The Silk Road in the traditional sense was opened by Zhang Qian’s mission to Central Asia. In 138 BC, in order to reverse the Han Empire’s long-term military and diplomatic disadvantage to the Xiongnu, the young Han Wudi sent Zhang Qian to lead a mission to Central Asia to find the Yuezhi, with a view to uniting the Yuezhi to attack the Xiongnu and defeat the Xiongnu. The academic community generally believes that the Yuezhi people are from the western Hexi Corridor and the eastern part of Xinjiang according to Chinese history books, but many Russian scholars believe that the people of the Bazerek culture are the Yuezhi people based on archaeological materials. I declined to comment on the merits of these two views. The key question is:
what is Bazelek culture? What’s so great about it? What role did it play in the prehistoric Silk Road?
The Bazelek culture is one of the most famous archaeological cultures of the Early Iron Age in Eurasia, and it has a wide distribution range throughout the Altai Mountains, including present-day China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. It dates from the mid-6th century BC to the 3rd century BC. During this period, some archaeological cultures in northern China and Xinjiang were closely related to the Bazerek culture. In the 2nd century BC, the Huns defeated the Bazerek crowd and controlled the main road of east-west traffic, so the Bazerek culture withdrew from the stage of history.
A star-studded explorer
The official excavation of the Bazelek culture began with В.В. Radrov. Born in Germany, Radrov developed a keen interest in the Altai and Uralic languages during his school days. He later went to Russia and was hired at a high salary at a language school in Barnaul. In his spare time, he often travels to the Altai Mountains to investigate historical sites. In 1865, he led a team to excavate the famous Catanda and Berel Mounds. Due to the protection of the alpine permafrost, a large number of organic cultural relics buried in the tomb are well preserved. One of them is a very delicate fur coat with numerous gold leaf inlays.
It is С.И. Rudenko and М.П. Gryaznov who made the Bazelek culture famous all over the world. Beginning in the 1920s, Ludenko and Gryaznov successively led teams to excavate more than 10 large tombs of the Bazelek culture, including the five “king’s tombs” in the Bazelek cemetery, and found a large number of Metal, wood, bone, silk and harness. Later, the Bazelek culture was named after it. It is worth mentioning that a well-preserved male mummy was found in the Bazelek 2 mound, and the mummy has a tattoo of a flipped animal. A wooden carriage was unearthed in the Tomb of Bazelek No. 5. The carriage was disassembled and placed together with the sacrificial horse. С.И. Rudenko published several monographs based on materials from the Pazyryk cemetery, among which Культура населения горного Алтая в Скифское время was translated into English Frozen Tombs of Siberia: the Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen, which aroused international academic attention. extensive attention.
Bazelek culture once again shocked the world in the 1990s. Led by Novosibirsk archaeologist Н.В. Balasmark, archaeologists from France, Germany, Japan and South Korea excavated a series of tombs in the Ukok plateau and found a large number of cultural relics. One of the tombs was owned by a well-preserved mummy, known as the “Princess Ukok”. But in fact “Princess Ucock” is only a member of the noble class. According to paleopathological studies, she suffered from severe bone and joint disease during her lifetime and was buried with extremely high specifications after her death. In ethnography, shamans are often “born” from chronic illness while enjoying a high place in tribal life. Therefore, Н.В. Balaskemark believes that the true identity of “Princess Ukok” is a priest.
In addition to these world-famous large tombs, archaeologists from Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Gorno-Altaysk, St. Petersburg and Tomsk have excavated a large number of small and medium-sized tombs. At present, nearly 700 tombs of the Bazerek culture have been excavated in Russia.
Regarding the excavations of small and medium-sized tombs, we cannot fail to mention the Novosibirsk archaeologist В.Д. Kubarev. His life is quite legendary. As a youth, he gave up his leadership of the Ukok Plateau Weather Station to start archaeological work from scratch. He has no professional archaeological training, but he has excavated more than 800 tombs in Altai by himself; he has no formal higher education, but he has made great achievements in many fields of Altai archaeology; he has no formal students, but research The “great master” of the younger generation of scholars in the Altai Mountains cannot be avoided; he passed away at the age of 65, but left a lot of valuable knowledge to future generations. Kubarev unearthed some 250 tombs of the Bazerek culture in Altai. Based on this batch of materials, he has published 4 monographs and more than 10 academic papers.
