Kurgan construction, rites, and culture during Late Chalcolithic and Iron Age Northwest Iran

Recent archaeological studies have revealed various kurgan sites in NW Iran. These burials are attributed to the Indo-European speaking people, whose arrival corresponds with major changes in the local material culture dating to the Chalcolithic to Iron Age. Apart from their prominent structures, recent archaeological excavations yielded remarkable material as well as burial traditions/rites associated with these kurgans. These new data have brought to light much information about the diversity of kurgan traditions in NW Iran, while there is no comprehensive study about the different kurgan structures in this region. The present post is the summary of a lecture entitled “Typological Classification and Analysis of the Kurgan Structures in NW Iran; Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age III” presented at the third international symposium Megalithic Monuments and Cult Practices, South West University Neofit Rilski, Bulgaria, 8-9 September 2020.

Geographical Distribution of Kurgan Necropolises in Iran

Recent archaeological surveys and excavations in NW Iran revealed kurgans with various structures. These kurgan sites can be found across an area spanning the southern Araxes River borders, in Jolfa and the Khodaafarin plains, to Sé Girdan, near Cheshmeh Göl village, south of  Lake Urmia (map 1). Based on the geographical distribution of these sites, the region could be divided into four distinct geographical areas:

  • Araxes River basin
  • Ardabil province
  • Ahar-Verzeghan and Tabriz plateau
  • Southern Urmia Lake basin

These geographical areas – the southern borders of the Araxes River and the eastern half of NW Iran – comprises the most occurrences of kurgan sites known so far (Kouzehgari, 2020: 176- 179).

Map 1: Distribution map of kurgan sites in NW Iran and adjacent regions
Archaeological Studies of Kurgans in NW Iran

Numerous kurgans in NW Iran were reported by J. de Morgan, in Namin, near present Ardabil (1905, 79, figs, 448-456), and by C. Schaeffer (1948). W. Wiegartz (1965) reported some kurgans in Tekab. W. Kleiss (1971), and S. Kroll (1972) reported some kurgans in Basṭām, near Khoy, and northeast and east of Mākū. The earliest kurgan sites were excavated by Muscarella in Sé Girdan in the southern Urmia Lake basin. In addition, recent studies by Iranian archaeologists revealed numerous kurgan sites in NW Iran including in the Khodaafarin Plain (Iravani, 2011: 119- 120), Shaharyeri (Pourfaraj, 2007: 293- 301) and Khorram Abad in Meshgin Shahr, the Mughan Plain (Rezalou & Ayramlou, 2014: 122) and in the Aslanduz plain, in Parsabad (Hesari & Aliyari, 2012: 118- 119). Finally, kurgans with cromlech structures were also excavated in Kor Abbaslou village in Nir, 35 km south of Ardabil (Pourfaraj, 2012: 61), in Zardkhaneh (Kazempour et al., 2017: 13- 14), and in Abillu (Feizkhah, 2019: 380) near Ahar. These new data are mainly published in Persian and still not well disseminated. They lead us to suggest new hypotheses on kurgan morphology.

Architecture of Kurgans in NW Iran

The results of my classification and analytical studies on the excavated kurgans in NW Iran demonstrate that based on their architecture they can be classified into three major types, and each can be classified into two sub-types according to the graves under them (Kouzehgari, 2020: 179- 190). The results of the present study demonstrate a specific regional as well as chronological distribution for each type as follows:

  1. The first group is composed of kurgans with circular revetments around their graves and with their grave bordered by a stone pile. The builders of these kurgans first established a circular ring around the grave, sometimes marked with a sloping ring of rubble stone, in one to three courses of stones of varying sizes built around the outer perimeter of the kurgan (fig. 1). At the center of this circle there is a small and low pile of rubble set in clay in two to three courses height (Muscarella, 1971: 23).
Fig. 1: Sé Girdan Kurgan VI, Plan of the tomb and stone revetment
(Muscarella, 1971, fig. 23)

Kurgans of this type are characteristic of the Late Chalcolithic periods in Iran, Georgia, and Armenia, and are associated with the Maikop culture regarding the structure of kurgan itself as well as the axes heads discovered in them. Although so far only one necropolis of this type has been excavated in Sé Girdan in Iran, its specific structural characteristics led me to place it in a specific group. Sé Girdan is the southernmost region where kurgans have been reported.

