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by Alexandra GOLYEVA, Cand. Sc. (Biol.), Geography Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Phytolites (or silicon casts of cells) of an unclassified shape have been found in some ancient burials. What plant species were they part of? Biologists and archeologists try to find out,
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author.-Ed.
Kalmykia is a land of boundless teppes. Its dry, wormwoodrenched air and sprawling flatlands give the impression of time frozen in its tracks. It takes much imagination to fancy life throbbing here a few thousand years ago, with large-scale construction work going on. We can guess so from the numerous local mounds, some of them large and others small, sitting lonely or in groups. They were much more than burial sites to the ancients but also served as milestones on tribal paths and as benchmarks on migration routes.
The tribes that built them had faded into the haze of history, leaving behind a memory in the shape of earthwork pyramids which researchers put to the Bronze Age, some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Remember, that was the heyday of the Egyptian pyramids which have been explored in much detail to date. Yet too little is known about the builders of the mounds in Kalmykia. These mounds have not even been properly classified, being cataloged but recently according to the type of burial practice. Where the dead were buried in hollowed pits, the mounds are simple graveyards, or else catacombs, comprising closed tombs that could be reached by passages from a hole dug in the ground. Centuries later these places were overrun by the Sarmatians, followed by the Scythians. But the mounds remained as an ever-present memory of the extinct tribes who had piled them up. What kind of civilization was it that built them? How and whence those people came to Kalmykia? Where and why were they gone? And what lives did they live?
In an attempt to answer these questions, archeologists of Kalmykia's Institute for Socioeconomic and Legal Studies, RAS, under Yevgeny Tsutskin, and the State Museum of History in Moscow, under Natalia Shishlina, have for many years now been digging up the mounds and studying the burials. Over the past two years, however, they really have been racing against time to finish their job before the ancient monuments are bulldozed over to make room for an oil pipeline that will soon run across Kalmykia. To save the memory of the unknown people, dozens or even hundreds of monuments standing in the way of the projected pipeline are to be excavated. The archeologists have, for the first time in their undertaking, been given a helping hand from professionals in other sciences-the soil science, paleobotany and geography. Scholars and research scientists have joined hands in making new breakthroughs in the history of human civilization by exploring the surviving monuments of material culture.
There is no end of work in sight, and whatever materials have been recovered need to be studied yet. It is already clear, though, that the enormous field work-in volume and diversity-is yielding amazing results.
BIOLOGY ALLIED TO ARCHEOLOGY
The biomorphous method of research is the most recent newcomer in archeology. It is used in studying the full range of wildlife micro- and macro-residues, such as phytolites, pollen, sponge spicules, diatom shells, plant detritus, charcoal, wood fragments in soil, habitation levels, and burials. Borrowed from the soil science, the method has proved to be very effective in data collection.
Our first concern is, of course, phytolites for a very simple reason. The root systems of living plants extract various essential chemical elements, including silicon, which is deposited and accumulated in definite cells only, producing an exact silicon replica of its host. Many cell varieties have a shape proper to their plant species (and even individual plant elements) growing in identical natural and climatic conditions (such as forests, meadows, steppes, and deserts). Phytolites remain indefinitely long in soil, helping scientists in reconstructing the vegetative cover of a territory in the past. Besides, they are not volatile, allowing information to be
obtained about a particular site- whether it was an ancient settlement or a desolate land patch. This technique is widely used by archeologists around the world because it allows to distinguish, for example, a local culture from an imported one by the presence of cereal stalk or husk phytolites. And more, biologists can say, with only tiny particles from carious teeth in their hands, which cereals the ancients ate, and even make fairly accurate estimates of their diets.
Unlike phytolites, spores and pollen have long been a source of knowledge in archeology. Briefly, the idea is as follows. Many plants produce vast quantities of pollen grains during blossoming. Being too light in weight, these grains are lifted by rising air currents and intermix as they are carried up and sideways by the wind, and are finally deposited on the ground someplace with. Most plants producing pollen of a shape characteristic of a particular species, it is not hard to determine which plants were predominant in a particular area. These microscopic particles have a very high preservation potential-for example, they may remain intact for millions of years in peats. Once we know the formative time of a soil level, we can reconstruct the vegetative cover of a territory and, therefore, the climate it had at a particular stage in history.
