Thursday, 5 May 2022

2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine: "Russian Troops Destroying Ancient Tombs"

It is being reported that soldiers of the army of the Russian Federation taking part in the illegal and unprovoked invasion of neighbouring Ukraine are barbarically damaging ancient burial mounds dating back more than 2,200 years by using them as firing positions Ukrainian officials have said (George Grylls 'Russian troops are destroying ancient nomadic tombs' The Times May 04 2022).

Cultural inspectors said that Kurgans, sacred mounds dating to the first millennium BC, were being damaged by Russian forces. The mounds, which can be up to 15 metres high, are being used by Russians as elevated positions to fire artillery in the otherwise flat landscape of the Ukrainian steppe. [...] The Scythians were a nomadic people who roamed the plains of central Asia from 9th century BC to the 2nd century BC. At the height of their power, they controlled territory from northern China to Hungary. Little contemporary writing about their culture survives [...] [but] archaeologists have pieced together the story of Scythian culture [...] everything we know about the Scythians comes from archaeology or chance finds. Nomads generally don’t write, they don’t need to. Writing is the product of the bureaucracies of settled civilisations and cultures. That’s why Scythian archaeology is so important to understanding who they were, what they did, what they made and what they used.
There is a precedent:
Professor Hermann Parzinger, a German historian, said the “unbelievable concentration” of Kurgans in the lower Dnieper had been used as strategic defensive positions during the Second World War. “Soviet and German troops used Kurgans as firing positions in the Second World War because the steppe is very flat. Sometimes the only mountains or elevations are burial grounds. Some are 10 or 15m high.” “It is architecture and not just a heap of earth covering a burial. If you destroy such a mound, there is enormous damage to one of the most important Eurasian cultures.” He warned that Russian troops could destroy the sites to steal valuable objects. “In areas which are not controlled now, I can imagine that many Kurgans are knocked down with bulldozers by people just looking for gold,” he said.
I warned about this a few weeks ago (Artefact Trade and the February 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine). In the weeks before the 2022 Russian Invasion and Occupation took place, I was doing some work with satellite photos on rates and extent of site looting of part of the steppe around the Dniepr estuary and think that a few days ago, I recognised in war photography one of 'my' clifftop sites being used as a firing position for a MANPAD (in this case with no visible damage being done to the site). But let us be honest, that whole area is covered by these 'kurgans' - many are ploughed out and appear as cropmarks (both clear and very fuzzy)* and most of those that are still mounds do tend to have one or more holes dug into the middle. Some of that may be WW2 damage mentioned by Dr Parzinger, some certainly does seem to be relatively recent looting activity. While deploring all and any damage to cultural and archaeological assets of any region, and especially those occupied by force, I think we need to be wary of being involved in propaganda and keep away from facile hyperbole when reporting on such events. The rhetoric used by both sides in this war in part involve cultural heritage (and a Russian nostalgia for a past), which means that we need to take a step back from an emotional approach to heritage issues. 

* In part this is due to some of them having been made not by upcast from a ditch like many barrows, but by the cutting of turf from the surrounding areas and carrying them to the mound built of piled sods. The soil of the latter will be similar to that of the topsoil surrounding the mound.  

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