Before the 21st century, the excavation of the tombs of the Bazerek culture was dominated by Russian scholars. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, in addition to Russia, archaeologists from Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China have excavated a large number of tombs in the Altai Mountains within their own borders, including some noble tombs, such as Berel M11 in eastern Kazakhstan and Altay in Xinjiang. Karasu M13, M15, the cemetery No. 1 in Altesir, Mongolia. So far, the burials of the Bazerec culture have been excavated throughout the Altai Mountains.
“Griffin Guarding Gold”
In Eurasia during the Early Iron Age, a culture of advocating gold arose. The famous “Golden Archaeology” from east to west has discovered a large number of gold and silver ornaments in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, 104 pieces of gold artifacts from the No. 2 tomb in Yimen Village, Baoji, Shaanxi Province, and a large number of gold artifacts from the Rong people’s tomb in Majiayuan, eastern Gansu , more than 5,700 pieces of gold from the Tomb No. 2 in Arzan, Tuva, Russia, more than 800 pieces of gold from the East Taled cemetery in Habahe, Xinjiang, the “Peter the Great Collection” in Siberia, Russia, the Chilekta cemetery in eastern Kazakhstan, The “Golden Man” tomb in the Issyk-Kul Valley, the Amu Darya treasure in Tajikistan, the gold treasure in the Tira hills in Afghanistan, the more than 600 gold objects in the Filipovka cemetery in Orenburg, Russia, the Keller in the North Caucasus, Russia Scythian gold artifacts from the tomb of Mu, etc. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus repeated the long poem of Aristeas many times, and mentioned the Griffin who guarded the golden “half lion and half eagle” – the Scythians were encouraged by the god Apollo to travel far Isedon, past Isedon is the One-Eyed, then the Griffin who guards the gold, and finally the Hiberpolis at the seashore.
Altai Mountain was called Jinshan in ancient times, and the mining area on the west side of Altai Mountain is rich in gold, silver and copper mines. The Andronovo culture tombs in the middle of the Bronze Age in the Altai Mountains were buried with various types of gold objects, including gold foil, gold earrings, gold rings, gold bracelets, etc., mostly female ornaments. The tombs of the Bazelek period were mostly buried with gold foil, which was either covered on wooden griffins, or used as decorative elements on clothing and hair accessories. According to the unearthed relics, archaeologists speculate that the sites for gold mining in the early Iron Age Altai Mountains were concentrated in the Karba Mountains, the East Kazakhstan Mountains, and the Kuznets Alatau.
Griffin is one of the most common decorative motifs in the Bazerek culture. Different from other regions of the Eurasian steppe, the Bazerek people created a “deer-shaped griffin” with antlers, eagle heads, and horses. The deer was considered by the ancient inhabitants of the Altai Mountains as a kind of animal full of spirituality and able to communicate with the human world and the gods. Combining deer with the theme of Griffin outside the territory can further increase the mysterious power of this theme. Griffin may be a totem of the Bazerec people, representing the spiritual beliefs of the Bazerec people.
death as life
The spiritual beliefs of the Bazelek people are reflected in all aspects of burial customs. They are just as dead as they are alive. Their burials usually extend north-south, in chains along river valleys. The cemetery has a clear layout, and the central tomb is generally larger in scale, and such layout may represent a certain family or clan. The wooden coffins are placed in typical Bazerek cultural tombs. The shape of the wooden coffins is very similar to the traditional log cabins of today’s Altai people. It may be an imitation of the Bazerek people’s previous residence.
