Pit graves, artificial skull deformation, Sarmatians, Northern Bactria

The main difficulty in utilising archaeology in the study of the Proto-Bulgarian history arises from the fact that till the beginning of the 8-th century most of them lived nomadic life, with no permanent settlements or necropolises and they had left scarce archaeological material. Furthermore, very often they had borrowed or even appropriated elements of the material culture of their more advanced settled neighbours, which impedes even more the recognition of their material remains.

Nevertheless, even at that early stage there are some faetures characteristic for the Proto-Bulgarians. First, the burial practices distinguish them from the neighbouring peoples and, as the results show, they was established long before their settling down. Typical to some extend are also their dwellings and pottery. And finally, despite of the very active mixing at times with other peoples, Proto-Bulgarians had preserved a certain physical characteristics, and this also helps in their archaeological recognition.

Inhumation was the most common way of burial. However, a part of the Proto-Bulgarians or most probably, some of the accompanying them to the Balkans tribes, practised cremation. The Proto-Bulgarian necropolises, investigated up to now on the territory of the former USSR, contain almost exclusively inhumations. The (usually) stretched bodies of the dead rest in rectangular, not too deep pits, most often on their backs. In the Soviet literature this type of burial is called ‘yamnij’ (pit graves) [1]. Very characteristic is the scarcity of the accompanying objects - one, rarely two, earthenware pots and a spot of meat. Sacrificed animals - dogs and horses, are exceptions. The first researches of the pit burials had explained their scaricity with the low social status of the buried people. But the subsequent archaeological excavations revealed that such are all of the burials in some necropolises, and that these necropolises outline clear-cut territories. Thus the pit burials represent an ethnographic characteristic of that population and reflect the religious ideas about ‘the other world’, where the souls of the dead have everything they need. Sometimes there is a primitive sarcophagus built of rock or thick wooden slabs, or a cover of boards or stones. Rarely there is a niche dug along one of the faces of the burial pit, and the dead is laid inside it. It is Important that the pit burials followed strictly a given orientation. In some of them it is western (the dead’s head points to the west), and in others - northern. A classical example of the burial rituals of the Proto-Bulgarians in Eastern Europe is the Zlivka necropolis near the village of Ilichevki, the district of Doneck [2].

All of the buried pertain to a single anthropological type - brachiocranic europoids with small Mongoloid admixtures. Specific to the Danube Proto-Bulgarians is also the artificial deformation of the skulls, in some necropolises found in 80% of the material.

While still nomads, the Proto-Bulgarians lived in portable leather tents - ‘jurts’. When they started to settle down and to built permanent dwellings of clay and wood, these still followed the old forms and internal design, and are again called jurts. Later, under foreign influence, the oval jurts were abandoned at the expense of more comfortable quadrangular dwellings, usually semi-dugouts, while the characteristic open fire-place at the centre was preserved for much longer. Strong foreign influence is also seen in the produced ceramic articles. Specific to the Proto-Bulgarians were the earthen cauldrons with inner lugs, which are not found among the neighbouring peoples and could be used for determination of the etnical origin of archaeological finds where such cauldrons occur [3].

Using the above specific features of the material culture of the Proto-Bulgarians, which were established in archaeological remainsfrom the in VIII-IX c.,  but doubtless representing earlier beliefs and practices (especially the funeral rites), it is worth trying to trace out their (eventual) earlier occurences. We must focus our attention on the regions of the Eastern Fore-Caucasus and the Lower Volga region. First, it is there where the documentary evidence locates the Proto-Bulgarians for first time. Almost all researches consider the influence of the Sarmatians, who had inhabited the lands of the Northern Caspian and the Lower Volga region, as the main factor shaped the Proto-Bulgarian material culture [4]. Some historians (A.P. Smirnov, V.T. Sirotenko, Al. Burmov) even claim Proto-Bulgarians to be of Sarmatian origin [5]. Also, it must be taken into account that in their later history in Eastern Europe the close cohabitation of the Proto-Bulgarians with the Alans - another Iranian-speaking group, led to the formation in the VIII-IX c. of their common Saltovo-Majack culture.

There are three stages in the development of the Sarmatian culture according to the Soviet archaeological literature - a) Early Sarmatian (IV-II c. BC); b) Middle Sarmatian (I c. BC - I c. AD); c) Late Sarmatian (II-IV c. AD). The Proto-Bulgarians appeared in these places during the Late Sarmatian period. Exactly at that time profound changes in the material culture of the Lower Volga Sarmatians occurred. Most affected were the structure of the graves and burial rites. The type of the graves was unified, and then it represented predominantly narrow pit graves with a niche dug along one of the long faces of the burial pit, and seldom - by catacombs. The orientation of the graves also changed to northern. Wide spread became the practice of artificial deformation of the skulls, in more than the half of the skulls in some places. In several necropolises, as that at Kalinovka, sprinkling of chalk on the grave’s bottom - one of the most characteristic features of the Sarmatian burials of the earlier period, ceased [6]. Simultaneously, the Sarmatian contacts with Central Asia intensified. Archaeologically detected is the introduction of Central Asian objects - weapons, luxury goods and pottery, especially red-clay polished pottery, similar to that of the Kushans. It is important that the newly adopted burial practices are characteristic for Central Asia since the end of the first millennium BC. Graves with niches and examples of artificial skull deformation are attested in a number of necropolises in Central Asia - near Tien-Shan and Pamir-Altaj [7], in the Talas valley and in Khoresm. Thus the changes in the Sarmatian culture point to a penetration and settling of Central Asian peoples.

