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A Brief Exploration of the Kurgan Stelae

Throughout the Ukraine and Russia, stelae (also known as balbals) showcased images cut out of stone that were positioned on top of or around kurgan cemeteries. Often described as ‘obelisks,’ their arrangements of double lines were distinct for the culture. The kurgan obelisks were most likely a part of memorials and funeral sanctuaries linked to Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The use of these structures also survived throughout the Middle Ages.

In an architectural sense, the stelae were like a system of stone fences. Moats often surrounded the structures with tiled insides and hearths inserted for sacrificial purposes.  The majority of these types of Ukrainian-like stone stelae have been found in large numbers throughout Prussia, southern Siberia, southern Russia, Mongolia, and Central Asia. For centuries, there use and existence has been connected to more than one culture.

Early examples were connected to the Pit Grave culture, which was dominantly comprised of nomads from the 36th to 23rd centuries BC. The Iron Age produced stelae associated with the Scythians, while the Turkic peoples are believed to have created the monuments during medieval times. Many specimens were built as burial monuments to honor warriors who were buried in the kurgan.

The stelae date to the 4th millennium BC and have a history associated with the early Bronze Age Yamna and Kemi-Oba cultures. Over the years, the specimens have highlighted varied technique and style in the construction of the stele. While most are rather crude , carved out of stone slabs and showing minimal craftsmanship, others offer a wealth of detail, including eyes, weapons, human heads, and animals carved into the stone. For example, Northern Caucasus examples depicted deer in the stelae, while others focused on the faces of early Slavic deities, who wore pointed hats.

What Happened to the Steles?
If you are interested in browsing examples of ancient stelae, a trip to the Historical Museum in Moscow offers 30 specimens that decorate the halls and courtyard. Other places to see stelae included Odessa, Kharkov, and Novocherkassk. Throughout Eastern Europe, you will find that there are many examples to locate. Sadly, many have already been destroyed and used for construction material for the creation of buildings and fences.

About the Balbals

Depending on the specific culture, balbals have highlighted an array of imagery. For example, Scythian balbals commonly showed a warrior holding a drinking horn in their right hand , typically raised up. Others had swords or daggers hanging from the belt of a warrior.

For the most part, balbals possessed two clearly distinct forms , conic and flat , with a shaved top. Evidence shows that every balbal was created to represent a certain individual and that they purposefully added the details to accomplish this goal. In some cases, an identifying characteristic (such as a headdress) would be added to the balbal.

Some of the features that balbals were known to highlight include moustaches, beards, metal breastplates, belts, bare breasts in females, girdles, trousers with embellishments, necklaces hanging around the neck, and legs with shoes. Some of the statues showed females sitting, while male depictions were mostly in the standing up position.