An archaeologist’s job usually involves long trips, excavations, and the study of various artifacts of the past. Victor Dyakonov, senior researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Institute for Humanitarian Research and North Indigenous Peoples Problems of the Siberian Branch of the RAS, tells us about the work of Yakut archaeologists.
Victor Mikhailovich, please tell us about your field season.
During the field season, we usually examine areas where roads are planned to be built or where commercial developments for the extraction of oil, gas, and other minerals are to be carried out, for the presence of historical, cultural, and archaeological objects. If we find objects of scientific value, we conduct their initial examination, then determine the boundaries of their location, cultural affiliation, and survey. After that, we make a report and send it to our customers. All these studies are funded by our customers – industrial enterprises. As a result, the site of cultural value is preserved for posterity and for scientific research. For example, if a gas pipe was planned for such a site, the company changes its project and the pipe goes around this territory. But if it’s impossible to not affect this area, economic entities initiate salvage excavations that allow preserving all historical and cultural artifacts.
Excavations at the Muorkhan I site near Vilyuysk
In addition, we work a lot in fundamental research. Recently, we worked on a project of the history of Yakutia. We studied the Vilyuy group of districts and Central Yakutia. In the Irkutsk Region, we worked on the upper Lena, in the Kachugsky and Zhigalovsky districts. In the Khabarovsk Territory, we explored the Ayano-Maysky district, looking for historical links with the Yakuts. We also work in the Arctic: Ust-yansky, Abysky, and Bulunsky districts.
We also explore the New Siberian Islands, looking for sites of ancient people. We work with the support of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as President of the RGO, helps us with transport, because it is very difficult to get to the New Siberian Islands.
The New Siberian Islands are a Russian-owned archipelago in the Arctic ocean between the Laptev sea and the East Siberian sea, administratively belonging to the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) (Bulunsky ulus). The area of the New Siberian Islands is 38.4 thousand km2. They are part of the protected zone of Ust-Lensky State Nature Reserve.
The archipelago consists of three groups of islands: the Lyakhovskiye Islands, Anzhu Islands and De Long Islands.
What interesting things did you find on the islands?
Recently, we discovered a new object on Stolbov island (belonging to the Lyakhovskiye Islands) that is approximately 8,000-9,000 years old. I went there this summer.
We found tools there: flint slabs and an inset used by ancient people. This is 100% proof of human presence. In the late 80's, an ancient human site was discovered on the New Siberian Islands, on Zhokhov island, and large-scale excavations and research were conducted there in the 1990-2000's. It has already been found out that polar bear hunters lived on Zhokhov.
Who were these hunters?
Genetic testing revealed that these people were of Western Eurasian origin, that is, they were presumably not Asian. In addition to hunting, they were also engaged in the selection of hunting and sled dogs. The remains of sledges indicate that the hunters used dog sleds.
So, drawing a parallel with the artifacts found on Zhokhov island, we believe that Stolbovoy was an observation post of ancient people. The weapons we found are identical to those found on Zhokhov. The place where the guns were found on Stolbovoy Island is blown by all the winds and is located on a hill, on a cape with a beautiful view. Because of this, we assume that those people didn’t live on this cape. Somewhere in that area there must be a site, these people’s homes. But we haven't found it yet.
The islands were part of the land during the Ice Age— the so-called Beringia, and people could move freely there. Later, when the world ocean level rose, it was flooded by the sea. Then all these islands were formed.
General view of the site on Stolbovoy Island and the inset on the slab discovered in the pit in 2019
What artifacts do you usually find in Western Yakutia?
Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age artifacts. Yakut culture is also there. In general, we find items from all historic periods.
So, the territory of our Republic began to be inhabited by people hundreds of thousands of years ago?
Yes. It is proved that people have been living here for at least 300,000 years.
Then were the mammoths really exterminated by humans?
People hunted mammoths. So, they contributed to their extermination. Plus, they killed mostly cubs.
What data can be obtained by studying the burial sites of previous years?
Our department is engaged in a comprehensive survey of Yakut burials in Central Yakutia and Vilyuy, as well as in some Northern regions. Through genetic and anthropological analyses of the remains, it is possible to restore the appearance of people. Bones provide a lot of information about their pathologies, food, and lifestyle. Grave goods are also of great interest. They can be used to study their burial ritual and items they used. Take beads for example. It came to us not only from China, but also from Western Europe and Central Asia.
What do you do with discovered items and goods?
After a detailed study, all artifacts are handed over to state museums, usually where they were found: in rural or district museums.
