What do Winds of the Great Steppe Carry to Us from the Past?

Earth depths of the South Ural region hide not only mineral resources, but also layers of ancient history left by the people who lived in this territory thousands of years ago. Which new mysteries have the archaeology researchers from South Ural State University have managed to unravel? And what do they keep working on?

We have discussed these topics with Director of the SUSU Eurasian Studies Research and Education Centre, Doctor of Sciences (History) Aleksandr Tairov.

– In which fields of research are the Centre's scientists carrying out their studies? What was the last year marked with, and what awaits them in this new one?

– The Eurasian Studies Research and Education Centre has been functioning since 2014. Before that the team of archaeologists worked at the SUSU Department of Ancient History and Ethnology of Eurasia.

Our team's main field of research is the Central Eurasia Society from the Ancient Times to the Modern Era within the Frameworks of a Multidisciplinary Approach.

Last year we completed our work within the RSF/Region (2022–2023) grant on the Society Architecture and Spiritual Culture of the South Ural Nomads in the Early Iron Age. 

In addition, under the Priority 2030 program, we began our work on the project on the Southern Trans-Urals in the System of Regional and Interregional Economic and Ethnocultural Ties in the Central Eurasia (2nd Millennium BC – 2nd Millennium A.D.). That is, we cover the period from the Bronze Age and till the 19th century, almost till our time. This project is planned to be fulfilled within 3 years.

We would like to study the place of the Southern Trans-Urals in the ethnocultural space of Eurasia, and trace the intraregional ties (ties between the population of the steppe and forest-steppe zone, between the tribes of the steppe and forest-steppe zone with the population of the mountain-forest zone). For nomads of the early Iron Age, for instance, this was the interaction between the dwellers of the steppe with the members of the Itkul archaeological culture. 

In all historical eras our region has been a very special locus. South Ural region has diverse geography, so the population of various geographical zones had to build economic and cultural contacts between themselves this way or another. If we do not take the Stone Age into account, then this principle remains a cultural constant for 4 thousand years now.

Through the south of our region went all the mass migrations of peoples from the east to the west, and from the west to the east – from the times of the nomads to the era of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In the Bronze Age and early Iron Age there were two main communication routes from the east to the west. The northern route – through the Southern Trans-Urals, and the southern route, which roughly speaking was the Silk Road. At times the southern route began dominating over the northern one, but the travels across the Southern Trans-Urals never ceased: the space was just too tight between the Caspian Sea and the Ural Mountain Range. 

– Could you please specify what exactly South Urals implies? Not only residents of the Chelyabinsk Region call their region this way, but residents of the Orenburg Region and of Bashkortostan do as well. Let us clarify this term.

– According to some geographers, the boundary of the South Ural region lies in the valley where the Ural River crosses the Ural Mountain Range (in the vicinity of the city of Orsk). In terms of geology: the Mugodzhar Hills, that continue beyond the Or River and up until the Aral Sea, are an extension of the Ural Mountain Range, that is, those can also be called the South Urals. Today, with consideration to the cultural factors, it is commonly believed that in the north the South Ural region ends on the border between the Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions, and its southern boundary coincides with the border of the Orenburg Region. The boundary between Trans-Urals and Cis-Urals lies along the main Ural mountain ranges, and farther on is projected as per  the centre of the Mugodzhar Hills: there is a watershed there, and rivers run in different directions, with some exceptions though. And the eastern boundary of the Trans-Urals lies in the Turgay Hollow near the Ubagan River (tributary of the Tobol River in the Kostanay Region). Both the materials from the early Iron Age and Bronze Age found in the Kostanay Region are identical to those found in the Chelyabinsk Region according to a number of parameters. In the Turgay Hollow scientists also found archaeological monuments of the Sintashta type, as well as Sarmatian burials, but beyond the Turgay both the cultural and geographical pictures differ fundamentally.

– What does the multidisciplinary approach in Centre's activity imply? What types of scientists are involved in your work?