In the northern part of the tomb, many horses were sacrificed, and the number of sacrificed horses directly reflects the social status of the Bazerek people. The sacrifice of horses in large tombs can reach dozens. In the southern part of the tomb is a wooden coffin. Inside the wooden coffin, a person is usually buried, with his legs bent sideways, head and foot. The northeast or north burial pottery, knife and sheep bones of the wooden coffin for the deceased to use in another world. There is usually a row of uprights on the east side of Fengdui, whose function may be similar to that of ancient Chinese horse hitching stakes. There is usually a small sacrificial circle on the west side of the seal, and broken bones and pottery fragments are usually unearthed in the circle. On certain days of the year, the Bazerec crowd rides horses to the tombs to worship their ancestors.
Judging from the burial materials, the Bazerek population has a clear hierarchy. According to the size of the tombs and the amount of buried objects, the academic community divides the tombs of the Bazerek culture into five grades. Middle-level burials contain a variety of artifacts. Women are usually buried with many ornaments. Black hair accessories are usually found in front of the deceased’s head, bronze mirrors are buried around the waist, and gold foil is scattered in front of and around the deceased’s head. Men are mostly buried with weapons, such as daggers, pecks, shields and arrows. The king-level tombs are concentrated in the middle of the Altai Mountains, and there are also some large tombs in the river valleys of other regions, indicating that the central Altai Mountains may be the ruling center of the Bazerek cultural group, and other regions have their own regional centers.
bridge to communicate
Bazelek people have extensive foreign exchanges. From the perspective of funeral rites and burial relics, it can be divided into the migration of people and cultural integration in adjacent areas, and the exchange of goods between the upper classes of the distant society. The close population migration and cultural integration are related to the topography of the Altai Mountains. The Bazerek culture in the Russian region can be divided into different parts based on topographical units.
There are many high mountains in the middle, with an average altitude of more than 3,000 meters, and only narrow mountain valleys are available for passage. Therefore, the most pure Bazerec cultural tradition is preserved here, and the tombs of kings or nobles are also distributed in this area.
The south is plateau terrain, and to the south, it can be connected to present-day Mongolia through mountain valleys. Modern people pass freely by road. In ancient times, the Bazerek culture in this area had a lot of exchanges with the early Iron Age culture in western Mongolia and Tuva, and some cultural characteristics of Mongolia and Tuva also infiltrated.
The northwest is adjacent to the Saka people of Kazakhstan, where the Bazerek culture was influenced by the Saka people, such as the burial customs of the burial and the sarcophagus.
The north is one of the most complex regions of Bazelek culture. This area is a transition zone between mountains and plains, and the mountains are mostly north-south. It has easy access to the forest-steppe region of northern Altai and south to central Altai. This area is also affected by the warm and humid air flow in the northwest of Altai, with more precipitation and suitable for settlement. Agricultural cultivation may also exist in this area. People from Kazakhstan, Altai Forest Steppe, Tuva and even Xinjiang gather here. Nomadic, sedentary, and even agricultural groups merged here. The Bazerec culture in this area can be divided into a separate regional type, both in terms of funerary customs and in terms of burial relics.
In addition, Bazerek culture is widely distributed in western Mongolia, eastern Kazakhstan and Altay, Xinjiang, China. Altay, Xinjiang, China is also one of the distribution centers of the Bazerek culture, where archaeologists have excavated several large tombs and more than 20 small and medium-sized tombs of the Bazerek culture. Xinjiang Altay can be connected to eastern Kazakhstan through the Irtysh Valley, cross the low Sawuer Mountains to Ili, and cross the Gurbantonggut Desert to the eastern and central parts of Xinjiang. As a result, some of the tombs here have a fusion of Bazelek and other different cultures.
In addition to Xinjiang Altay, a more typical Bazerek cultural tomb was also found in tomb No. 1 of the Xigou site in eastern Xinjiang. The Bazerek crowd may have arrived in eastern Xinjiang. The influence of the Bazerek culture and the culture of eastern Xinjiang is mutual, and the clay pots, ear pottery and painted pottery of the Bazerek culture are most likely from the Yanbulak culture. Eared pottery and painted pottery are concentrated in the northern part of Altai, and the northern part of Altai may have migrated to the Yanbulak people.