It is highly rewarding to study pollen in burials, particularly in catacombs, which had not been exposed to sunlight or wind before excavations. Whenever pollen is discovered, it is certain that it had been brought in by people on blooming plants during the burial ceremony. Scientists can thus give a tentative description of the ceremony itself and the time, and even month, when it took place.
So the pollen and phytolite analyses complement each other quite well. Volatile pollen yields averaged data about a region's vegetation, while phytolites provide evidence about a particular area-whether it was woodland or meadow, plowed up or uncultivated. Incidentally, phytolites are rarely formed in dicot grasses, but they do so in profusion in sedges and cereals. Cereal pollen grains look all very much alike, while dicots show a great variety of pollen grain shapes. And more. Pollen is destroyed by fire and mechanical force, while phytolites are not.
The remains of diatoms and sponge spicules are helpful in reconstructing the hydrological conditions of an area. The former are microscopic organisms molding silicon into wondrously shaped skeletons. They give an idea about the kind of water (fresh or brackish) algae grew in and whether their environment was friendly or not.
Sponges, too, often build their skeletons from silicon. Spicules, which are skeleton elements, are hollow cylindrical needles or cones occurring in abundance in running water.
Many useful facts are obtained by studying plant detritus of both tree and grass species, or tiny residues of plant tissue matter. These are very strong in texture and persist in soil for very long periods of time. Since humans use too much plant material, wood, shrub twigs, and tree bark, these microscopic residues generally predominate in sites explored by archeologists.
Similarly, wood or charcoal are an important source of data, each tree species having a unique pattern of vessels forming in spring and fall. Even though wood decays in time, or is destroyed by microorganisms, its charcoal endures for millions of years to reveal the identity of respective wood species.
Each of the foregoing sources provides definite information. A comprehensive approach involving a simultaneous study of all the particles found in a specimen may give an integral and authentic picture of ages long past. It has been justified in the biomorphous method used during the excavations of ancient Kalmykian mounds in 1997 and 1998.
MYSTERY OF BURIAL CHAMBERS
The burials reveal a striking abundance of wood, which is not at all typical of modern treeless Kalmykian steppes.
Wooden carriages were a relatively frequent sight. They were either lowered into burial pits together with the dead bodies or used to block the entrance to a catacomb or form a cover over the burial pits. Laboratory studies showed some of them to be interred quite old, after a long service to their owners, being heavily deformed and bearing traces of decay, while others were quite new, without any marks of wear or decay, buried in the same mound. Most frequently, carriages were crafted from ash tree, after which came, less often, elm, maple, and rosewood (the carriage wheels were made from two or three large wooden segments fastened together). In our day, no trees, except tamarisk, grow in the area of excavations (ash and elm grow at least 250 or 300 km south, in the foothills of the Caucasus, or north, in the lower reaches of the Volga. Tamarisk, however, has not, even once, been found under the mounds, either as wooden remains or charcoals. Broad-leaved species seem to have been dominant here in the past.
Vegetative mats were found under human remains in some burials. Studies have revealed them to have consisted generally of several layers-with branches at the bottom,
overlaid with reeds, and, finally, especially under the head, grass, frequently at the flowering stage, to form a pillow. Sponge spicules were found on reed stalks, which means that the mats were made from fresh-cut plants. Had the reeds been dried after cutting, the spicules would have come off the stalks together with dust. Today, reeds are very rare in the area, and no shrubs grow around.
