Chinge Tey (Russie) :The Valley of the Kings reveals a tomb of nomadic queen

Stockholm University

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A new study from archaeologists at Stockholm University sheds light over the mythical Valley of the Kings in southern Siberia.

Image 16Archaeology at the edge of the world- Tuva and the Valley of the Kings; beginning of the excavations of Chinge Tey in 2019. Photo: Łukasz Oleszczak

The "Valley of the Kings" in the Tuva Republic in southern Siberia holds as a place of exclusivity in the prehistory of the Great Steppe and central Asia. Scythian pastoral groups dominated the Asiatic steppe zone for millennia, having profound effects on the European continent on several occasions.

The Tuva region is linked to the Aldy-Bel culture, considered fundamental and pivotal throughout the paleodemographic expansion and development historically of the Scythians in Asia. This remotely located valley served as the final resting place for hundreds of nomadic warlords and kings, buried with exceptional wealth and prestige.

The queen of Chinge Tey

Image 17Inside the burial chamber in Chinge Tey. Golden earrings of the old female in situ, a close up. Photo: Łukasz Oleszczak

Many of the elite tombs in the Tuva region had been looted in antiquity. Spectacular hidden accumulations of golden artefacts and other precious items adorning the graves, attracted robbers, resulting in problems for archaeologists.

The site has subsequently been excavated in recent decades by a team lead by professor Konstantin Chugunov. At the Chinge Tey, in a large barrow dating to 7th/6th century BC, specialists from the Jagiellonian University, Poland, discovered the burial of a 50 year-old woman and a 2-3 year-old child. The female was outfitted with a golden pectoral, a large moon-shaped necklace, considered a signifier of power in the world of Asian pastoral communities. The bodies were placed in a wooden chamber, and surrounded by numerous valuable artefacts indicating exceptional wealth and high social status.  

New light upon females and power

Łukasz Oleszczak from Institute of Archaeology, Jagiellonian University, spoke of the “particularly interesting” golden pectoral from Chinge Tey. Expressing that “Similar necklaces had been found almost exclusively in men's graves in southern Siberia. They were considered a symbol of belonging to the social elite, and a warrior caste. The Chinge Tey findings shed a new light upon the participation of females in the distribution of power in pastoral societies. This certainly confirms the importance of this older woman in the social structure of power”, emphasizes the scientist.

Łukasz's journeys and archaeological excavations around the deep corners of central Asia, are supported by the Jagiellonian University and Polish National Centre of Science.

Novel approaches to bioarchaeology

The Chinge Tey barrows are only a part of the Siberian Valley of the Kings. This world-class archaeological site is not only geographically remote, but also rugged and difficult.

“It gave us an opportunity to test novel approaches to bioarchaeology. In this part of the project we focused mainly on chronology, and dietary habits of the nomadic aristocracy buried in the Chinge Tey barrows, in the broader context of isotopic cycling within arid and semi-arid environments of central Asia. It was a back-breaking work, but it was successful also thanks to support of the Lars Hierta Memorial Foundation and the Längmanska kulturfonden, for which I am very grateful. It is very exciting to be able to explore the life, and death of the Scythian kings and queens that lived some 2 800 years ago”, says Dalia Pokutta, bioarchaeologist from the Archaeological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University.  

Ongoing research project on Scythians

The recovered material is part of an ongoing research project. The Scythians, being skilled artists, warriors, traders, and pastoralists are an interesting group to study.

“The nomads of the Great Steppe in general, and the Scythians in particular were a very diversed people. There is currently an ongoing debate in palaeogenetics about how much of the Scythian dominance in the Eurasian Steppe was due to the mobility of the pastoral groups, and how much it reflected cultural diffusion and elite dominance. The whole Valley of the Kings phenomenon in Tuva can be seen not only as an archaeological fact or a place, but also as social landscape. We can investigate the structure of pastoral dynasties in a single place and snapshot in time. The next step will involve the exploration of the genetics of these early royal lineages”, says Anders Götherström, professor of molecular archaeology at the Archaeological Research Laboratory in Stockholm.

The study is published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports