22 July 2021

A very unusual Siberian cenotaph

That "death mask" is a clay head with skull bones embedded inside.  But the bones turned out not to be human.
The story of this remarkable finding began in 1968. A man’s sculptured head was discovered at the Shestakov burial ground located on the right bank of the River Kiya, not far from the village of Shestakovo, Kemerovo Oblast... In the kurgan where the head was found, inside the burial pit, there was a four-set timber blocking. On its bottom were small pieces of charred bones arranged in large assemblages. Supposedly, from 13 to 15 people were buried there. Next to the timber blocking wall, buried in a layer of red dead-burned clay, was the head, which must have been part of a burial doll of which nothing was left when the tomb was burnt (Martynov, 1974).

The very first publications dedicated to this finding noted that “inside the head, as the X-ray photograph shows, there are skull bones and a small hollow space, which, however, does not correspond to the inner size of the human skull but is much smaller”...

What does the sheep’s skull hidden under the clay covers depicting a man’s face tell us? What is it, an accident? Or was the animal the main hero of ancient history?

The latter hypothesis seems justified. A ram (sheep) is among the most worshipped animals of old times. Initially, the Egyptian god Khnum was depicted as a ram (later, as a man with the head of a ram)... Later, Amun – the sun god, whose sacred animal was a ram – was identified with Khnum. Amun himself was often depicted as a ram or with the head of a ram. Deification of the pharaoh, worshipped as god’s son in flesh, was also connected with Amun...  the Iranian-speaking Scythian-Sarmat communities had the cult of hvarnah, a special deity incarnating glory, grandeur, might, happy destiny, luck, richness, and power. Its zoomorphic image and symbol is a big and strong ram.
Now let us go back to our find. So in a burial crypt of Tagarsk culture, together with people, a sheep in human disguise was buried... The Tesinsk people may have buried in this extraordinary manner a man whose body had not been found (the man could have got lost in the taiga, drowned, or disappeared in alien lands). The man was thus replaced with his double – the animal in which his soul was embodied...

Archaeologists know a number of such burials, referred to as cenotaphs, which have no human remains but may contain a symbolic replacement.

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