Winged Gods and Walking Griffons: A Plate With a Rare Depiction of Scythian Gods Has Been Found in Middle Don

Burial site.

The barrow has already been plundered in ancient times. The plunders laid a wide test pit and 'cleaned' all central part of the cemetery, including the skeleton of the main buried. (Image: via Institute of Archaeology RAS)

The members of the Middle Don expedition of IA RAS have found a unique plate with a depiction of winged Scythian gods surrounded by griffons during their examinations of the barrow cemetery Devitsa V in the Ostrogozhsky District of Voronezh Oblast. This is the first case of such a finding in the Scythian barrows on Middle Don. Depictions of gods from the Scythian pantheon have never been found here before. The head of the Middle Don expedition, doctor of historical sciences Valeriy Gulyaev, said:

“The finding has made an important contribution to our concepts of Scythian beliefs. Firstly, a particular number of gods are depicted at once on one item. Secondly, it has never happened before that an item with depicted gods has been found so far from the north-east of the main Scythian centers.”

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Barrow cemetery Devitsa V, named after the neighboring village area, was found in 2000 by the Middle Don archaeological expedition of IA RAS. The site is situated on the hill of the right bank of the Devitsa River and is a group of 19 mounds that are situated in two parallel chains stretched from west to east. However, a significant part of ancient barrows has already disappeared: the necropolis area belongs to an agricultural sector and is being actively plowed. Since 2010, the site has been systematically studied by specialists from the Middle Don expedition of IA RAS. During the cemetery excavations, some great discoveries have already been made. Thus, in 2019 in barrow 9, a burial site was found that held the remains of a woman-warrior and an old lady in a ceremonial female headdress — calanthe.

Silver plate with a depiction of Scythian gods and eagle-headed griffons found in Middle Don site.
Silver plate with a depiction of Scythian gods and eagle-headed griffons. (Image: via Institute of Archaeology RAS)

In the field season of 2021, the Middle Don archaeological expedition continued examining the necropolis. Archaeologists started excavation works in barrow 7 in the central part of cemetery Devitsa V in the vicinity of barrow 9. After many years of truck plowing, barrow 7 was likely one of the biggest ones in this necropolis and was 1.3 meters in height and 40 meters in diameter.

The main grave referred to Scythian times, which dated back to the 4th century A.D., was located almost under the center of the mound, and was a wooden tomb that measured 7.5 x 5 meters. In ancient times, it was covered with oak half beams that were held by the 17 large oak pillars on the gravesides. Nowadays, this is the biggest grave among all those that have been found in the Devitsa V necropolis.

In the southeastern corner of the grave were the fragments of three horse harness items: horse bits, cheek-pieces, girth buckles, iron browbands, iron, bronze, and bone Scythian pendants. The archaeologists have also found six cheek-piece bronze plates in the shape of wolves with grin jaws, two on each harness. Next to the horse harness was a cut jaw of a young bear, which testifies according to the scientists the bear cult at the Scythes of Middle Don. Apart from it, a molded goblet and a big, black-glazed jar have been found in different parts of the tomb.

Overall view of the burial site. (Image: via Institute of Archaeology RAS)

Although the Middle Don sister was plundered in ancient times, many items have still been found

In the northeastern part of the grave separate from other items and some meters from the skeleton, there was a silver square plate nailed by many small silver nails to a wooden almost disintegrated base. The length of the plate was 34.7 cm, while the width in the middle part was 75 cm. In the central part of the plate, the fertility Goddess known as Argimpasa or Cybele is depicted.

The upper part of her body is stripped and there is headwear, likely a crown with horns, on her head. The Goddess is surrounded on both sides by the figures of winged eagle-headed griffons. The depictions are a mixture of Asia Minor and ancient Greek traditions. This is quite common in excavations of the Scythian barrows of the Northern Sea region, the Dnieper forest-steppe region, and the Northern Caucasus.

The left side of the plate is formed by two square plates decorated with the depictions of syncretic creatures standing in a so-called heraldic pose (in front of each other, close to each other with their paws). From the right side, two round buckles are attached to the plate, each of which has an anthropomorphic character with a crown on its head surrounded by two griffons. Who those characters are and which item was decorated by this plate is still unknown.

The plate in a cemetery in situ. (Image: via Institute of Archaeology RAS)

The barrow had already been plundered in ancient times. The plunderers dug a wide test pit and plundered all the central part of the cemetery, including the skeleton of the main burial. However, at the time of plundering, the roof of the vault had already fallen and that is why in the mixture of soil and tree remnants on the gravesides some grave goods have been preserved. Found items completely match the main elements of the Scythian “triad.” The items of the equipment, harness, and “animal style” were found in a warrior’s grave.

There was a skeleton of a man 40-49 years of age in the grave. Next to his head, archaeologists found many small gold semi-spherical plates that were embroidered into the grave clothes. Along the sides of the skeleton, an iron knife and a horse rib (likely, the remains of the ceremonial food), a spearhead, and three dart’s heads were found. The scientists have been able to identify with high accuracy the length of the weapon since the counterweights of the lower part of the polearm have remained untouched. So the spear was about 3.2 meters long and the darts’ length was about 2.2 meters. Valeriy Gulyaev said:

“There is a great work to be done on studying and interpreting of such an unusual divine figure. However, the finding is important not only as a unique item enlarging our knowledge about the Scythian culture and its existence in the Middle Don region, but it also shows how important is a persistent and systematic search, an accurate and neat working plan, a reliable method of excavations, and scrupulous routine labor of a great number of people of different professions  in the work of an archaeologist. All this leads quite often to significant discoveries which are able to make a significant contribution to a long-established view on the past.”

Provided by: Institute of Archaeology of Russian Academy of Sciences [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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