Russian troops are destroying ancient nomadic tombs

The Times 4 May 2022
By George Grylls

Soldiers desecrate burial mounds by using them as firing positions

Russian troops are looting Scythian gold and destroying ancient burial sites dating back more than 2,200 years, Ukrainian officials have said.

Cultural inspectors said that Kurgans, sacred mounds dating to the first millenium 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. Experts from the British Museum warned that the destruction of the distinctive monuments of the Scythian culture, would be a “loss to humanity”.

Russian forces are alleged to have looted one of the “largest and most expensive” collections of Scythian artefacts in Ukraine from Melitopol.

Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of Melitopol, said that the local museum had been ransacked for gold. “The orcs have taken hold of our Scythian gold,” he said, using the now customary Ukrainian term for Russians. “We don’t know about its fate, but of course this gold has been stolen from our community, and I hope that we will be able to get it back.”

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 powers, they controlled territory from northern China to Hungary.

Little contemporary writing about their culture survives, apart from a detailed account from the Greek historian Herodotus. It is thought that tattooed Scythian women may have been the inspiration for the Greek legend of the Amazons, a race of fearsome female warriors.

Archaeologists have pieced together the story of Scythian culture by excavating Kurgans, which were repositories of gold and bear testimony to the civilisation’s prowess in archery and horse-riding.

Dr St John Simpson, an archaeologist at the British Museum who curated a 2017 exhibition on the Scythians in collaboration with the Hermitage in St Petersburg, said the destruction of the sites was a “loss to humanity”.


“These tombs are the monuments of nomads. They are anchors that allow them to come back and revisit and recognise their own space in the open grassland.

“Apart from Herodotus, 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.”

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.”
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