  1. Kurgans with cromlech structures around their surface mounds chronologically constitute the second group of kurgans in NW Iran. Based on the comparative study of pottery and other objects discovered in these burials, they are dated to a period between the Middle/Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age (ca. 1500-1000 B.C.)  These kurgans are associated with Transcaucasian cultures. Based on the known kurgan sites, these kurgans are generally located in the central regions of the Ardabil province at the sites of Boyniyogun, Nir, Meshgin Shahr and Shaharyeri, and in present Ahar, including Zardkhaneh (fig. 2. A), Sang-e Molk, as well as in Varzeghan at sites like Kighal.
Fig. 2: A: Stone stela, cromlech construction of Zardkhaneh kurgans (Kazempour et al. 2017: fig. 18), B: Zardkhaneh Kurgan burial chamber (Kazempour et al, 2012, fig 9)

The mound over the kurgan grave is encircled by a circle of standing stones/slabs, known as “cromlech”. In Iran, the excavated kurgans with cromlech structures are generally located on hills and are sometimes associated with a nearby fortification. These kurgans are constructed in a completely different technique than those of the other groups. The burial chamber is a rectangular or oval grave constructed by setting large stone slabs on a rock floor or in a very shallow pit (fig. 2. B). After the burying of the deceased and the closing of the chamber, the outer sides of the stone wall of the chambers were filled with rubble, clay mortar, gravel, or earth to keep them standing. When the mound was finished then it was encircled by large stone slabs or stelas designing circular or oval shapes. Since most of these burials have been destroyed and looted, mound over some of them has been removed and only their bare cist stone chamber remains (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Boyniyogun kurgan burial chamber after excavation (Pourfaraj, 2012: figs. 4, 5, 6)
  1. The third group includes mounds constructed of stone piles that were common since the Chalcolithic period until the Iron Age III. Because of their simple construction techniques, it seems that they have been bult more frequently in NW Iran and its neighboring areas. these kurgans have been reported and excavated. In NW Iran, they were excavated at the southern borders of the Araxes River, in Mughan, Khodaafarin, Jolfa plains, and Meshgin Shahr (fig. 4. A), as well as the Ahar and Ardabil regions. Based on the comparative studies of pottery and objects from these kurgans they are generally dated to the Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age. Kurgans in Abillu are dated to the Middle or Late Bronze Age (Feizkhah, 2019, 380) (fig. 4. B). Kurgans in Jafarabad have been dated to the Iron Age II and attributed to the Scythian nomadic warriors (?) by the excavator (Iravani, 2011: 197; 2014: 93) while no Scythian material culture has been discovered from them.  
Fig. 4: A: Meshgin Shahr Kurgan (Hesari & Aliyari, 2012, Plan 4), B: Abillu Kurgan
(Feizkhah, 2018, 381)

Like for other sites, no written sources have been discovered associated with these burials. Based on the comparative study of their material culture, these kurgans are generally dated to the Late Chalcolithic to Iron Age periods in NW Iran. The geographical distribution of thee kurgan types varies through time.

The Graves

The burial grave/chamber are either dug in the earth or built of stone slabs on the surface under the kurgan mounds.  Based on their position these kurgans can be classified into two different groups; first: simple burial pits dug in the eart and second: stone burial chambers, built either in the earth or on the surface. In the first group the grave is a simple circular, rectangular, or oval pit grave dug directly in the soil. Some of these graves have been divided into different parts, one to bury the deceased and the other to place offerings. Some of these graves have lateral pits to place offerings in them or to bury other deceased or animals. These burialpits were either closed using earth or, as has been reported for the Khorram Abad kurgan in Meshgin Shahr, using wooden beams (Rezalou and Ayramlou, 2014, 135).