Despite these abrupt changes, K.F. Smirnov considers the group of Alano-Aoric tribes in Lower Volga to have preserved its ethnical purity, but the work of L.G. Nechaeva [8] on the catacombs and the pit graves with niches, advanced well-grounded arguments that there are principal differences between these two types of grave structures. Only the catacombs could be considered as belonging to Alans, the burials in niches must be connected with the penetration of new ethnical groups. Examining several similar to that from Lower Volga graves with northern orientation from the lower course of the river Kuban (stanitsa Novo-Labinskja), she comments that these burials confirm the early penetration of a tribe of the Hunnish tribal union, which after the collapse of the Huns settled in Kuban and led to the formation of the Kuban Proto-Bulgarians. V.P. Shilov joins the opinion that in a Late Sarmatian time (II-IV c. AD) groups of Central Asian tribes penetrated the Lower Volga region, bringing with them the peculiarities of their burial practices [9]. It is confirmed by the anthropological studies of V.V. Ginsburg from Lower Volga - in the Late Sarmatian there was a considerable change in the racial type, evidencing a penetration of people of anthropological type characteristic for the region between the rivers Amu Darya and Sur Darya - brachiocrany, wide-spread artificial skull deformation, in some cases - weakly expressed Mongoloid features [10].

All this is found at the classical Proto-Bulgarian necropolis at Zlivka. Very important are also the archaeological excavations of several necropolises in the Bishkek valley in Southern Tajikistan, in the basin of the river Kafir-nigan, a right tributary of Amu-Darya. Most of the graves show striking similarities with that from Lower Volga [11]. A niche had been dug along one of the longer faces of the graves and the entrance to the nichehad been carefully blocked by rock slabs. Sometimes the grave pit, which itself serves as an entrance to the niche, is completely filled with stones. In all cases there are stones above the grave pit, forming a peculiar lid, closing the grave. That double ‘shutting’ of the dead reveals the religious ideas trying to prevent dead man’s soul from escaping the grave and harming the live, i.e. it was a kind of ‘making harmless’ the soul of the dead, especially widely practised among the Turkic peoples. Seldom another type of graves is found - quadrangular pits with no niches, but with a lid of stones at the top, sometimes with a primitive sarcophagus. Sometimes along the long sides of the pit there are widenings, steps, which are also very characteristic for the Volga Bulgars [12].

Bishkek valley, Tajikistan

A sketch of a pit grave with a niche from the Bishkek valley, Tajikistan.
(After D.Dimitrov, The Proto-Bulgarians north and west of the Black Sea, Varna, 1987, p. 63)

Another important site is the Babashov necropolis, located on the right bank of Amu Darya, not far from the Bishkek valley. All graves are oriented to the north and usually they are individual. The objects accompanying the dead are few - one or two earthenware pots, and little meat (almost exclusively mutton). About 50% of the skulls are artificially deformed. The buried are mesobrachiocranic europeids with slight Mongoloid features [13]. Thus the necropolises in Central Asia (Northern Bactria) have much in common with those from Lower Volga. Another very important moment is that the excavations of the Old Bulgarian necropolis No 1 near Devnja, Bulgaria found a grave (No 91), strikingly similar to these from the Amu Darya basin.

Devnja necropolis, Bulgaria

A sketch of a pit grave No 91 with a niche from Devnja necropolis No1, Bulgaria. (The lid of stones had been removed before drawing the sketch.) 
(After D.Dimitrov, The Proto-Bulgarians north and west of the Black Sea, Varna, 1987, p. 64)

The grave is covered by stone lid, there is a niche with the dead on the western side of the northerly oriented grave. The skull is artificially deformed, the niche - tightly closed by big stones with sheep bones laying nearby [14].

The necropolises in Northern Bactria are well dated. Those in the Bishkek valley had existed from the end of II c. BC till the beginning of I c. AD, the Babashnov necropolis - from I c. BC till III c. AD [15].

