Ukraine’s burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history


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Belching diesel exhaust, a bulldozer cut into a 4,000-year-old burial mound, peeling back the soil to reveal the mysteries hidden inside, including a skeleton.

Ukraine's burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history
The skeleton and gold jewellery of a Scythian noblewoman, dating to the 4th century BC,
on display at the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kyiv, Ukraine
[Credit: Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times]

For archaeologists, this excavation in the flatlands of eastern Ukraine holds the promise of discovery. For a developer, it clears the way for new country homes.

In recent years, government archaeologists, developers and farmers, who sometimes also level burial mounds in their fields to ease plowing, have seemingly been the only parties interested in the fate of Ukraine’s vast constellation of ancient graves. And few have paid much heed to preserving the dirt piles.

Hoping to correct this history of neglect, a Ukrainian nongovernmental group is agitating for the preservation of the burial mounds of Scythians and other ancient warrior cultures, partly on the grounds that they hold particular significance for a country at war today.

“This history is a question of our national security,” said Oleksandr Klykavka, who founded the preservation group, Guardians of the Mounds, two years ago. It has been gaining traction as a national movement since.

Ukraine's burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history
Archaeologists excavating an ancient burial mound last month in eastern Ukraine
[Credit: Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times]

By some estimates, 100,000 burial mounds dot the fields in Ukraine, many of them mostly flattened in the 20th century under a Soviet policy to level ground for farming. Many are at risk today.

Sprinkled across the landscape like small hills, they pique the curiosity of people living nearby. They lure thieves. And they are mostly ignored by a government distracted by Ukraine’s war and always turbulent politics.

Grave robbers and archaeologists alike have valued these heaps of soil, which are also scattered in southern Russia and parts of Kazakhstan. The prizes are the artifacts sometimes found inside, including copious amounts of golden jewelry, combs and dishes.

The actual piles of earth, rising 20 or so feet from the surrounding fields, were seen as less interesting than their contents. Once emptied, construction was allowed above them, or the sites were simply left flat.

Ukraine's burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history
Oleksandr Panfyonov, left, and Oleksandr Klykavka on a mound last month in Bezvodivka, Ukraine.
 The two are members of Guardians of the Mounds, a group that seeks to preserve the sites
[Credit: Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times]

Guardians of the Mounds want the little hills preserved as a cultural legacy relevant to war and questions of national defense. Long before the scare this spring of a Russian invasion, as the Russian Army massed tanks and soldiers on Ukraine’s border, a succession of nomadic warrior cultures, including the most famous, the Scythians, built the mounds on the steppe.

One archaeological theory holds that the mounds served more than purely religious purposes of sending a nobleman into the hereafter well provisioned with the luxurious items he enjoyed in life, and his sacrificed wives, servants and horses.

Life on the Ukrainian plain, with no natural barriers against invaders, was and remains precarious. A large mound, archaeologists say, signified that an area was home to many strong people, able to form such a pile. Like a military parade today, mounds were a deterrent through a show of strength. Ukraine should preserve them, Klykavka said.

In this view, the gold items and funerary goods displayed by the thousands at museums in Kyiv, the capital, are mere distractions from the message of the mounds, Klykavka said. And even finding the treasures in a mound does not justify dismantling it, he said.

Ukraine's burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history
A burial mound, or kurgan, rising from a corn field [Credit: Brendan Hoffman/
The New York Times]

“It creates greediness,” he said of the gold still sometimes found in mounds today, though most has been plundered over the centuries

To the classical Greeks who were their contemporaries, the Scythians were known for their fierce fighting, for their elaborate funerals and for smoking marijuana. “The Scythians enjoy it so much they howl with pleasure,” the Greek historian Herodotus wrote. They nonetheless rebuffed an invasion of their homeland by Persia, the most powerful empire of the time.

Criticism by the Guardian of the Mounds is misplaced, said Dmytro Teslenko, the chief archaeologist for the city of Dnipro, where he oversees an excavation done with a bulldozer but also shovels and brushes.

New techniques for studying the sites, like the DNA analysis of remains, is turning up interesting clues about Ukraine’s ancient history, he said, adding that some of the mounds would be destroyed anyway and should be studied first. The site he is working on, he said, will become a park in a new country home development.

Ukraine's burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history
Dmytro Teslenko, the chief archaeologist for the city of Dnipro, leading an excavation last month
 [Credit: Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times]

Oksana Lifantiy, an expert on Scythian culture at the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kyiv, said the Guardians of the Mounds should lobby the government on zoning laws, not criticize archaeologists.

If archaeologists are prohibited from excavating, she said, “we will lose not only cultural memorials but also historically valuable information” as local governments approve construction on the sites anyway.

The excavation at the Dnipro site tells a typical tale for Ukraine’s burial mounds, which have been repeatedly robbed and repurposed over the centuries. A common practice has been so-called invasive burials, when new bodies are placed in existing mounds, cutting down on the labor costs without cutting back on the grandeur.

The Dnipro mound dates to a prehistoric Indo-Iranian culture. But the main catacomb, about 15 feet below the surface, is more recent, having been built around the 4th century B.C. Near the top, the archaeologists found an even more recent intruder: a coffin emblazoned with a red star, which they ascertained contained a Communist Party boss of a local collective farm, who had himself interred in the mound in 1932. The Soviet government also buried World War II heroes in one Scythian mound in Ukraine, placing a Soviet monument on top.

Ukraine's burial mounds offer meaning in a heap of history
Hand tools like shovels and brushes are used for finer work on the site
[Credit: Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times]

Plunder of the Scythian burial mounds began in the Scythian era and remains lucrative today. The police mostly ignore the activity, according to Oleksandr Panfyonov, a member of the Guardians of the Mounds. Flea markets in Kyiv offer cheap antiquities from burial mounds, such as ceramics. More valuable funerary goods are sold on online auction sites.

“It’s painful to see,” Lifantiy, the expert on Scythian culture, said of the online sale of goods that appear authentic to her.

“All over Ukraine, registered archaeological monuments are already being demolished, built up and given to private ownership,” said Anton Korvin-Piotrovsky, a member of the board of the Union of Archaeologists of Ukraine. “It happens with the tacit consent or with the active participation of local bodies of cultural heritage protection,” which are eager to excavate for the possibility of finding funerary goods and less concerned about the actual dirt piles.

Members of Guardians of the Mounds, in contrast, have been rebuilding mounds. Klykavka has piled up soil on six leveled burial mound sites in a remote field north of Kyiv which holds 18 graves.

“I always feel good here,” he said, standing atop one of the mounds.

Authors: Maria Varenikova & Andrew E. Kramer | Source: The New York Times [May 12, 2021]

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