Text by Vitaliy Shuptar
From the 12th to the 8th centuries BC central Kazakhstan was an important locus of civilization, the home of a unique late-Bronze Age culture known as Begazy-Dandybai. Remains from this period have been found at a number of sites scattered across the Sary-Arka steppe including Begazy and Dandybai (whence the name for the late-Bronze Age culture), Tegiz-Zhol, Kent, Bugyly, Sanguyr, Aksu-Ayulu, Atasu and others. These and other settlements in the Saryarka steppe constituted at that time one of Eurasia’s most important facilities for the mining of copper ore and the production and working of both copper and bronze. The people of the Begazy-Dandybai culture acquired a reputation for their products that spread far beyond the confines of central Kakzkhstan.
The physical remains of the Begazy-Dandybai culture that have survived into our era include settlements, mines and metallurgical furnaces, cult structures such as menhirs, and burial grounds, many of these finds occuring either beside rivers or in gorges. Usually very little of Begazy-Dandybai housing has lasted into our present: typically, little more than shallow circular or elliptical hollows, former hearths, containing coal, ashes, burnt bones, and sometimes articles made of clay, bone, metal or stone. Archeologists like these ashpits: they provide a great deal of information to those that know how to excavate and interpret them.
But the ashpit example illustrates an important fact: few of these archeological sites are very attractive to the layman because in most cases the surviving structures are very far from grandiose or impressive. For example, burial-grounds are often no more than a few stones standing vertically in the soil; and settlements seem to the non-archeologist to be nothing more than shallow rectangular pits sometimes marked out into smaller squares with string. So while archeologists may find visits to these sites fascinating, especially if they are interested perhaps in helping with excavation - because there is an immense amount of work still to be done - the layman may be less inspired by the average archeological dig. This consideration explains the desire to set up small museums at some of these sites to display the finds in contexts that make sense to the layman and that are therefore sufficiently interesting to justify a visit.
Now I’ll sketch three of these sites: Begazy, Tegiz-Zhol, and Kent.
The Tegiz-Zhol complex, which comprises a metallurgy settlement and a necropolis beside it, is not far from the town of Temirtau, north-west of Karaganda. Preliminary excavations have revealed evidence for copper-smelting: slag, lumps of copper ore, and foundry furnaces.
Tegiz-Zhol chiefs are interred in the necropolis in stone vaults of considerable size: three meters high and more. Near these imposing funerary structures are the graves of the less prosperous or powerful local rank and file, which take the form either of a stone slab laid over the grave, or in some cases a stone casket. There are also memorials to dead locals whose bodies could not be buried here, either because the person concerned died far away, or because the body could not be found. These cenotaphs are in effect symbolic burial grounds.
A distinctive feature of the barrows found in Tegiz-Zhol are their so-called whiskers: rows of stones projecting from the foot of the barrow. Pottery, altar-stones and bronze artefacts including daggers and arrowheads, have been found in some abundance here.
For some years the Karaganda authorities have been considering building an open-air museum here at Temirkash, or even a replica of an ancient house where visitors might stay to get a sense of the atmosphere of this ancient settlement. The signs are that work will start soon.
The Kent settlement dating from the late Bronze Age (12th to 9th century BC) is situated in the Kent mountains 270 km south-east of Karaganda. The largest such settlement in Central Kazakhstan - the centre alone occupies 30 hectares, and the total area, including the farmed land, exceeds 100 hectares - many archeologists consider it a proto-city. The inhabitants of Kent produced bronze, as evidenced by the huge furnaces in which copper and tin were combined to make the alloy.
But Kent was not restricted to bronze production. Agricultural products were stored, processed and traded here, and there is also evidence of an important religious function, in the form of a stone sanctuary measuring 84 meters long by 46 meters wide. Moreover, Kent was a significant political and economic regional centre: ceramic and other artefacts found in the area prove that the settlement had numerous commercial and political contacts with western Siberia, Central Asia, Xinjiang and Iran.
One final discovery at Kent suggests that archeologists may have to revise their chronology of the development of metallurgy. Iron ore, slag and iron-smelting furnaces indicate iron production as early as the 10th century BC, two centuries earlier than was commonly believed until the excavations at Kent revealed this startling discovery.
The Begazy burial ground is probably the most famous archaeological site in Central Kazakhstan. It was from this burial ground that the investigation of Bronze Age culture in Kazkahstan began. Begazy was discovered by a leading light of Kazakhstani archeology, Alkei Margulan, who carried out the first excavations there in 1947. The burial ground occupies about ten hectares.
The granite sepulchres of Begazy, sometimes called slab fences by the archeologists, constitute some of the biggest physical remains of the Begazy-Dandybai period. They share a basically similar construction, being square in plan, stone-faced, and oriented to the four cardinal points of the compass. Each tomb has an entrance corridor let into the east wall. The facings are made of granite which has obviously been carefully smoothed: huge slabs of it weighing up to 3 tons and measuring up to 3.8 meters by 1.2. These slabs, dug slightly into the ground, stand in rows.
Not far from the burial ground there are numerous terraced mines, testifying to the extraction of copper and tin. Ceramic remains found near Begazy suggest settlement by non-nomadic peoples.