over the side of a woman’s face. As it was found, the spiral was damaged and bent out of shape – presumably a result of being displaced while the grave was robbed.   These golden spirals are typical of late Bronze Age societies of Central Kazakhstan and also in the region around Begash.

Relevant Publications:

2007  Mar’yashev, Alexei and Michael FRACHETTI.  Issledovanie mogil’nikov i poseleniya u sela Bigash v vostochnom Semirech’ye.  Istoria i Arkeologiya Semirech’ya 3: 100-105.

2006  FRACHETTI, Michael D.  Ancient Nomads of the Andronovo Culture: The Globalization of the Eurasian Steppe during Prehistory.  In Of Gold and Grass: Nomads of Kazakhstan, eds. C. Chang and K. Guroff, 21-8.  Washington: Foundation for International Arts & Education.