Many cultures across the ages have practiced bizarre and grisly death rituals, but few did it better than the Scythians of ancient Siberia.
Over 40 years ago, archaeologists discovered this exceptionally creepy clay head among an ancient burial in Siberia. As if this artifact couldn't get much stranger, X-ray imaging of the head later revealed it contained a ram’s skull embedded deep inside.
The 2,100-year-old clay head was found alongside the charred remains of 13 to 15 people in 1968 by Soviet Professor Anatoly Martynov. Found in Minusinsk Hollow among mountains of South Siberia, the burial ground is thought to have belonged to Siberia’s Bronze Age Tagarsk culture.
The Tagarsk are among the best-studied groups of the eastern Scythian cultures, a term used to describe a group of nomadic warriors that raised hell across the entire length of the Eurasian Steppe from around 900 BCE to 200 CE. The culture was essentially the ancient equivalent of a motorcycle gang: tattooed nomads with mohawks that fearlessly patrolled the plains of Eurasian on horseback.
Much of what we know about this ancient culture has been learned through their grand burials, frequently dotted around the Eurasian Steppe and often laden with golden jewelry and weaponry. But even by their standards, this discovery was exceptional.
When archeologists first studied the clay head in the 1970s, they suspected it was a real human skull, caked in clay and sculpted to look like a human face – a practice that had been previously documented in the area from this time. However, the researchers began to suspect it wasn't actually a human skull, noting the shape of the head "does not correspond to the inner size of the human skull but is much smaller.”
In 2010, researchers from Russia’s Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the RAS used a technique known as computed X-ray tomography on the clay head and revealed it contained the skull of a sheep or ram.
While we might never know the full significance of this elaborate death ritual, researchers have a few suspicions about what it could mean. Writing in the Russian publication Science First Hand (SCFH), Professor Natalia Polosmak explains that the burial might have been used for a man whose body had not been found, either because they disappeared, drowned, or were lost in foreign lands. In their body’s absence, the clay head was used to create a so-called "burial doll" to physically represent their soul as it was passed into the afterlife.
"Soft issues had been removed from the dead bodies; the bones had been banded together with twigs, wrapped with grass bunches, and sewn round with thick leather – the result was a burial doll," writes Polosmak.
The use of the ram skull, however, is a little more uncertain. Professor Polosmak notes that rams held high importance for many ancient peoples, including the ancient Egyptians, nomadic Mongolian cultures, and other cultures across Central Asia. Perhaps, in this instance, the ram was used to embody or symbolize an aspect of the person’s soul.