Archaeologists in Siberia have discovered the untouched 3,000-year-old grave of a person thought to be a charioteer — indicating for the first time that horse-drawn chariots were used in the region.
The skeletal remains were interred with a distinctive hooked metal attachment for a belt, which allowed drivers of horse-drawn chariots to tie their reins to their waists and free their hands. This type of artifact has also been found in Chinese and Mongolian graves.
Aleksey Timoshchenko, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Live Science in an email that the object was found in its original placement at the waist of the person in the undisturbed grave.
"This fact, along with direct analogies in burial mounds of China, allows us to determine their purpose a little more confidently," he said.
Timoshchenko led the latest expedition to the Askizsky region of Khakassia in Siberia, where Russian archaeologists have already spent several years excavating areas ahead of the expansion of a railway. The team discovered the charioteer burial and other graves this month near the village of Kamyshta.
Oleg Mitko, an archaeologist at Novosibirsk State University in Russia who's a consultant for the finds but not an expedition member, said objects like the "charioteer's belt" had been found before but not understood.
"For a long time in Russian archaeology this was called a PNN — an 'item of unknown purpose,'" he told Live Science in an email. But recent discoveries of Bronze Age charioteer burials in China, along with the remains of chariots and horses, indicated that "this object is an accessory for a chariot."
No chariots had been found in Siberian burials, he said, and the hooked bronze belt plate may have been placed in the Late Bronze Age grave as a symbolic substitute.
The tomb of the "charioteer" was found among graves dated to about 3,000 years ago during the time of the Lugav culture, according to a translated statement. The burial consisted of an earthen mound heaped over a roughly square stone tomb; a bronze knife, bronze jewelry and the distinctive belt part were among the grave goods.
Timoshchenko said the Bronze Age people of the Lugav culture were mainly engaged in cattle breeding and were replaced in the region in about the eighth century B.C., during the Early Iron Age, by Scythian people of the Tagar culture.
According to the statement, the latest excavations unearthed burials from three Bronze Age phases in the region: the earliest from about the 11th century B.C., as the Karasuk culture transitioned into the Lugav culture; a second, with the charioteer, from the Lugav culture itself; and a third after the eighth century B.C., from the early Bainov stage of the Tagar culture.
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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.