Satellite photo of two burial mounds

Enlarge / This Google Earth image shows two large Scythian burial mounds, each over 20 meters (65.6 feet) wide. (credit: Caspari et al. 2018)

Around 900 BCE, a group of nomads from Siberia called Scythians began spreading across the central Asian steppe, their mounted archers sweeping across huge swaths of territory. Today the steppe from the Black Sea to northern China is dotted with thousands of their tombs—deep grave pits, covered with mounds of stone or soil. Centuries of looters have ransacked the burial mounds for the ornate gold art and jewelry, as well as the finely crafted weapons and horse gear buried with the Scythian dead. Satellite imagery sheds light on the extent of the destruction, and it may eventually help protect the ancient graves from modern looters.

University of Sydney archaeologist Gino Caspari and his colleagues searched for Scythian burial mounds, or kurgans, in high-resolution satellite images of a 110 square kilometer (68.4 square mile) area of the Xinjiang province in northwestern China. They mapped their findings and noted how many of the burial mounds looked like they’d been disturbed by looters. When looters dig up the contents of the grave pit, the center of the mound usually collapses. Observers who know what they’re looking for can spot that from above; imagine looking at a sheet of bubble wrap to see which ones have been popped.  Although the satellite images weren’t as precise as a detailed ground survey, they offered a pretty accurate estimate of the general situation on the ground—and the news wasn’t good.

Nearly three-quarters of the burial mounds in northern Xinjiang have been looted. That came as a grim surprise for Caspari and his colleagues. “We assumed that, due to the remoteness and the heavy presence of security forces in the region, we would find a higher proportion of intact tombs,” he said in a statement.

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