The Iron Age to early medieval cemetery of Klin Yar

Summary of fieldwork and ongoing post-excavation analysis

Andrej Belinskij and Heinrich Harke

Burial from Klin YarThe site of Klin Yar outside the town of Kislovodsk, in the district of Stavropol (Russia), is a key site for later prehistoric and early medieval archaeology in the North Caucasus. Previous excavations have uncovered some 350 graves of the Iron Age Koban Culture, and the Sarmatian and Alanic periods. The full extent can currently only be guessed at, but it may be between 1000 and 3000 graves. Cultural contacts shown in grave-goods are wide-ranging, from Central Asia to Mesopotamia and Byzantium. In the Alanic period, a branch of the Silk Road led past Klin Yar.

It is the presence of three cultural and chronological phases here which makes Klin Yar a suitable case for the study of population dynamics, acculturation and ethnogenesis. A project involving the University of Reading (Great Britain) and the Ministry of Culture of Stavropol Region was started in 1994 to explore these questions. Three joint seasons of fieldwork were undertaken in 1994 to 1996, with funding from the British Academy. The final tally of the three seasons is: 17 Koban burials, nine Sarmatian tombs, two transitional Sarmatian/Alanic and 24 Alanic catacombs, two 'cenotaphs' and two unassociated 'horse skin' (head-and-hooves) depositions. The excavations also produced some settlement evidence of Koban date.

Burial rites

The construction of Iron Age graves conformed to the standard type of Koban graves: they contained one crouched inhumation each, the skeletal position of which appeared to depend on the individual's sex (males lying on their right side, women on their left). The grave pits were sub-rectangular, mostly shallow affairs, occasionally with a stone lining or stone cover. Most graves produced some artefacts; only burials of young children were without any grave-goods. A standard item in most Koban graves was a pottery bowl. Male burials had additional grave-goods such as iron weapons or tools (spearhead, knife or awl), and a whetstone. The artefacts in women's graves were more varied: headdress remains, beads and pins.

The Sarmatian burial rite at Klin Yar is inhumation in underground chambers, with the body deposited in extended position on the back; in the case of double burials, a male and a female were buried in separate, but linked chambers. Apart from these general features, the common theme of the Sarmatian graves is their diversity.

The Sarmatian grave 387 at Klin Yar

By comparison, the Alanic catacombs appeared almost standardized in their construction as well as in many aspects of their ritual. A narrow passage (dromos) leads into the hill slope, to a small entrance closed with a large stone and blue clay; behind this lies an oval chamber the long axis of which runs at right angles to the direction of the dromos. The dromos often contains a deposition of pottery (a broken or complete vessel), in case of a rich grave also a horse and/or horse-gear or arrows. In some dromoi, large charcoal patches suggested the presence here of fire. In the chamber, the body (or bodies) would be laid out on the back, occasionally slightly turned to one side (usually towards another body), with the head to the west. On the southern slope of the hill, females (identified by their dress ornaments) were invariably deposited in the northern half of the chamber, males in the southern half. Most catacombs in the elite plot (cf. below) had been used, or prepared, for multiple burials, often successive ones involving the re-opening of the chamber for the burial of individuals of different gender or different age groups. This deliberate re-use suggests that these were the tombs of specific families or kin groups.

The Sarmatian-Alanic elite plot

From the beginning of the project, the excavators had the luck to find a series of rich graves which had eluded previous excavators. Over the three years of fieldwork, this elite plot was excavated in a north-south strip 33 metres long and 10 metres wide. The plot included the richest Sarmatian and Alanic burials known from Klin Yar, among them one of the richest Alanic graves from the North Caucasus.

Four Alanic catacombs of the early 7th century were at the core of the plot: the rich, large chambers 360 and 363, and the immediately adjacent, but robbed chambers 364 and 368 (the latter with a 'horse skin' on top of the dromos). As well as showing splendid wealth, catacomb 363 supplied some of the most intriguing evidence for secondary deposition. On the floor of the chamber, long bones of two adult individuals were found, but only one skull which seems to have been split and the two halves carefully laid out in such a way as to suggest the presence of two skulls.

Catacomb 360 was the outstanding grave of the elite plot. A complete horse and a pottery jar rested on the floor of the dromos. The chamber was the deepest and largest in the plot, and of very regular, oval shape. The two skeletons on the floor of the chamber were undisturbed: on the south the male, with artificailly deformed skull, facing the female whose body was turned towards him. With the female were found two golden earrings in Byzantine style, a gold brooch, a bronze mirror and beads, a bag, and bronze shoe fittings. The man wore a small gold earring in his left ear, and sported golden boot fittings. At his right side was a sword with decorated hilt and P-shaped scabbard mounts (a frequent type in Avar contexts, but with a distribution from Central Asia to Northern Italy), and a sword belt decorated with numerous gold and silver fittings in 'heraldic' style. At his feet, the horse gear had been deposited: an iron horse bit, an iron stirrup with a golden strap end, and what appeared to be a complete horse harness with bronze and silver fittings. A shallow pit between the male skeleton and the entrance held a large bronze bowl, a chain-mail breast patch, a decorated belt and about 15 arrows. Further vessels were in the head end of the chamber, among them a Byzantine glass bowl.


