Ludy Europy Wschodniej
Funeral rite

Which form of funeral has been originally exerced by the T'u-küe – inhumation or cremation, burial under the soil, on the surface or over it – this remains a difficult question until today. All of these customs existed among the Turkish peoples until the end of 19th century (and some of them are still actual).

[Rozmiar: 44442 bajtów]

In 528, the Chronicle of Suei-Shu informed that the T'u-küe „burn their dead on the battlefield”, the Chronicle of T΄ang-Shu narrated that: „they have burned the corpses, according to the old custom, and raised a funeral hillock eastwards from the river. (...)”. The people of Tashtic culture, within the terrain of Minusinsk Depression, had a custom to burn corpses with gifts and to build a kurgan, where the cremation took place. It probably was the oldest and, by the way, the most exclusive form of burial, applied by the families of the Turkish aristocracy. The lower classes of the society used to abandon the corpses in the steppe or, rarely, to leave them on wooden constructions or to hang them on trees. Such customs were still observable in the early 20th century, however they usually concerned the corpses of dead children. The corpses were wrapped up with a fabric and birch bark, or putted inside a leather sack, to be left in secluded places or hanged on trees. After a period of time, decayed and partly eaten by the animals, the remains were taken to be buried in caves or to be cremated and buried. The corpses of the elders were also abandoned, or a special burial ritual applied to them.

Another type of the funeral ritual, among some Turkish tribes, was to leave the corpse in the place of death. The whole horde moved to anther location, leaving the dead in a yurt or a small wooden house. The expositions of dead bodies were also made on trees and on constructions that were made of a wooden sarcophagus of some sort and in some cases they were covered with a fabric – as it is proved by Chinese chronicles and Arabic sources. In some cases, the hide of horse with tack and some items of everyday use were also hanged with the corpse. Such customs probably resulted from the will to help the dead to reach the Underworld fast (the tree that reached heaven led to the Kingdom of Souls).

It is known that near the middle of 7th century the rite has been changed – the cremation was replaced by inhumation, as it was reported by Chinese sources. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell if the change affected only the highest social class or whole social structure. The change resulted probably from Chinese influence, as the bones were buried similarly to the inhumation rite in China of that time, although Scythian influence cannot be utterly denied. The Turks encountered that culture, while conquering the territory of Central Asia. The same sources provide also precise information on the funeral rite of the Uyghur people (744-840), with whom the Kypchaks had close political relations. The dead was to be buried standing up, with his war equipment, in a funeral cave, which was not meant to be covered. Ruysbroeck mentions cremation: ”They burn their dead, according to an old tradition, and they spare the ashes on the top of a pyramid [footnote 1] ”.

The old tradition of Altay peoples demanded to bury the dead in fairly easily visible places. In steppe, tumuli were raised, the tribes living in forest-steppe constructed the graves on the slopes of the valleys or on the flat surfaces of the water divides. The proximity of the bodies of water was important for the Turks, as well as the concentration of trees, which were linked to the cosmic tree. The exposition of the dead on trees, wooden funeral constructions and the burial in logs appear to be strictly connected with the beliefs of the T'u-küe. As they were interacting with peoples of other traditions and encountering traces, in form of kurgans, of long dead peoples of the Central Asia, the Turks have started to construct monumental tombs, but it is difficult to precise, when did it happen. It is undeniable that they knew the construction and inventory of the older kurgans.

The T'u-küe and their distant descendants, the Pechenegs, the Torcs and the Polovtsians used as well graves, in which the grave cuts were made in older kurgans (The famous burial, associated with khan Tighac, was constructed on a basis of an early Bronze Age kurgan, similarly to many well equipped graves of man and woman). Perhaps that practical reasons were considered, as the inhumation of a dead in this way did not take a lot of time. Perhaps that burying in a collective grave could symbolize the continuity of generations, a tradition that is very important to the Turks, as it can be supported with a quotation of Ruysbroeck: „And so, heading eastwards all what could be seen was heaven and land, while the sea called Tanais and the tumuli of the Cumans, which were visible in two lines, as it is their tradition to bury all of their kinship together, were on the right side. [footnote 2] ”. Depending on the geographical conditions, the tumuli were constructed of soil, small stones or rubble. In the territory of steppes by the Black Sea, various kinds of kurgan construction, containing cobblestones, rings and fences of stone, occurred and they were associated with successive waves of steppe people of Turkic origin. The niche graves came to the Turkish tribes with Islam, although they were used to be constructed also by Turkic Huns and even before, by Sarmatians and Scythians.