In the Bazerek culture, there is a burial custom of burying multiple animal skulls. Russian scholars call it the Gargan tower type, and Chinese scholars call it “head and hoof burial”. “Head and hoof burials” are common in northern China, where they are distributed along the line of the ancient Great Wall with 15-inch equal rainfall lines. There may be a connection between the Gargan tower type of the Bazerek culture and the “head and hoof burial” in northern China.
At greater distances, the upper echelons of Bazelek society had connections with China, the Middle East, and the Eurasian steppe.
The “King’s Tomb” of the Bazerek culture unearthed brocade with phoenix and bird patterns and bronze mirrors with mountain characters made in Chu, China. On the phoenix pattern brocade, ancient craftsmen drew an elegant phoenix with concise and smooth lines. It is light, standing on the flowers and vines and singing loudly. The mountain-shaped bronze mirror was destroyed by man, and only half of the mirror surface remained, but the “mountain” pattern on the mirror surface was still clearly visible. Lacquer wares were also unearthed in some noble tombs, and these lacquer wares may also have come from the state of Chu.
China Chudi may have some kind of spiritual fit with the Bazelek people. During the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the Chu State liked ghosts and believed in witches and worshipped phoenixes and birds, while the Bazerek crowd followed the animistic shamanic tradition and regarded Griffin as one of their totems. There are many similarities in form between the Griffin of the Bazelek culture and the phoenix pattern of the Chu State.
The artifacts in Chu land may have been brought in by the nomadic people who traveled through the Hexi Corridor. At the easternmost end of the Hexi Corridor, archaeologists excavated the tomb of the Rong people in Majiayuan in eastern Gansu Province, and found a large number of gold objects and animal decorations. These artifacts are comparable to those associated with the Bazelek culture. It shows that there may be crowd exchanges or the spread of ideas and concepts from Altai to Xinjiang and then to the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor.
A textile from ancient Persia has been unearthed in Bazerek Culture No. 5 “King’s Tomb”. The textile features a walking lion, a winged griffin, a knight, and a cruciform pattern, clearly a Persian artistic tradition. At the end of the 6th century BC, the powerful Persian Empire extended its dominion as far east as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in present-day Central Asia. The northern part of this area is populated by the Saka people, which were strongly influenced by the Persian Empire. From the Persian Empire to the north through the Saka people, it is possible to reach Altai directly, without natural terrain barriers.
At the latitude where the Bazerec culture is located, from east to west, there are Tagar, Saka, Savromatian, and Scythian peoples. The three Scythian elements represented by weapons, horse gear, and animal pattern decoration were very popular among these groups, indicating that there was some common belief or tradition in the Eurasian steppe of the Early Iron Age.
From 1865 to the present, the excavation of the Bazerec culture has a history of more than 150 years, and has produced more than a dozen monographs and a large number of theses, but the Bazerec culture is still an inexhaustible research bonanza. With the exception of wood and textiles, a large number of relics have not been systematically studied. Traditional staging is also facing the impact from the C-14 data. The composition of the Bazelek crowd and its ins and outs are always hot issues. The site of the Bazelek culture has also not been fully excavated. The relationship between the Bazerek culture and the early Iron Age culture in Xinjiang needs to be further sorted out. With the accumulation of new materials and the development of new technologies, the study of Bazelek culture needs to pay more attention to materials from different countries and introduce natural science and technology means.
Migration and integration existed between the early Iron Age Bazelek people and the surrounding areas. At a longer distance, there may be common thoughts, customs or concepts with people in the Eurasian grasslands, the Hexi Corridor, and the Tianshan Mountains. The migration of people and the dissemination of ideas are the connotations of the Silk Road. From the Hexi Corridor, along the Tianshan Mountains all the way westward to what is now Iran is the core area of the traditional Silk Road. Whether the Bazerek people were Yuezhi or not, they played an important role on the prehistoric Silk Road.