Studies of the mold from the abdomen of a dead body buried in one of the local mounds produced surprising results. The specimens contained phytolites of a previously unknown shape, which had not been found on mat specimens or in the burial soil. What did that man eat shortly before death? This discovery prompted us to take similar samples from all burials, only to find phytolites of this strange shape almost everywhere. It was improbable that all catacomb culture people, who lived in different places, ate similar food before they died. Several suggestions were made: it was either a plant painkiller, or everyday food, or embalming mixture. Considering the relatively hot local climate, the dense soils, and the scale of earthwork to be done by the surviving relations, the third assumption appears to be closer to the truth. Whatever the truth, the locals picked the plant (mostly likely, its leaves) and used it for a very specific purpose. We hope to find the plant sometime, if luck smiles on us-as we said, we have not found any of its phytolites in either the burials or modern soils. As we see it, the plant did not grow at that time, nor does it grow here now. We are now exploring two possibilities: a group of plants that could serve as painkiller 4,000 years ago and plants that could be blended into an embalming mixture.
Occasionally, mounds were found to contain a cenotaph, a burial containing all traditional
paraphernalia, such as earthenware, beads, and other personal belongings, but without the deceased person's body. Archeologists have long pondered the puzzle: was anything buried in place of the dead body, or were the catacombs left empty? We took samples from the cenotaph center, where a dummy could presumably have been placed, and from the periphery to compare the results. The central samples showed particles of grass stems under the microscope, while the peripheral samples contained plenty of pollen grains. We realized that a dummy was buried, for example, in place of a tribesman killed far from his native parts. The dummy was not just a wisp of grass, but a skillfully made manikin, with flowers for the head and stalks and leaves for the body.
Earthenware, or, to be more exact, what it contained, was yet another object of biomorphous studies. Some vessels had sponge spicules and diatoms (which means they were filled with water), and others had wood detritus and large accumulations of phytolites of inedible plants like feather grass. How did these plants get into the vessels? Most likely, the vessels provided with lids of tree bark, shrub twigs or woven grass mats, the residues of which had been deposited on the bottom (on exposure by the diggers, they all had no lids on and were filled with earth). One vessel in nearly all burials always contained fancifully shaped
phytolites that we tried to identify by assaying the stomach content of the dead bodies. So, besides food something else was placed next to the dead body. If we ever find the plant that forms such phytolites we will know what people of the catacomb cultures thought was necessary to accompany a dead person into the other world.
ANCIENT SOILS TELL THEIR STORY
Along with the burials proper, we also studied the soils heaped up to form mounds. This was very important for the simple reason that any grasses growing on the soil surface at the mound-building time must have left microscopic particles (phytolites, pollen and detritus) that could give us a clue as to the nature and climate of the time (3,000 to 4,000 years ago) as well as the pattern and extent of human influence on the environment.
We have studied four mounds lying side by side in the Zunda Tolga burial complex, in southern Kalmykia, which we dated differently to between 3,955 and 3,740 years ago (using the carbon C14 dating method to establish burial time). The soil under the oldest of the four mounds proved the most intact and varied in the biomorphous composition, with remnants of motley meadow and steppe grasses growing here at the mound construction time. Curiously enough, the younger the piled-up soil of the other three mounds was, the leaner its biomorphous composition. The soil under the youngest mound had no biomorphs at all, nor even the topsoil. Besides, the composition of the phytolites changed from that of meadow and steppe plants to vegetation typical of dry steppe. This evolution could only mean that changes, in both quality and quantity, occurred here within a mere two hundred years, the meadows having given way to
dry steppe, with sparse and stunted vegetation. The thickness of the fertile topsoil changed as well. The last mound in the complex was built on a completely degraded soil devoid of any surface vegetation. It is highly probable that wind erosion had destroyed the topsoil. Human behavior, such as grazing and eventually over-grazing, was one of the reasons for this abrupt change in the environment. Actually, pas-turelands are highly susceptible to grazing, their meadow grasses being gradually replaced by species resistant to trampling and adapted to arid climate. And overgrazing destroys all underfoot vegetation, exposes former pasturelands to wind erosion and desert encroachment. It is likely that local tribes provoked an environmental catastrophe that forced them off their ancestral lands.
The mounds contain many more enigmas of past millennia. It is to be hoped that the ongoing large-scale and comprehensive studies will help us learn more about the ancient inhabitants of these areas-their lifestyles, their environment and the effect their economy had on ambient nature. Nothing on earth vanishes without a trace, as the lyrics of a popular Russian song go. It is for us to learn to see and read traces of the past correctly.
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