Ninth Annual Leon Levy Lecture: Scythian Elite Burial Mounds in the Eurasian Steppes

Summer 2006, Mongolian Altay, Excavation of a Scythian "Ice Mummy"

Ninth Annual Leon Levy Lecture: Scythian Elite Burial Mounds in the Eurasian Steppes

New Discoveries for a Deeper Understanding

Hermann Parzinger

President, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation

We are now fully booked for the Leon Levy Lecture on November 6th; to register for the wait list, please visit

The Leon Levy Lecture is supported by the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation and the Leon Levy Foundation.

During the first millennium BC, the cultures in the Eurasian steppe belt went through a deep transformation. From the 8th/7th century BC on, nomadic tribes emerged throughout that region. We know them as Scythian or Sakas, but it is hardly possible to identify archaeological materials with concrete names of tribes. Significant changes in the economy, in the way of living and fighting, but also in the arts and the social structure, are typical for these early nomadic groups between the river Yenisei in the east and the lower Danube in the west. The social structure of Scythians and other groups in the Eurasian steppe is mainly reflected by their graves, burial mounds, which are called “kurgans.” There are monumental kurgans with rich inventories, including golden objects and imports, and Herodotus wrote about Scythian kings in the steppe to the north of the Black Sea, buried in these huge kurgans. In this region, burial mounds have been excavated since the late 19th century and have yielded many golden objects of an extraordinary technical and artistic quality. Although the grave inventories are quite well known and have been sufficiently investigated, we lack data concerning the structure of these monumental kurgans. Our excavations during the last 20 years in different parts of Russia, from Siberia in the far east to southern Russia in the west, have yielded significant new information and have led to a rather new understanding of the phenomenon of elite kurgans, showing that they are not only burial places of the leading social group, but also places for memory and numerous and rather different ritual practices: elite kurgans are rituals that became architecture.

Hermann Parzinger has been President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation since 2008. He received his doctoral degree from the Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich, where he then worked as Associate Professor from 1986 to 1990. After completing his Habilitation, he was appointed in 1990 to the position of Deputy Director of the Römisch-Germanische Kommission of the German Archaeological Institute in Frankfurt/Main; in this capacity he headed up excavations in Spain and Turkey. From 1995 to 2003, he acted as Director of the Eurasian Department of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin and led various archaeological research projects in Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, and Iran. In 1996 he was appointed Honorary Professor for Pre-historic archaeology at the Free University in Berlin, where he continues to teach at present. From 2003 to 2008 he was President of the German Archaeological Institute. Parzinger’s primary academic focus is on cultural transformations in zones of contact in Europa and Asia. His research projects have been dedicated to different periods and topics, dealing with man’s transition to sedentary life in the early Neolithic, as well as the beginnings of early nomadism in the 1st millennium BC in the Eurasian steppe belt. Especially noteworthy are his outstanding discoveries of a royal tomb from the Scythian period in Arzhan in Tuva (South Siberia) and of an ice mummy from the same period in the Altai Mountains.

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