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Rare third-century B.C. incense burner unearthed in South Siberia

August 09, 17:46 UTC+3 ST. PETERSBURG
The newly-found incense burner will be brought to St. Petersburg soon and placed in restorers’ care
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© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS

ST. PETERSBURG, August 9. /TASS/. A rare incense burner - special vessel meant for burning herbs dated back to the late 3rd century B.C. - has been found in Khakassia, South Siberia by an expedition team from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the History of Material Culture (IHMC) and the Russian Geographical Society. Experts hope that this find, adorned by solar symbols, will help date a large group of ancient artifacts unearthed or yet to be unearthed in southern Siberia with an accuracy to within 50 years.

"Archeologists excavating the Itkol II burial site in the Shira district of Khakassia have found the grave of a noble woman dated back to the Okunev Culture of the Early Bronze Age, 25th-18th centuries B.C.," said the leader of the IHMC’s expedition, Andrey Polyakov. "The clay incense burner bearing three sun-shaped facial images that was recovered from the grave is the most important find of all. Its importance is hard to overestimate. All such images previously discovered had been found only on cliffs or on separate stones. Now there is a chance to find out when they were made."

Exhibit for future display at Hermitage museum

A previous find of equal importance that prompted a thorough excavation at the Itkol II burial site was made in 2010. The newly-found incense burner will be brought to St. Petersburg soon and placed in restorers’ care.

"The censer needs restoration. It was damaged back in ancient times, when the body of a child was buried in the same grave next to the woman’s remains," Polyakov said. "As soon as restoration work has been completed the IHMC will contribute it to the Hermitage collection."

Scientists say the recently-discovered grave is unique for many reasons; one being that it has remained intact. It escaped being pillaged. As they examined the grave, the archeologists recovered quite a few funeral artifacts - a sure sign that the buried woman enjoyed a special status during her lifetime. There are about a hundred decorations made from the teeth of different animals, carved bone and horn items, two jars, two needle cases with bone needles inside, a bronze knife and more than 1,500 beads that had decorated the woman’s clothes. Archeologists are still uncertain what several bone items were meant for. Further examination may produce an answer, among which ritual uses are not being ruled out.

Resemblance to North American Indians but of Kazakh origin

Itkol II will continue to be studied in 2017. Scientists hope to examine the central graves of the burial site. They expect to find additional items that will tell them more about the Okunev Culture people, unparalleled in Siberia in terms of artistic richness and diversity. Current anthropologists maintain that representatives of that culture belonged to a mixed European-Mongoloid type, the closest to the American Indians in the entire Siberia.

Polyakov said that the findings made during the 2016 season have prompted scientists to put forward a new theory explaining the emergence of the Okunev Culture people. A stone slab found at Itkol II carries a rare image of a bull having a long rectangular body, not common in southern Siberia but in the territory of what is today’s Kazakhstan. Archeologists see this as an indication the Okunev Culture people might have migrated to Khakassia from the South.

The stone roofs of some graves on a burial hill at Itkol II bear chiseled images - known as Okunev faces. Archeologists believe they are not faces of real people, but most probably images of spirits, gods and other supernatural deities. One of the faces belongs to a type never discovered before.

Antiquity in 3D

The IHMC expedition has worked at the Itkol II burial site since 2008. It has gathered a large collection of finds - more than 560 items all in all. In 2016, the IHMC and the Russian Geographical Society launched a joint project called Mysteries of the Ancient Artists of Siberia. The purpose is to study the Okunev Culture’s art heritage, believed to be one of the brightest cultures of the Early Bronze Age in the all of Northern Eurasia.

The culture owes its name to the locality of Okunev, in the south of Khakassia, where the first burial site of this type was excavated in 1928. The Okunev Steles - anthropomorphous stone columns several meters tall - are the most widely known monument attributed to this culture. The top of these steles has the shape of a bird’s beak. The middle part is decorated with images of one or several anthropomorphous creatures, while the lower part resembles the open mouth of a snake looking down. This is a clear hint the ancient people’s beliefs were rather sophisticated: they maintained that the world around them consists of three major elements.

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