Balkh, Amu Darya - Bulkhar-Balkh, Dagestan

A map of the Amu Darya - Caucasus region.
(The map was produced using XEROX Map Viewer)

They are attributed to unidentified nomads who at the end of the II c. BC attacked the Greko-Bactrian kingdom and put an end to its existence. According to Mandel’shtam they had come from the northern or north-eastern parts of Central Asia. These necropolises ceased to function during the II-III c. AD, exactly during the time when profound transformations of the material culture and burial rites of the late Sarmatians in Lower Volga took place. This makes us conclude that during the general unrest among the nomadic peoples, which followed the rout of the empire Hu-Nu (the eastern Huns), the population maintaining these necropolises moved westwards and settled in the lands north of the Caspian Sea. There they entered in very active relations with the local Sarmatian population. If we accept the authenticity of the identification of the people bu-gu/pu-ku, who according to Chinese documents inhabited the basin of Amu Darya during the first centuries AD [16], then we could attribute at least part of the Late Sarmatian material remains in Lower Volga to penetrated from south-east ancestors of the Proto-Bulgarians. Subjected to an intensive process of Sarmatization, in result they became bearers of an essentially Sarmatian culture with some elements of Central Asian, especially Kushan, culture [17].

The anthropological data can be interpreted as pointing to assimilation processes between the local population and the newcomers. It seems that in the first half of the IV c. AD a heavily Sarmatized Turkic people moved to the steppes of eastern Fore-Caucasus, where they became known as Unogundurs/Unogurs-bulgars or only Bulgars. It is quite possible that the Hajlandurs (hajlandurkh), who according to Egishe occupied the lands of Northern Dagestan, are part of the same Unogundurs. The information of the Armenian historian about the active contacts of the Hajlandurs with the Kushans is also indicative.

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[1]. S.A. Pletnjova, Ot kochevij k gorodam, Saltovo-Majackaja kul’tura. - Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 142, 1967, s. 91-100.

[2] S.A. Pletnjova, Op.cit., s.92.

[3] I.I. Ljapushkin, Pamjatniki saltovo-majackoj kul’tury v bassejne r.Dona, - Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 62, 1958, s. 146-147.

[4] Pamjatniki Nizhnego Povolzh’ja. Tom I. - Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 60, 1959; K.Smirnov. Sarmatskie plemena Severnogo Prikaspija. - Kratkie soobshtenija Instituta istorii material’noj kul’tury, XXXIV, 1950, s.97, 114.

[5] A.P. Smirnov, Volzhkie bulgary - Trudy GIM, vyp. XIX, M., 1951;
V.T. Sirotenko,. Osnovnye teorii proishozhdenija drevnih bulgar i pis’mennye istochniki IV-VII vv. - Uchjenye zapiski PGU im. Gor’kogo, XX, vyp.4 - istoricheskie nauki. Perm’, 1961, s 41;
Al.Burmov. K’m v’prosa za proizhoda na prab’lgarite, s.42-44. - V: Izbrani s’chinenija, I. S., 1968.

[6] V.P. Shilov, Kalinovskij kurgannyj mogil’nik. - Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 60, 1959, s.494. For more information on that feature of the Sarmatian burials, preserved later in the Alanian catacombs, please refer to K.F.Smirnov, Sarmatskie plemena ..., s. 102.

[7] K.F.Smirnov, Op.cit., s.113; V.P.Shilov, Op.cit., s.494.

[8] L.G. Nechaeva. Ob etnicheskoj prinadlezhnosti podbojnyh i katakombnyh pogrebenij sarmatskogo vremeni v Nizhnem Povilzh’e i na Severnom Kavkaze. - V: Issledovanija po arheologii SSSR. Sbornik v chest’ M.I. Artamonova. L., 1961, s.152-156.

[9] V.P. Shilov, Op. cit., s.494.

[10] V.V. Ginsburg. Etnogeneticheskie svjazi drevnego naselenija Stalinagradskogo Zavolzh’ja (Po antropologicheskim materialam Kalinovskogo mogil’nika.) - Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 60. 1959, s.572.

[11] A.M. Mandel’shtam. Kochevniki na puti v Indiju. -  Materialy i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 136, 1966; Pamjatniki kochevnikov kushanskogo vremeni v Severnoj baktrii. - Trudy Tadzhikskoj arheologicheskoj ekspedicii IA AN SSSR I Instituta arheologii AN Tadzh.SSR, t. VII, L., 1975;
B.A. Litvinskoj, A.V. Sedov. Kul’ty i ritualy kushanskoj Baktrii (Pogrebal’nij obrjad). M., 1984.

[12] F. Gening and A.H. Halikov. Rannie bolgary na Volge (Bol’shetarhanskij mogil’nik), M., 1964

[13] T.P. Kijatkina, Kraniologicheskie materialy iz kurgannyh mogil’nikov Severnoj Baktrii. - Trudy Tadzh. arheol. eksp., VII, s.211.

[14] D. Il. Dimitrov. Novootkrit rannobylgarski nekropol pri Devnja. - Izvestija na narodnija muzej- Varna, VII (XXII), 1971, s.61, obr.5.

[15] A.M. Mandel’shtam, Pamjatniki kushanskogo vremeni v Severnoj Baktrii, s.130.

[16] B. Simeonov, Iztochni izvori za istorijata i imeto na Asparuhovite b’lgari, s.54.

[17] K.F. Smirnov, Op. cit., s.110, 113.