Kutrigurs, Severski Doneck, Zlivka necropolis, Sarkel

The documentary sources indicate that the steppe regions west of the river Don, along the northern coast of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, were populated in the VI-VII c. AD by the Bulgars-Kutrigurs. They were akin to the Proto-Bulgarians of the eastern Azov and lived under similar social and economic conditions. The information of Procopius and Agathius reveal that they were nomads, to whom the wars and the plunder were the main way of acquiring of luxury goods and agricultural goods. However, since the mid-VI c., under favourite conditions, they tended to to settle down. Indicative is the fact that after being defeated by the Utigurs, 2000 Kutrigurs, led by Sinion, settled in Thracia as Byzantine subjects during the reign of emperor Justunian [1].

Because of their nomadic way of life, there are no visible traces left from the Kutrigurs. Pletnjova's investigations along the northern coast of the Taganrog bay show a picture, similar to that from the eastern Azov - temporary camps with few artefacts, concentrated around the steppe rivers' mouths [2]. There are no necropolises found from that period, but from the later period - VIII-IX c., there are more than 20 necropolises and isolated graves [3].

Unfortunately, the data for the Proto-Bulgarian necropolises are incomplete, for most of them we have only brief messages. The 'classical' Proto-Bulgarian necropolis at Zlivka, however, reveals the main features of these complexes. The Zlivka necropolis is situated at the middle course of the river Severski Doneck, near the village of Ilichevska. The burials are in shallow pits (0.6-1.0 m), with simple vertical faces and no signs of niches, step-like widenings or covers of any kind. The dead were laid directly at/on the ground. All graves are single, of western-eastern orientation (the head points to the west). The accompanying objects are few - one or two pots and animal bones. Weaponry and instruments of productions are not present at all. The buried were brahiochranic with barely detected Mongoloid signs [4].

These features are characteristic for almost all necropolises in the region, where the western orientation, the general scarcity of the burial objects and the brachiochranic anthropological type predominate. There are some deviations in the way of burial, for example, in several graves from the pit necropolis at Sarkel, and in one burial in the catacomb necropolis at Dmitrievka the pit is circular in shape. In isolated cases in the same two necropolises there are niches. And contrary to the predominant western orientation of the common pit burials, these with niches are south-north oriented (the head points to the south). The orientation is also unstable in the late burials in necropolises found next to large settlements, such as the Semikarakorskoe gorodishte and the fortress of Sarkel.

Another peculiarity is the presence of primitive sarcophaguses - rock slabs along the pit faces. They are especially common for the necropolis of the Rigin gorodishte, near the town of Kamensk-Shahtinsk on the lower course of Severski Doneck. Similar burial structures are characteristic for the Proto-Bulgarian necropolises of Crimea [5]. This fact made some researches suggest that that feature attests a migration from Crimea to the region of Severski Doneck and Lower Don rivers [6], but their proposition cannot be accepted, because some necropolises, such as the Rigin necropolis, are older than the Crimean ones and furthermore - such constructions are widely spread. In some cases the rock slabs are substituted by wooden planks, or a wooden trough, covered by a wooden plank. The function of all these constructions is the same - the close the dead, to isolate him from the living. The niches (the necropolis at Zholtoe) serve the same purpose.

The idea of confining the dead or rather, his spirit, within the grave and to prevent him from harming the living people, is implemented in various ways: binding the legs (Volokonovski and Dronovka necropolises), pressing down the body with stones (Zholtoe, Dronovka necropolises), ritual amputation of the feet (Majack gorodishte necropolis).


The archaeological data show that in the steppe regions north of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in the VI-VII c. were occupied by a homogeneous ethnical group. Some necropolises, indeed, show deviations from the 'classical' Zlivka type of burial, but it must be stressed that these cases come from comparatively late finds, and that at least some of them reflect the sizeable displacements of Proto-Bulgarian tribal groups after the Khazarian invasion and the Khazaro-Arab wars of the second half of the VII c. and the first half of the VIII c. The results of these displacements are most clearly seen in the border regions between the different Proto-Bulgarian groups. The necropolis of such a large centre as Sarkel shows significant deviation in the burials, affecting even the orientation. It is both western and northern [7]. Northern orientation is also found in other places along the eastern bank of the Don river (Artuganov necropolis, Semikarakorskoe gorodishte, at the mouth of the river Manuch).

Generally, the anthropological type and burial practices of the population north of the Black Sea were similar to that of the Unogundur-Bulgars from the eastern Azov. The main difference is in the orientation of the graves - northern for the Unogundurs and western for the Proto-Bulgarians north of the Black Sea. Besides that, the artificial skull deformation was widely spread among the Unogundurs but was virtually unknown to the Proto-Bulgarians north of Meotida. The border between these two Proto-Bulgarian groups was the Sea of Azov and the Lower Don. According to Procopius, it was exactly Azov and Don, which in the mid-VI c. separated the Kutrigurs from the akin to them Utigurs. Thus the archaeological evidence confirms the documentary one.

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[1] Procopii Caesariensis Libri de bellis VIII, p. 586, 637.

[2] S.A. Pletnjova. Ot kochevij k gorodam, s. 16-18;
 Nomadski poselishta prez VII-IX b. ..., s. 3-5.

[3] S.A. Pletnjova. Drevnie bolgarii v bassejne Dona i Priazov'ja, s. 9-11;
 Vostochnoevropejskie stepi vo vtoroj polovine VIII-X v. - V: Stepi Evrazii v epohu srednevekov'ja (Arheologija SSSR), s. 70-71.

[4] G.F. Debec. Paleoantropologija SSSr. - trudii instituta etnografii (novaja serija, t. IV, M., L, 1948, s. 253-256, tabl. 106 i ris. 102;
 K.N. Nadzhimov. O cherepah Zlivkinskogo mogil'nika - Kratkie Soobshtenija  Instituta Etnografii AN SSSR, viip. 24, M., 1955, s. 55.

[5] A.L. Jakobson. Rannesrednevekoviie sel'skie poselenija Jugo-Zapadnoj Tavriki. - Materialii i issledovanija po arheologii SSSR, 168, 1970, s. 133-140.

[6] S.A. Pletnjova. Drevnie bolgarii ..., s. 12.

[7] S.A. Pletnjova. Drevnie bolgarii ..., s. 10-11.