Ancient Site Reveals Secrets of the Steppe

050_052_Edge_08_Museum_Page_1_Image_0001By Alex Lee

For centuries, pilgrims, traders and travelers have crisscrossed the regions that make up modern-day Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs themselves didn’t stay still, wandering in the steppe and beyond in search of shelter and food. This constant stirring together of cultures may explain the hospitality of this vast Central Asian nation. It has certainly contributed to a fascinating blend of structures, settlements, and priceless artifacts hidden under Kazakh soil. As the past is slowly revealed from beneath the soil, the image of the many cultures that have called this place home is deepened and made more complex.

The newly established Nazarbayev Center in collaboration with the Lev Gumilyov Eurasian National University in Astana has been digging into the history of Kazakhstan. Since 2009, a joint archaeological expedition, run by the Nazarbayev Center, the Lev Gumilyov Eurasian National University and representatives of the Turkish government, has been operating to excavate and preserve a particularly important site at Kumay.

The Legacy of Centuries in Kumay

Many secrets are buried in the Kazakh steppes, and they are only now beginning to be unveiled. One current project is working to bring to light a recently discovered 

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burial site just 124 kilometres east of Astana near the Kumay River (which has given the site its name). So far, the 15 square????kilometre site has revealed layer upon layer of unique findings: Bronze Age burials sites and enclosures from 17th-18th centuries B.C.; a monumental installation probably


Homes for the Living, Houses of the Dead
 used in cult worship practices, dated to the Hunnic period (around the first century A.D.); significant cult sites and ancestral stelae from the first Turkic Kaganate (sixth and seventh century A.D.); a large settlement site, still unexcavated that is probably no later than the Medieval period; and a stone structure not unlike England’s Stonehenge.

Viktor Novozhenov, a 51-year-old UNESCO expert, talks about the incredible history buried at Kumay. He says within a ten-kilometer perimeter, there are probably thousands of graves. 

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Graves of the ancestors have been discovered throughout the steppes in the Kumay Valley. Among them is the unknown grave of a 23-year-old woman of the Bronze Age that, through hard work by the archaeologists here, has been restored. Supposedly, 23 years of life at that time equaled about late 60’s our time and she died an old woman. The physiology of an individual tells us that the skull was that of a woman in her early 20s, the anthropologists have confirmed that,”Novozhenov told EdgeKz.

Not all of the area was devoted to the dead, however. One interesting finding, still not completely excavated, appears to be a settlement for the living. “We have also found the ruins of a medieval settlement. Surprisingly, the foundation is still standing. There are a few houses, streets. It’s all visible from a bird’s eye view,” Novozhenov said. A Polish-born professor from Finland was invited to study and excavate the ruins of the town in Kumay. Professor Zbignew Fiema, from Helsinki, has studied the ancient stone city of Petra in modern-day Jordan. He will be joining the expedition in 2013.

The Kazakh Stonehenge?

A little way down the road from the main excavation site is a complex mound of rocks shaped something like a cambered moustache. It’s been nicknamed ‘the Moustache.’ “This rock formation probably served as an observatory, just like the famous Stonehenge in England,” Novozhenov says.

Heritage in the Open Air

It is hoped that the Kumay site, located as it is in a valley so near Astana, will attract tourists and local visitors to learn more about the nomads who once lived in these lands. The plan is to organize the 15-kilometre open steppe area in an open-air museum, in which visitors can walk from site to site, era to era.

The project director, Doctor of Historical Sciences Aiman Dossymbayeva of the Nazarbayev Center, discussed the future of the site with EdgeKz.

“The concept of the Kumay open air museum is to protect and properly exhibit the archaeological remains which will serve to present the practical aspects of the ancient life to public,” she said. The complex at Kumay will consist of the area with archaeological sites, some of which will be further excavated, consolidated, signposted and exhibited to public; a circular open-air museum and exhibit area; and a research center which will house the administration and work spaces for archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork and research. The research center will contain conservation labs, a documentation center and areas for storing archaeological material.050_052_Edge_08_Museum_Page_2_Image_0002

“The importance and the role of this museum for the new generation is evident. This project will create more jobs and will be a source of income for the local population in the adjacent village, which only has about 14 families left. They would be able to make Kazakh felt products during the winter, for example. The infrastructure would develop as visitors start coming. [The project] will increase national pride and enlighten the population on the rich history of the nomads that lived in the Kazakh steppes. The Kumay open-air museum will attract foreigners and tourists and broaden the cultural values in the region,” Dossymbayeva reflected.

For all the excitement surrounding the project, some challenges remain. “The challenges will be the climate of the region: the winds, rain and snow. The museum will have to have a good drainage system that will function all year round and building dome-shaped stands to protect the priceless artifacts during the winter…is being seriously considered.” After 

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that, the project will need people who will brave the climate. “Another major challenge for the project is hiring qualified staff – guides, administrators, maintenance staff, et cetera. These certainly could be locals from the neighboring village; however, in that case, special training must be provided for them. And perhaps the most significant challenge of the project is financing of the large-scale project.”


An open-air museum will give visitors a chance to see the way Kazakh culture has evolved and the way different cultures have made their mark on the same patch of ground. This richness and diversity of history, perhaps, is symbolic of Kazakhstan today.
But these remnants of a nomadic life may be crucial to a more complete understanding of the steppe ancestors who once made this place their home. And while other cultures have made their mark on modern-day Kazakhstan’s soil, so have Kazakhstan’s nomads left their traces far from home. Stone monuments and Bronze Age petroglyphs show that nomads reached parts of Bulgaria and Hungary.