Preparing for the ride into the afterlife without a horse

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A horseback-riding position with the deceased arranged as if sitting on or riding a horse Photo: Kushaev, Jelezchikov 1976.4; https://doi.org/10.4312/dp.47.23

Horses were considered crucial in many ancient cultures for the journey into the afterlife, but what about those who couldn’t afford them?

West Kazakhstan has been home to a great number of horse-mounted nomadic tribes throughout history.

Horses were valuable and considered symbols of wealth by many. So, a solution was found for those who could not afford a horse for the journey beyond.

Many graves in the area, some dating back to the third century BCE, contained individuals laid out with their legs splayed, in the manner of riding a horse.

Researchers, discussing the phenomenon in the annual journal Documenta Praehistorica, have explored the reasons for these unusual burials.

“In antiquity, nomads considered horse herds a symbol of wealth, and often demonstrated this wealth in burials,” Muzaffer Gursoy, Seryk Akylbek and Kopjasar Jetibaev reported.

They said it was plausible to suggest that burying individuals in a riding position was practiced as part of a belief system, as with other horse burials.

A view of a horse burial in kurgan 72 at Berel. Photo: Samashev 2012.35; https://doi.org/10.4312/dp.47.23

“In other words, they had the same spiritual meaning, because even if a horse was not buried with the dead person, the deceased was still positioned in the grave as if they were riding a horse.

“Consequently, with this practice the nomads might have symbolically sent their dead to the afterlife, even when burying a horse was not economically possible.”

Their paper focused in particular on the Sarmatians, a tribe that emerged during the late Iron Age.

The Sarmatians were nomadic horsemen and, like other steppe tribes, were a part of the Kurgan culture.

A large number of horseback-riding burials – the term the researchers used to describe the deceased in a position as if riding a horse – have been found during Kurgan excavations in west Kazakhstan.

As nomadic horse peoples, they lived in four or six-wheeled carriages with two or three rooms. Oxen pulled the carriages. Women and children lived in the carriages while men accompanied them on horseback.

The Sarmatians raised horses, fed on cooked meat, and drank mare’s milk.

“In their daily activities, they bore witness to the speed, strength, and human-like behaviours of their horses, which thus began to take a place in their spiritual life.

“Therefore, in some burials, the dead were placed into the ground in positions that symbolically imitated a horseback rider.”

Such burials, in mounds called kurgans, were not the sole domain of the Sarmatians. They were performed in a wide area from the Altai Mountains in the east to the Fergana Valley in the south, as well as South Kazakhstan – all areas where the Sarmatians did not live.

The kurgans in the Altai region, in particular, practiced the custom of burying their deceased with horses, or a part of a horse, to a significant degree, the researchers said. In Berel, this tradition can be seen in almost every kurgan in the area, they noted.

“Even today in Kazakhstan there is still the burial custom of cutting off the tail of the horse the deceased rode while he was alive. The Kazakhs call this practice tulday.

A kurgan before the excavation at the Issyk burial site. Photo: Samashev et al. 2004.16; https://doi.org/10.4312/dp.47.23

“The horse of a hero is his closest partner, and thus a horse losing its owner is like a woman losing her husband, and so the Kazakhs symbolize this through the cutting off of the horse’s tail.

“After this, no-one can ride the horse for a year, until the time the yearly food allowance of the deceased has expired.

“After a year the horse is sacrificed to the deceased and then its meat is eaten and finally its skull is placed on the grave of the dead.

“In conclusion, from the earliest periods until today, sacrificing a horse as part of the burial ritual is a common custom within steppe culture,” they said.

“Sometimes a horse was buried and sometimes only a certain body part of the horse or some related equipment were buried.

“It is likely that this can be attributed to the inequality of possessions among nomads.”

But, for some, there was no horse. Instead, they were lovingly placed in a riding position for their ride into the afterlife.

Gursoy and Jetibaev are with the Archaeological Research Institute at Akhmet Yassawi University in Kazakhstan; Akylbek is with the Otyrar State Archaeological Preservation Museum, also in Kazakhstan.

Gursoy M., Akylbek S., & Jetibaev K. (2020). The Sarmatian ‘Horseback-riding’ Burial Tradition. Documenta Praehistorica, 47, 412-419. https://doi.org/10.4312/dp.47.23

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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