The stone burial chambers are rectangular or oval shaped graves cut in virgin soil and with walls constructed of either worked or rough stone slabs set vertically or horizontally. Around the top, some graves are bordered by additional large flat stones and rubble. In some others the walls of the chamber were constructed of large stone slabs set vertically around the wall and their outer borders with large stone slabs set flat. Some of these kurgans had lateral tombs to bury animals, such as in Abillu (Feizkhah, 2019: 380- 381).

Fig. 5: A : Jafarabad Kurgan IV (Iravani, 2014, Pl.. 3), B. Skeleton of an adult in crouched position in the grave (Iravani, 2014, Pl. 5)
Burial rites in the Kurgans

Our knowledge of the ceremonies or rites that accompanied these kurgan burials is restricted to a few excavation reports. This is either because little attention was paid during their surface mound excavations or their excavation reports are not completely published yet. However, based on the existing data, the inhumation of both male and females were accompanied some rites.  After burying the deceased, in the earth pit graves or in surface burla chambers the mound was built over them. Construction of some of these surface mound also was accompanied by some rites, including food or clothe offering or some rites associated with fires.

Excavations of 7 out of 8 of the Jafarabad kurgans demonstrated traces of burning. This can be representative of specific rites accompanying the construction of the mound over the graves. Furthermore, animal bones were recovered between the stone courses of the kurgan mound such as kurgans IV and VIII in this site. In some of these kurgans there were some pottery placed within the stone courses of the mound (Muscarella, 1971: 28, figs. 27, 28; Iravani, 2011, fig 2; 2014: 93, fig 2) (Fig. 6. A, B).

Fig. 6: A: Offerings in mound structure of kurgan IV, Jeferabad  (Iravani, 2014, fig 2), B, C: Offerings in kurgan VIII mound structure , Jafarabad (Iravani, 2011: figs. 2, 3).

Among the courses of kurgan VIII in Jafarabad, some bronze buttons were discovered placed in line (Iravani, 2011: 191- 192, fig 3), which indicates that some specific garments could also have been placed within the layers of the kurgan mound structure as an offering to the deceased during the burial rite (fig. 6. C).

In the floor of some of these tombs, some red stain spots are reported, it is not reported what are they, such as in Sé Girdan (Muscarella, 1969: 14- 16, figs. 14, 15, 16), and it is not clear whether they are due to a rite or not. In some of these kurgans there are remains of animal offerings or sacrifice. In a lateral tomb located at the northern side of the main burial chamber there were three adult male horse burials (Feizkhah, 2019: 380- 381). Khorram Abad kurgan in Meshgin Shahr contained an interesting kurgan complex, which consisted of a main kurgan and two lateral kurgans. In one of them, located at the north of the main kurgan, 34 horses were buried in two rows, with 17 in each course. In the other lateral tomb, there were remains of various animals (Rezalou & Ayramlou, 2014: 124- 125, 135) (Fig. 7). Such horse burials and sacrifice is often attributed to the nomadic people of the Iron Age II and III or to the Scythian tribes in NW Iran.

Fig. 7: Horse burials in Khorram Abad kurgan, Meshgin Shahr
(Rezalou and Ayramlou, 2014, fig. 11)
Final Remarks

Kurgan culture has so far exclusively been attributed to the Indo-European people; whose arrival corresponds with major changes in the material culture in NW Iran. Recent archaeological excavations demonstrate more variety in the construction of kurgans in NW Iran, each belong to a distinct geography and chronology. This data is representative of various groups with distinct kurgan traditions in northwest Iran, which arrived, simultaneously or successively, and settled in distinct geographical regions in northwest Iran. Further systematic excavations and multidisciplinary studies on the kurgan excavations in NW Iran will bring to light more aspects of this culture and its people.

Selected Bibliography

De Morgan, J. 1905. Recherches au Talyche Persan en 1901, Nécropoles des Âges du Bronze et du Fer. Memoires de la Delegation en Perse 8: 251-342.  

