Early Medieval Burial-ground at Mamisondon in Northern Ossetia

Little light is shed on the ancient history of the Caucasus region in written sources so, when it is being studied, archaeological data are extremely important. Usually the archaeological sites which provide the most revealing and concentrated information about historical processes are those in contact zones. One such site in the Central Caucasus is the Zaramag Basin in the Alagir District of the Republic of Northern Ossetia — Alania, which lies at a point where various ravines intersect mountain passes linking the Northern Caucasus and Transcaucasia.
In 2007–2008 during rescue excavations in a zone, where it is planned to build the reservoir of the Zaramag hydro-electric power-station at the south-western edge of the village Nizhnii Zaramag, a new site was discovered and investigated dating from the late-7th to the early-9th century — the Mamisondon Burial-ground. As regards the funerary rite used, this site differs markedly from the necropoleis of that period previously recorded in Ossetia. The funerary structures found in Mamisondon, according to the data so far available, reveal similarities to structures widespread in the North-Western Caucasus in the upper reaches of the Kuban River, in the Crimea and in the middle reaches of the Don. It has not yet been established with which ethnic group this rite is associated. The burials were laid out in rectangular flat pits and the bodies were in wooden-frame, bottomless coffins and, as a rule, covered over with a number of planks laid out crossways. A “soft covering” would appear to have been laid out over the planks — an animal skin, leather, textile or mat, held in place with stones arranged round the edge.
The deceased were laid out with their heads pointing west and seasonal changes in their orientation were also recorded: women were buried in a flexed position, mainly on their right side — only seldom on their left side. The male deceased were in a supine position.
The surviving fragments of textile items show that the inhabitants of the Zaramag Basin wore garments made of linen, hemp, cotton and silk. Textiles were often used which had been imported from workshops in Egypt, Central Asia or China.
As regards the grave goods, represented by merely a few items of personal jewellery or parts of attire, the Mamisondon Burial-ground was similar to the Christian burials in Georgia, yet many items were often of a local variety. As many as nineteen rings were placed on the fingers of the deceased: they were made of copper alloys, occasionally silver, iron or coloured glass. Both Christian and Muslim symbols were to be found on the upper surfaces of rings used as seals: some incorporated interesting glass insets bearing depictions in relief of a bird, griffins or ungulates.
The head-dress or scarves of the women were often decorated with temple rings to which were attached three rows of hanging beads. In the late period of the burial-ground from around the second half of the 8th century, women began to use bronze pins to hold their hair in place.
Anthropological studies made it possible to piece together an interesting demographic picture based on this burial-ground. During the time it was being used, the male population of Zamarag underwent considerable changes. The local men were supplanted by another group from outside, which was not homogenous as regards its anthropological composition.
It is possible that the influx of a new mixed male population was linked with one of the events of the Arab-Khazar wars, when, in 763/764 the Khazars, under the leadership of Ras-Tarkhan, poured into Transcaucasia and dealt a serious blow to the Arabs. In response, according to Yaqut’s account, “Abu Ja’far gave orders for 7,000 men to be released from prisons and for many warriors to be rallied together in various regions, whom he then sent out (against the Khazars) after adding workmen and builders to their number”. These detachments repaired or built from scratch defensive installations at the frontiers, where their lands met those of the Arabs and Khazars and they made up the garrisons in border fortresses. One of these fortresses — Kasar Fortress — was built to defend the population against the threat from the North, stemming from the Khazars and their allies, the Alans: it was situated 4.5 km north of Nizhnii Zaramag.

Z. K-M. Albegrova (Tsarikaeva)

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