Trove of gold harness fittings found in Kazakhstan

Archaeologists have discovered a large number of gold harness fittings associated with a burial mound at the necropolis of Eleke Sazy in East Kazakhstan. The 850 pieces were artfully designed and executed by the master metallurgists of the Saka culture, a semi-nomadic Scythian people who inhabited the Eurasian Steppe from the 8th century B.C. The objects have been preliminarily dated to the 5th-4th centuries B.C., the Middle Saka period.

All of the pieces are zoomorphic in design, depicting stylized animals, like deer and elk. A group of pendants in the form of a mythological feline-like creature with large round ears are of a type never encountered before. The gold is of extremely high quality. Most Saka harness fittings are made of thin gold foil. These are crafted from thick sheet gold.

The objects were not discovered in the burial mound itself, but adjacent to it. Archaeologists believe they were left as offerings to the spirit of the ancestor who was buried in the kurgan. The richness of the deposit attests to the great reverence in which the deceased, likely a Saka ruler, was held. In an extremely rare find, evidence of a bronze and gold smithy was discovered 165 feet away from the kurgan.

Located on a plateau a mile above sea level in the Tarbagatai Mountains of East Kazakhstan, the Eleke Sazy complex was remote enough to make archaeological exploration challenging. Local legend held that the hillocks sprinkling the area were kurgans, the site wasn’t surveyed by archaeologists until 2011. Official excavations began in 2016 and over the course of several dig seasons, international teams of archaeologists discovered more than 350 burial mounds, ranging in date from the Early Saka to the Late Turkic period, spanning 1,500 years.

Most of them had been looted repeatedly for more than a thousand years, but in 2018, the intact grave of a young Saka man was discovered in side burial in Kurgan Number Four. He was only around 18 years old when he died, but was so richly furnished in gold jewelry — more than 5,000 gold objects were found in the grave, including a torc weighing more a kilo and thousands of beads just a millimeter long that were sewn onto his trousers and shoes — that he was dubbed theĀ  Golden Man. (He’s actually the second Saka Golden Man. The first Golden Man was discovered in the Issyk kurgan in 1969. These are the only two unlooted graves of Saka nobles ever discovered.)