– We are actively collaborating with anthropologists, who help us determine the sex and age of the buried people, and their anthropological types (Mongoloid, Caucasoid, etc.). In the SUSU People and Technologies of the Urals University Museum you can see portrait busts of the South Ural region's residents from various epochs – these are reconstructions created by Aleksey Nechvaloda, an anthropologist from the city of Ufa. We are also working with paleozoologists, or to put it simply  with osteologists, who study animal bones. In particular, we are collaborating with researchers from the Institute of Ecology of Animals and Plants of the Ural Division of Russian Academy of Sciences, and from Samara State University of Social Sciences and Education. We are also closely collaborating with geologists from Miass, where the Institute of Mineralogy of the Ural Division of Russian Academy of Sciences and the Faculty of Geology of the SUSU Branch are located. We are conducting joint research on the composition of metals (iron, gold, and bronze) in ancient goods, and the composition of paints found in burial grounds. For example, we registered cases of the use of vermillion ink. This paint is made of a mineral not found in the Ural region, but mined in the Altai and Pamir areas – and here is the proof of economic ties between regions.

Paleobotanists help us in performing the anthracological analysis – using coal to determine the types of trees. Soil scientists can determine the meteorological conditions of those epochs judging from the conditions of soils. Limnologists examine bead necklaces. And radiocarbon analysis and genetic research are performed by our colleagues from Novosibirsk. 

– What kind of work did you carry out in the field?

– This year we have been mostly working in the field at the Uyelgi burial ground, its excavation has long been in progress in the Kunashaksky District. This is the early Middle Ages epoch, and our research deals with the Magyar issue (ancestors of the Hungarians lived here). In addition, we have been monitoring and examining the condition of the archaeological monuments discovered in the Kunashaksky, Kartalinsky, and Bredinsky districts in the previous years. Alas, for instance, some of the monuments from among about 40 of those located in the Bredinsky wildlife reserve turned out to be completely destroyed as a result of the water reservoir’s operation. On the other hand, thanks to the reduction of the cattle grazing, some of the monuments had been preserved better due to good turf cover. 

– The work of an academic scholar is also evaluated according to the level of publications, and reports at conferences. Was the year of 2023 successful for you in this regard?

– Our Centre’s staff members published 49 papers with 15 thereof in editions indexed in Scopus. An article by E.R. Usmanova (our colleague from Kazakhstan, who also worked part-time at our Centre) has been released in one of the first 2024 issues on the Nature international journal. S.G. Botalov, G.Kh. Samigulov, and I.V. Grudochko published their papers in the Q2 Scopus journals.

Our staff members also participated in the traditional international conference on the Problems of Sarmatian Archaeology and History, which is held every two years. The latest one has been organized in the city of Volgograd, and the next one will be held in Vladikavkaz. Our colleagues took part in the Margulan Readings (Almaty, Kazakhstan), in the Ural Historical Forum towards the 300th Anniversary of Ekaterinburg, in the Tatishchev Readings, in the international conference on the nomads of Eurasia held in Chimkent, in the Mazhitov Readings in the city of Ufa, and in the Conference on Geoarchaeology and Archaeological Mineralogy 2023 in Miass. The proceedings of the latter are published in English by the Springer publishing house.

Our colleagues also took part in the work on the Military History of the South Urals album book, among its authors were N.A. Antipin and G.Kh. Samigulov.

In 2024 we have filed applications for three grants for the total amount of over 10 million roubles. We are planning on continuing our work under the Priority 2030 program. And, of course, we will keep participating in conferences. Currently, our History students and colleagues are heading to the Ural-Volga Archaeological Conference for students. On May 28th, here in Chelyabinsk, we will organize the First Zdanovich Readings in memory of our fellow-countryman and mentor, outstanding archaeologist G.B. Zdanovich.

– Discoveries by scientists must be made public. Which exhibitions or museum displays has the Centre managed to organize?

– We have updated the exhibit at the People and Technologies of the Urals University Museum located at the SUSU semi-basement floor.

As part of 114 excursions, 1997 people have attended the Ancient Urals exhibit; and as part of other 159 excursions, 3009 people have attended the Industrial Urals exhibit.

Last year, February through July, the museum offered an exhibit titled Mystery Box: Traditional Jewellery of the Turkic People from the Southern Trans-Urals, which was attended by 1296 people.

September through December, we organized an exhibit on the Issedones, Arimaspi, and Griffons Guarding the Gold: South Urals in the 1st Millennium BC, which was attended by 1606 people.

In 2023, the People and Technologies of the Urals University Museum took part in 2 exhibitions held by the State Museum of the South Ural History. The Urals Wonder. Stone Flower exhibit displayed 33 items from our collections and was attended by 13048 people.

There was also an exhibition on the History of My Horse. 40 Thousand Years Together, which presented 4 items from our collections and was attended by 6840 people.

Our museum located in the semi-basement floor of the SUSU main building welcomes for free all the university students and staff members, as well as all the interested residents and guests of the South Ural region’s capital.


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