Feizkhah, M. 2019. Salvage Excavation in Abillu Village Kurgans, in Ahar City, in Shirazi R., Zare, A. edts, Reports of the 16th Annual Iranian Archaeological Conference: A Collection of Short Articles 2019, pp. 380-381, Tehran, Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism (in Persian).

Hessari, M., Aliyari, A. 2012, Study and Classification of Megalithic and Mound (Kurgan) Burials in Ardabil Province, Journal of Archaeological Study, 2nd Series, no. 1, Spring & Summer, 5: 113- 130, (in Persian).

Iravani Ghadim, F. 2011. Jafar Abad VIII. Kurgan Kazıları, Kuzeybatı İran. In Öztan, A., Dönme, Ş. (eds), Karadeniz’den Fırat’a Bilgi Üretimi, Önder Bilgi’ye Armağan Yazıları. pp. 119- 216. Ankara, (in Turkish).

Iravani Ghadim, F. 2014. “Jafar Abad Kurgan No IV”, Essays in Honour of Veli Sevin A Life Immersed in Archaeology (Ed. A. Özfırat), İstanbul: 87-107.

Kazempour, M, Niknami, K., Abedi, A., Eskandari, N. 2017. A Fortress and New Kurgan Burials at Zardkhaneh Ahar: Reassessment of the Chronology of the Late Prehistory of NW Iran, International Journal of the Society of Iranian Archaeologists, 3.6: 13- 35.

Kleiss, W. 1971. Zur Ausbreitung Urartus nadl Osten, IstMitt 19(20): 125.

Kouzehgari, Z. 2020. Typological Classification and Analysis of Kurgan Structures in Northwestern Iran; Late Chalcolithic to Iron Age, in Megalithic Monuments and Cult Practices; Proceedings of the Third International Symposium Blagoevgrad, 8-9 September 2020­, Neofit Rilski University Press, pp. 175- 196.

Kroll, S. 1972. Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran. Herausgegeben vom Deutschen Archaeologischen Institut. Abteilung Teheran. Neue Folge, Band 5, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

Muscarella, O., W. 1969. The Tumuli at Sé Girdan: A Preliminary Report. Metropolitan Museum Journal 2: 5-25.

Muscarella, O., W. 1971. The Tumuli at Sé Girdan: Second Report. Metropolitan Museum Journal, 4: 5-28.

Pourfaraj, A. 2007 The Revision of Iron Age in North Western Iran with Case Study on Shaharyeri Site and its Adjacent Fortresses. Unpublished PhD, Dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Tarbiat Modares: Tehran (in Persian).

Pourfaraj, A. 2012. Explaining Iranian north-west Kurgan’s culture based on Nir Boyni Yoghun Castle excavation, in Motaleat Bastan Shenasi Iran, Tehran Univeristy. 5: 59- 82. (in Persian).

Rezaloo, R. Ayramlu, Y. 2014. The Tradition of Horse Burial among the Scythian Tribes; A Case Study of the Khorram Abad Cemetery in Meshkin Shahr, Historical Sociology.  6.3: 113-144 (in Persian).

Schaefer, C., F. A. 1948. Stratigraphie comparée et chronologie de l’Asie occidentale, IIIe et IIe millénaires, London.

Wiegartz, W. 1965. Die Ausgrabung am Tumulus Tepe Majid. Archaeologischer Anzeiger 4: 788- 799.


Zahra Kouzehgari est enseignent-chercheuse de L’Université Lumière Lyon 2 pour l’année académique 2020-2021 et membre de l’UMR 5133-Archéorient, Lyon.. Elle est spécialiste de l’archéologie des armes, des guerres et des sociétés de l’âge du bronze récent et de l’âge du fer en Iran.

Pour citer ce billet : Zahra Kouzeghari. Kurgan construction, rites, and culture during Late Chalcolithic and Iron Age Northwest Iran, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 5 mars 2021, [En ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/15823

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