The existence of the elite plot, the very high social level represented in it, and its apparent time depth through two cultural periods have far-reaching implications for the social structure of the Klin Yar population. The discovery in 1995 of two wealthy Koban graves within a few metres of the richest Sarmatian and Alanic tombs at this site is suggestive of an even greater time depth. The new excavations have also provided information on the spatial patterning of the Klin Yar burial areas. One of the key tasks for the post-excavation work will be to see how the social and spatial patterns relate to population dynamics. Particular interest will focus on population change and continuity over the three cultural phases present in the burial record. Post-excavation work is in progress, and the full publication of the finds and findings from this joint Anglo-Russian project is being prepared.

Current post-excavation work - Klin Yar: physical anthropology

The post-excavation work for the Klin Yar project (see the summary report above) is making slow, but steady progress. In spring of 2000, a draft report was submitted by the Moscow-based team of anthropologists, A. Buzhilova, M.V. Koslovskaya and M. Mednikova (Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences). They have applied the full range of analytical techniques, including bone chemistry, to the 112 skeletons from three phases: Koban (Iron Age), Sarmatian (Roman Iron Age) and Alanic (early medieval), with a small number of transitional Sarmato-Alanic graves. The report provides important insights which add substantially to the archaeological results, but also force some rethinking on the part of the archaeologists, as is highlighted in the comments following the excerpts below.

Excerpts from the report

Demography: The demographic structure of the Koban series differs from that of the Sarmatian and Alanic samples, The latter are characterized by a high mortality in the age group 20-29 and an absence of older individuals. On known palaeodemographic analogies, this may be explained with a military specialization of the Sarmatian and Alanic populations.

Skeletal constitution: Variability is mainly present in the male population while the female skeletons show a stable series of gracile features. There was a change from relatively small and medium-gracile Koban males to big and tall Sarmatian males. In the following period, variability in the the male groups increased through a process of gracilization, with the transitional Sarmato-Alans nearer to the Sarmatians than to the smaller Alans. Morphological differences between the sexes were less pronounced in the Koban population, and more marked among the Sarmatians. Sarmato-Alans and Alans show a decrease in sexual dimorphism. The disappearance of the big variant which characterizes the Sarmatian males of Klin Yar may be explained with general microevolution patterns, with the influence of local conditions on the Sarmatian immigrants, or with intermarriage with the native population.

Palaeopathology: In the Koban sample we can identify differences between males and females in the frequencies of dental disease. Among the Sarmatians, the dental pathologies of males and females were closely similar. For the Alans, gender differences are typical, and dental disease is more frequent in men. Sarmatian and Alanic males are closer to one another, and they differ from Koban individuals who show a different variability of features. By contrast, Koban and Sarmatian women are similar to one another. Markers of interrupted growth in childhood which reflect periods of adverse conditions were found in all periods at Klin Yar. But Harris lines and dental enamel hypoplasia show higher frequencies in the Sarmatian and Alanic periods than in the Koban period. These trends may reflect stress due to economic problems, and to the influence of the new environment on the migrants.

Anemia occurs sporadically while the occurrence of rickets shows a chronological pattern: the disease occurs in the Alanic period, not only in children, but also in adult males and females. The frequency of skull trauma and postcranial trauma is similar among Sarmatian and Alanic males. Among women, the Koban series stands out with a higher frequency of trauma. In the distribution of diseases of the joints and the spine, Sarmatians and Alans are again closer to one another, and different from the Koban group. The latter are characterized by a series of features which occur in farmers. Overall, the data point to a similar style of life for Sarmatians and Alans.

Epigenetic traits: The analysis suggests kinship links between individuals from Alanic elite burials (363, 371, 381). A higher number of epigenetic features was noted among the Alans, and some of them are characteristic only of them.

Bone chemistry: The results suggest that nutrition was different for the various cultural groups. Large-scale consumption of meat was not characteristic for the Koban group, in contrast to the Sarmatians and Alans. The analysis also shows that the Koban group probably suffered periods of malnutrition.

Summary: Taking all anthropological data together, two migrations are reflected in the Klin Yar evidence. The first wave was connected with the Sarmatians, and it was probably an immigration of males who intermarried with the native female population. The second wave was connected with the Alans. The female population of the Alanic period is different from that of the previous periods, and probably consisted of new arrivals. While the Koban group shows a complex of demographic, morphological, palaeopathological, and palaeodietary features which are typical of farmers, the Sarmatians and Alans belonged to a different cultural and economic tradition.


The patterns identified by the physical anthropologists confirm the archaeological hypothesis of an immigration of Sarmatian pastoralists from the northern steppes into the North Caucasus, but they cut it down to 'males only'. But the skeletal evidence also suggests a second immigration, in the Sarmatian-Alanic transition around the fifth century AD., which coincides with a marked cultural and ritual continuity at Klin Yar and in the surrounding area. Both observations pose a challenge for archaeologists who will have to abandon previous models and come up with ideas on how a male-only migration could lead to profound culture change while how a substantial immigration might have happened without apparently upsetting cultural, social and economic patterns. It is planned to back up the skeletal study with DNA analysis, also to be carried out at Moscow.

Heinrich Härke (September 2000)

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