“The Time Machine” on the Coast of Lake Baikal: Archeology of the Sacred Lake

“The Time Machine” on the Coast of Lake Baikal: Archeology of the Sacred Lake

© Photo: Key To Baikal
Unofficial professional holiday of the people of a very interesting, but difficult professional occupation– archaeologists – is celebrated on August 15.

Archeology is one of the historical sciences helping to study our past by artifacts. It is not accidental that this unique science is often called an unparalleled “time machine”, thanks to which you can “plunge into” the bygone times of humanity, for example, to learn about the way of life of the ancestors of Siberians on the coast of Lake Baikal.

The First Steps of Archeology on Lake Baikal.

Attention to different kinds of ancient rarities was stimulated by the instructions of Emperor Peter I “to preserve all old things” and “to make drawings of all curiosities”.

In the 18th century, Irkutsk and the coast of Lake Baikal were on the way of all Emperor’s people who were studying the distant Siberian and Far Eastern lands: they wanted use the potential of these territories to strengthen the power of the Russian state. These could be the military, geometers, botanists, and land surveyors… Of course, the character of their findings was random, and the interest in unusual artifacts was caused by elementary human curiosity, rather than scientific goals.

Conscious activities in the sphere of archeology, or more precisely, the first steps in this field on Lake Baikal, are associated with the name of Yakov Ivanovich (Jacob Johann) Lindenau. He was a Swede by nationality, a traveler, a surveyor and an ethnographer, a member of the Second Kamchatka expedition; he described various areas of Eastern Siberia and discovered ancient fortifications in the Olkhon region. He managed to compare these findings with similar buildings seen by him in the north of Yakutia, and this comparison enabled him to conclude that the ancestors of Yakuts lived in this area before moving to the middle reaches of Lena.

The next “iconic” figure is Matvey Matveyevich Gedenstrom, a researcher of the north of Siberia, the Head of an Expedition on Survey and Exploration of Novosibirsk Islands, the author of the beautiful book titled “Excerpts about Siberia” published in St. Petersburg in 1830. In this book he described numerous “diverse individual objects and structures – the creations of hands of the ancient residents of the lake coast” found by him during his trips to Lake Baikal.

The Origin of Scientific Archeology of the Baikal Region

The creation of the East Siberian Department of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society has clearly opened a scientific page in the history of the study of Baikal antiquities. A serious impetus to this process was given by the participants in the Polish uprising of 1863 sent to Irkutsk by the authorities: former rebels actively collaborated with the Geographical Society. They actively engaged in research on Lake Baikal in general; occasionally, they enriched the scope of knowledge in the field of archeology of the Baikal region. In particular, I.D. Chersky, simultaneously with the implementation of geological goals on the lake, compiled an inventory list of the stone walls (settlements) found in the Olkhon region.

ESDIGRS possessed real financial means for organizing scientific expeditions. One of them that was held in 1881 discovered and shed lustre on the legendary cave paintings in Sagan-Zaba and Aya bays, thanks to the research of N.N. Agapitov, who was a teacher at the Irkutsk Pedagogic Seminary and at the same time was one of the leaders of ESDIGRS. At the same time, they performed the first excavations of ancient burial grounds on Lake Baikal.

At the end of the 19th century, important findings were discovered both in Irkutsk (the first Russian site of the Paleolithic era was discovered in 1871) and in its environs (in 1880  the Neolithic necropolis was found at the mouth of the Kitoy River). At the turn of the 20th century, special editions of the East Siberian Department of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society were published: these were dedicated directly to the archaeological values ​​of the Baikal Region.

Modern archaeologists believe that the real scientific Baikal archeology emerged in 1912-1913. Precisely at that time an employee of the famous Kunstkamera Museum in Saint Petersburg, Bernhard Eduardovich Petri (a famous ethnographer, anthropologist, archaeologist), conducted the first archaeological exploration in the Maloye More Strait. It should be noted that the coast of Lake Baikal near the island of Olkhon, especially its southwestern part, is truly a “land of archaeology”. Here, in the Ulan-Khada bay, on the Ulan cape protruding into the Maloye More Strait, Petri conducted the first excavations of a multilayer settlement, which became the basic object for studying the ancient history of the Baikal region for the next several decades.

The Golden Age of Baikal Archeology

“The Time Machine” on the Coast of Lake Baikal: Archeology of the Sacred Lake

Today, the year 1959 is called the “golden age” of Baikal archeology. Back then, there was a threat of flooding of the coastal strip of the lake due to the construction of the Irkutsk hydropower plant, which promoted the organization of several specialized archaeological expeditions.

By this time, they managed to examine almost the entire coast of Lake Baikal, revealing more than a hundred archaeological sites - ancient man’s sites, burial grounds, cave objects, despite the decline in archaeological activity due to the death of B.E. Petri and his students during the political repressions...