The Turks and the Uyghurs did not use coffins, though it is sure that they knew them, as they were used already by the Huns and the Altay Scythians. It is not mentioned by Chinese and Arabic sources. It was only Mahmud of Kashgar (11th century), who mentioned a coffin (tur. quburčãq – wooden box). The wooden constructions, such as empty logs and diverse versions of coffins made of boards (so-called дощечатые гробы), that were meant to contain dead bodies started to be used by the Nomads, living in the steppes of the Black Sea, i.e. the Pechenegs, Torcs, Polovtsians and Kara-Kalpaks. In the kurgans of the Black Sea steppes, the traces of fire, such as coal and ashes, were found frequently, which was a distant echo of the customs of the Hiung-Nu people. They were the traces of funeral banquets. Fire was also there to purify the living, which shows Iranian influences.

Killing horses was related to a Turkish belief, that the dead not only had to reach the Underworld, but also he needed to have animals to start a new farm. The horses and other animals were killed in a day when their owner died or in the day of the funeral. The entire animal or the skull, limbs and hide, with tack or without it, were buried in the grave. This custom was also present among the Polovtsians. The meat of the horse was probably eaten during the funeral banquet. Among all Turkish tribes, living within the Black Sea steppe, the horses, or their parts, were buried with men and women. The horses were sacrificed by the Iranian Scythians and Sarmatians. It is possible, that this custom was adapted by the Turks in a certain moment and the Polovtsians took it over from them.

The presented foreign cultural influences, some ethnographic aspects of the customs, related to the funeral ritual of the Turks and finally the features of the rite of the Polovtsians, confirmed by archaeological research, show very archaic and multicultural roots of the tradition related to the exposition of the dead body.

The characteristic features of burial among the Polovtsians are:

  1. existence of cobblestone and coverings of stone mixed with soil, on the embankment of the kurgan;

  2. presence of a separate grave for the horse or his parts – the skull, four limbs and hide, placed usually over the burial chamber of the dead, on a separate ground step;

  3. presence of a partition, separating the funeral niche with the burial;

  4. 4. use of various wooden constructions within the tomb (e.g.: so-called. дощечатые гробы); burial within logs of oak and birch is also typical, and with time appeared, as well, wooden constructions with boards placed along the dead body and having a covering of fabric;

  5. 5. position of a dead, lying on his back and having his hands set along the body (although in some cases the dead has one hand bended and placed along his waist), with his head turned to the East (more frequently) or the West, with a seasonal deviation (there are exceptions).

[1] „Они сожигают своих умерших по старинному обряду и сохраняют прах на вершине пирамиды”

[2] „И так мы направлялись к востоку, не видя ничего, кроме неба и земли, а иногда с правой руки море, именуемое морем Танаидским, а также усыпальницы Команов, которые видны были в двух лье, либо у них существует обычай, что все родство их погребается вместе”


Nagrodzka-Majchrzyk T.
1985 - Czarni Kłobucy; Polska Akademia Nauk, Instytut Historii Kultury Materialnej; Wydawnictwo Geologiczne; Warszawa.

Tryjarski E.
1991 - Zwyczaje pogrzebowe ludów tureckich na tle ich wierzeń; PAN; Komitet Badań Orientalistycznych; Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN; Warszawa.

1993 - Kultura ludów tureckich w świetle przekazu Mahmuda z Kaszgaru (XI w.); PAN Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii; Komitet Nauk Orientalistycznych; Warszawa.

Железчиков Б. Ф., Кумуков Д. В.
1998 - Раскопки у села Маляевка; Древности Волго-Дoнских степей; вып. 6; Волгоград; c. 124-140.

Плетнева С. А.
1958 - Пeчeнeги, Тopкu u Пoлoвцы в южнoруccких стeпях; (в:) Труды Вoлгo-Дoнскoй Экcпeдиции; Т. 1; Мaтeриaлы u Иccлeдoвaния пo Архeoлoгии СCCP; Нo. 62; Мoсквa – Ленинград; рис. 37.

Рубрук Гильом де
1957 - Путешетвие в Восточные Страны Вильгельма де Рубрука в Лето Благости 1253; пер. А. И. Малеина; Москвa.

Фeдoрoв-Дaвидoв Г. A.
1966 - Кoчeвники вoстoчнoй Еврoпы пoд влaстью зoлoтooрдынских хaнoв, Aрхeoлoгичeскиe пaмятники; Издaтeльствo Мoскoвскoгo Унивeрситeтa; Мoсквa; c. 266, табл. 1.

Шалабудов В. Н., Кудрявцева И. В.
1980 -Кочевнические погребения среднего Приорелья; Курганы степного Поднепровья; Днепропетровский Государственный Университет; Днепропетровск; c. 90-97.

Praca zbiorowa; red. Б. А. Рыбаков
1981 - Степи Евразии в эпоху средневековья; Археoлoгия CCCP; Издательство „Наука”, Москва.