Mesolithic tools from the Muorkhan II site (Vilyui district)
Are the bodies buried in the permafrost zone preserved without embalming?
Yes, thanks to the permafrost, amazingly preserved remains are sometimes found in grave fields. The study of burials revealed that infants, young children and women of fertile age died from complications during pregnancy and childbirth most often among the Yakuts and peoples of the North. Some Yakut cemeteries are literally filled with infant coffins. People died from tuberculosis very often, including tuberculosis of bone, when the bones are like mesh and are crumble during one’s lifetime.
Do you have certain rituals during the excavation of graves?
Of course, each researcher follows certain rules and treats the remains with respect. I will share one incident with you.
In 2001, a Yakut burial was accidentally opened near Tabaga during a clay pit digging. This was reported to us. We went to the site and documented that the burial was destroyed presumably in the 19th century. Everything was examined and photographed.
Tabaga burial, discovered 0.5 km North-East of the outskirts of Tabaga village on Lake Sinniges shore
It was the grave of an elderly man. He was wearing a decayed cowhide or horse-skin coat. People simply threw out goods from his grave, all the items were lying in the bushes. So, we carefully collected these items, decided that they would make interesting exhibits, and took them with us. There was a well-preserved copper pot, wooden bowls (kytyia), a wooden spoon, a snuffbox, and a Yakut knife. We buried the grave again, had lunch, and went to Yakutsk. And when I arrived, I remembered that I did all our dishes after our meal: the pot, forks, spoons, and knife, and left them all in a bag near that grave. And to think that we took the same things from that man: the pot, all his utensils! In other words, it’s as if we have exchanged unintentionally. I decided that was the way it should be and didn't go back. The things we sacrifice for science.
2019 artifacts 1. Knife-shaped plate from Kotelny island; 2. Inset on the slab from Stolbovoy island
What other interesting incidents did you have?
At the beginning of the last century, in 1914, the first professional certified archaeologist Efim Dmitrievich Strelov started working in Yakutsk. At that time, scientists began to work on the origin of Yakuts, so they excavated on the territory of the former Khorinsky nasleg of Zapadno-Kangalassky ulus. It was located 10-20 km South of the downtown, at the foot of the hills between Vladimirovka and Yakutsk. In 1927, Strelov published an article on male burials in Sakha Keskile Research Foundation’s edited volume. He wrote that he had excavated burials with perfectly preserved mummified remains on the top of the so-called “Bald mountain.” Efim Dmitrievich described items of clothing, a bow, arrows, and a spear of ancient Yakut in detail. 10 years later, in 1937, Soviet Ethnography magazine published his article, “Yakut Woman’s Clothing and Jewelry in the Half of the 18th Century.” This is a great article for that time, and on women's graves this time. Strelov handed over all his discoveries to Yaroslavsky Museum of Local Lore. Artist Mikhail Nosov restored sketches of clothing and jewelry of the Yakuts of the 18th century based on them.
As a student, I read these articles and decided to find these excavations sites. I was navigated mainly by Strelov's descriptions. But I couldn't find this place for a variety of reasons. Once I was caught in a heavy rain, the other time I almost got stuck in a swamp.
Later, in 1999, when I became a professor, I conducted an internship there for students. We dug up Stone Age sites near Vladimirovka and Shestakovka. There, in the ruins, we found the remains of ancient dwellings and settlements. But one of the glens, where the Khorogor stream flows out, really baffled me. It was very strange, in the sense that no one had ever lived there before. All the nearby glens had evidence of human habitation, they had ancient Stone Age burials, but this one didn’t.
There were all sorts of mysticism in this glen. This place was very unusual. For example, it rains everywhere, but there, the sun shines bright. Or vice versa: it’s a sunny day, but a lonely cloud hangs over this glen and pours on us.
One morning, a thick fog spread across the glen. It was 5AM, we were sleeping in our tents when we heard a scream. I heard it in my sleep, from far away. And the creature that uttered this cry, which sounded like the barking of a dog, the yelling of a man, and the croaking of a crow at once, flew over us. Of course, we got out of our tents. I started scaring the students that it was the cry of souls disturbed by Strelov's excavations, because the mummies he had unearthed had been lying on the museum of local lore territory for many years and had not been properly reburied at the time.
It was after these events that I finally found the very graves that I had been searching for so long. The description was specific: bald mountain. And over the past decades, this mountain has grown a dense forest, you can even say a thicket. This "bald mountain" delayed the time of the search. Walking through this forest, I found excavated graves. It turned out they weren't even buried…
Victor Diakonov’s photos
By Maria Efremova