Burial Excavations at Kyzyl-Tas

In the summer of 2007, a team of Washington University archaeologists discovered the burial ground of Kyzl-Tas in the foothill regions of eastern Kazakhstan. The cemetery is located a remote territory but which is key to understanding the formation of social and economic networks between Bronze Age mountain nomads living in the Dzhungar and Tian Shan Mts and those living in lowland territories to the west. Recent SAIE lab research has proposed that discrete populations in the mountains and desert regions formulated independent political and economic spheres that overlapped through complex and dynamic networks of trade and social interaction. 

Archaeological excavations were carried out in 2008 at the burial site of Kyzltas located 18 kilometers to the Northwest of the city of Taldykurgan (Kazakhstan).  Dr. Michael Frachetti (PI) and Dr. Alexei Mar’yashev (of the Insitute of Archaeology in Kazakshtan) directed the excavations.  Physical Anthrpopologist Dr. Melissa Murphy (U. of Wyoming) analyzed the human skeletal remains. Graduate student archaeologists from Washington University studied specific aspects of the site such as Botany (Robert Spengler), Ceramics (Paula Doumani), stable isotope studies (Taylor Hermes) and site mapping, GIS, and databases (Lynne Murone-Dunn and Nicholas Kendall).  The archaeological fieldwork entailed 4 weeks of active excavation at the site, and then post-excavation analysis in Kazakhstan.

The excavation consisted of a wide open-area trench, approximately 20x20 meters, which enabled a full recovery of the burial and their surrounding contexts.  After exposing the burials, we revealed that one of the burials (KzBr5) was significantly larger and had a circular form. The stone circle was piled in flat granite rocks constructing a low “kurgan” with a diameter of 5.2m. On the surface, the burials were identified as low, oval, stone-clusters, with central rectangular cists formed from flagstones. The burial structures are not deep; in most cases the stone caps make them visible on the surface.  After exposing the burials superficially, each tomb was carefully excavated and its contents documented.  The territory of the excavations was mapped using a Total station, and overhead photographs were taken of the entire site area using an overhead photoboom and later stitched together.  All site plans were digitized from these overhead photos.

Excavation Findings:
Three out of the five burials at Kyzltas consisted of oval stone clusters, oriented NW-SE.  Typically, the upper levels of stones were exposed approx. 3cm from the surface and beneath it was a flat layer of aligned capstones oriented along the length of the burial and covering a central cist, 1.8x1m. The cists were dug from clayish soil, and were defined by long flat flagstones stood on edge and embedded about 15cm into the ground.  The depth of the earthen cists averaged 65-70cm. In burials 1,2, & 4 we recovered nearly fully articulated and in-situ human skeletons.  In burials 1 and 4, the individuals were laid in a “riding” position, with their heads facing SW. The face of the skeleton 1 was closed with a large fragment of ceramic.  The ceramic was a hand-thrown, made of rosey-grey coarse material without decoration.  The shard was the only non-osteological artifact recovered from the cist.

Osteological analysis suggests that the individuals in these three burials were all adolescents, approximately 1.5-3 years of age.  The preservation of the skeletons was excellent, without any clear signs of sickness.  Thus, the cause of death is indeterminate. Kz-Br5 consisted of low, circular stone ‘kurgan’ mound, diameter 5.2 m.  The kurgan was made of clustered stones with a central cist constructed of flagstones stood vertically on edge embedded roughly 15cm into the ground. The earthen cist was 1.85 x 1.10 m. The depth of the earthen cist was 1- 1.20 m.  Throughout excavation we recovered a few skeletal fragments, which were likely displaced due the robbery of the burial (below).  At the depth of 95cm from the surface a large number of long-bones and ribs were recovered.  All of the bones lay haphazardly collected into the north corner of the cist and were not in anatomical position upon discovery.

At a depth from 100-120 cm from the surface we recovered nearly all the major bones of the skeleton and given that they were disarticulated and collected at one end of the burial, it is likely that the burial was robbed in antiquity.  Archaeological artifacts were few, but include three ceramic fragments. All the fragments were without ornamentation and were handmade of coarse material.  The small size of the fragments does not allow for accurate reconstruction of the vessels.  Osteological analysis suggests that the individual was approximately 40-50 years of age, likely a woman.  The bone preservation was excellent, without clear indictors of the cause of death.

Four samples for AMS radiocarbon dating were collected from human bone material and illustrate that the burials date to the early “Turkic” period- roughly 600-700 CE.

Discovery Highlights:

Kz-Br3 consisted of a smaller oval stone cluster, 1.30x 1.50 m oriented NW-SE.  The upper level of stones was visible on the surface. Throughout excavation we recovered a number of very small skeletal fragments. There were few fragments of bone recovered from Br3 and no in-situ skeleton was recovered.  Osteological analysis suggests that the remains were likely those of premature newborn baby. The burial of premature or fetal individuals in single, full ritual burial structures provides a fascinating window into the views of individualism among early nomadic societies of this region.

Grave robbers!
As is often the case with burials of this period, the adult burial was clearly disturbed and likely robbed in antiquity.  The burial cist was only contained a fragment of cultural remains, and the bones were pushed haphazardly into a corner of the burial pit.  Although the children’s burials were undisturbed, the adult burial at Kyzl-tas provides little data to reconstruct the burial ritual for adults in this time period