Mongolian 'Game of Thrones' Revealed in Ancient Engravings

drone footage
Drone footage show 14 mysterious stone pillars unearthed in the Mongolian steppe that provide clues to ancient power struggles. Segments of the inscriptions and sarcophagus excavated from the hole at the center of the ruins can be seen. (Image credit: Osaka University and Institute of History and Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of Science)

A 1,300-year-old structure containing 14 engraved stone pillars was recently discovered in Mongolia, hinting at a centuries-old power struggle that may have ended in assassination.

The pillars were found surrounding the remains of a now-empty sarcophagus, or stone coffin.

The inscriptions, written in a Turkic language, say that the person buried at the site (whose name is not yet clear) became the second most powerful person in an empire that controlled much of what is now Mongolia and parts of northern China. This was centuries before Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes swept across the steppe and conquered much of the world.

The inscriptions say that the unnamed individual was given the title "Yagbu" (viceroy) during the reign of Bilge Qaghan (716-734), a ruler who was later poisoned, according to historical records. 

The inscriptions on the 14 stone pillars indicate that this unnamed Yagbu outlived Bilge Qaghan and also obtained the title "Tölis-Shad" (Royalty of the East) during the reign of Bilge's successor, Tengri Qaghan (734- 741).

This title made the unnamed Yagbu the "commander in chief and highest administrative officer in eastern Mongolia," researchers with Osaka University in Japan and the Institute of History and Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences said in a statement. [10 Epic Battles That Changed History]

Ancient "Game of Thrones"

It is not clear what role, if any, this unnamed Yagbu played in the poisoning of Bilge Qaghan. (A qaghan is an imperial title roughly equivalent to "emperor," while "qaghanate" is the term for an empire.) Modern-day scholars call the empire that Bilge Qaghan and Tengri Qaghan ruled the "Second Turkic Qaghanate."

It was an empire plagued by political instability, with the empire's senior commanders often killing each other in attempts to obtain power. Historical records reveal that Bilge Qaghan took command of this empire after his family staged a coup against the family of the previous ruler.

After Bilge Qaghan was poisoned, historical records say that Tengri Qaghan ruled for about seven years, until he too was assassinated. The Second Turkic Qaghanate collapsed in the period after Tengri Qaghan's death.

Researchers are still analyzing the inscriptions on the 14 pillars and may find more clues about this ancient power struggle, they said.

"This monument will reveal [the] power relationships of rulers in the east area of the Turkic Qaghanate and their territories as well as their political and military relationships with Mongolian tribes," researchers said in the statement.

The structure may also provide information on the religious beliefs of the people who lived at this time, the researchers said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.