 In 1959, the most significant work was carried out on the territory of the Olkhon region, on the southwestern coast of Lake Baikal and in the delta of the Selenga River.

As a result, the archeologists managed to discover numerous Neolithic burial grounds, defensive stone walls and watch towers on the coasts of the Kurkut and Mukhur bays, the bays of Ityrkhei and Ulan-Khada, the capes of Shibete, Ulan and Ulyarba. These findings gained general scientific importance.

The detachments of various scientific organizations have been working on the coast of Lake Baikal: these included western teams carrying out mapping, certification and compilation of inventory lists of archaeological sites of the coast. We will tell about some of them in more detail.

Fofanovsky Acropolis

The unique Fofanovsky burial ground of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages is located on the right bank of the Selenga River, at a distance of 60 kilometers from Ulan-Ude, on the southwestern, southeastern and eastern slopes of the Fofanovskaya Mountain, at an altitude of 26-38 meters above the river level. The burial ground was discovered back in 1926 by the to-be famous archaeologist, academician Aleksei Pavlovich Okladnikov.

Today it is one of the largest and oldest burial grounds in the Baikal region with a total of more than 100 burial places that have been studied; and, most importantly, archaeologists still have interesting work to do there.

We are calling this acropolis unique for a good reason. Burials of three different cultures of different times were discovered there, which means that people had been buried here during four millennia!

Not only Buryats, but also ancient people treated mountains as a kind of a holy, sacred place. It is assumed that they were attracted by the unusual shape of the Fofanovskaya Mountain and the proximity of the Selenga River: it was believed that the souls of the dead went along down the river and could not go back up.

Modern Buryat archaeologists have discovered local burial places that date back to the so-called “Kitoy” culture (the name was derived from the burial ground found on the Kitoy River in 1880; this culture is wide-spread in the upper Angara region, on the southern coast of Lake Baikal, in the upper reaches of Lena; within the framework of the Neolithic period, it covered the late 6th-middle 5th millennia BC.)

A mother-of-pearl ring, the bones of the deceased, and... a skull of a completely different deceased were found in one of the burials places. The unexplainable presence of “extra” bones in the graves is a characteristic feature of Kitoy culture. Its representatives generally treated the body of the deceased in a very peculiar way, regularly burying the deceased without a head. The bodies were often even “disassembled” into parts, and these parts were buried separately.

The representatives of “Kitoy” culture necessarily covered the graves with red ocher. They attached great importance to this natural material; besides, ocher was an analogue of blood in funeral rituals.

One of the most unusual graves, according to the stories of Buryat archaeologists, was a collective burial place in a very small pit, as large as a desk top. When the experts opened the grave, they saw the skeletons of two adults with the remains of two children resting on one of them. The skulls of adults were decorated with mother-of-pearl rings with a human tooth near each of them. The majority of the objects could be seen on the man's skeleton - jewelry on the neck, bone harpoon, animal bones, a plate of chalcedony, stone tools. Most likely, all those people died from violent actions.

The artifacts excavated - scrapers, arrowheads, jade axes, copper knives in the shape of blades, harpoons, ceramic utensils and rock paintings make it possible for historians to get an idea about ​​the life of people of that time.

The Findindgs at the Uyuga Cape


The employees of the laboratory of archeology, paleoecology and daily living systems of the peoples of North Asia of the Irkutsk Technical University found 14 skeletons on the cemetery of Uyuga Cape on the coast of the Maloye More Strait during the expeditions of 2013, 2016, 2017.

The expedition sent to this place was not accidental, and it could literally be called a rescue one. The fact is that Uyuga has attracted tourists for a long time, and it was they who occasionally saw human bones there.

When the Irkutsk archaeologists conducted excavations in that place, revealing the burial grounds, they dated them to the era of the early Bronze Age, and noticed similarities with the burial grounds of the “Glazkovskaya” culture. This is the archaeological culture of the ancient Tungus tribes that lived in the Baikal region, in upper reaches of the Angara and Lena rivers.

An especially noteworthy burial place is the pair grave described by the archaeologists in the following way: the skeletons lay with heads head to the west, arm-in-arm. Presumably, the remains of the buried people belong to a man and a woman of mature age. The remains of the man were decorated with massive rings of rare white jade: three of them on the chest and one in the left eye socket. A leather bag with a metal product could be found between the kneecaps of the man. More modest exhibits - bone awls and two stone knives - were found near the female skeleton.

The funeral sets found in various graves also included hundreds of paste beads made of plastic mass, most likely, limestone.

Above all, archaeologists also found a collection of colorful pebbles, where each stone was a primitive tool and had a specific purpose: pebbles were used as weights, adzes and scrapers.

In conclusion, we would like to stress the fact that the Day of Archaeologists is not only a professional holiday, but also a reminder to everyone, telling us about of the importance of caring for the historical heritage, which, unfortunately, is often destroyed by the human actions.

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