The Burial Mounds of Central Tibet

General description:

The burial in mound graves was widespread in ancient Eurasian cultures, with a chronology from the Bronze Age to the Early Middle Ages. One associates this with the development of chiefdoms and early empires whose political elite was buried in graves of often enormous dimensions. Most popular are the tombs of the Scythians, first noted by Herodotus (c.490-425 BC), where it is interesting that some parallels of the statements in Herodotus are also to be found in old Tibetan documents – representing here only one indication of the much-observed affinities of the Highland’s pre-Buddhist cultures with the larger history of the Eurasian world.

The tradition of erecting burial mounds in Tibet refers to the time of the Tibetan Empire (7th-9th cent. CE.) and the preceding period of regional principalities in Central Tibet, which alongside one smaller area in north-east Tibet (related to the ancient Tuyuhun Kingdom, incorporated into the Tibetan empire in the 7th cent.) represents the main region of the tumulus distribution on the Tibetan plateau. One peculiarity is the source situation, where the combination of written sources and the on site information allows a fairly good description of the historical contexts of the tumulus tradition; moreover, the fact of using individual mounds still today is unique, as they serve as the seat of protective deities, for instance, so that beside the countless historically opened (and more or less ruined) graves we find structures that survived largely intact the time.

Study Objectives:

The present project (Burial Mounds II) is proposed to continue the tumulus research that started in 2013, where in view of the dimension of the tumuli landscape (with more than 560 registered grave fields in Central Tibet – on the basis of in situ surveys and the information from satellite imagery) the focus was mainly on fundamental research (c.f. FWF Interim Report: Burial Mounds I [PDF]). In the course of the data analysis of the ethnographic, (surface) archaeological, architectural and text specific surveys, significant new issues came to the fore, whose involvement in this project also will include a completely new study area. This relates to the inclusion of archaeo-astronomical surveys (on the basis of certain indications in textual source and data from the fieldwork). For Tibet this means a first venture, which in a wider sense leads us to the “anthropology of the heaven”, and the heavenly paradise, where the deceased were conducted, a topic with a wide range of cultural implications that also has important links with other chapters of the project. This mainly relates to the issue of grave and social complexity, or the more precise determination of the contact-history related to the tumulus tradition of the Highlands. Here we think the archaeological data today makes an accurate comparative study of the historical genealogy of the central tumulus landscapes on the plateau possible, i.e. in Central Tibet and the Tuyuhun area, an issue that is associated with the old question of the origin of the Tibetan (bon po) funeral priest.

Method and expected outcomes:

Methodologically, in Burial Mound II the interdisciplinary research will be significantly enriched by the inclusion of archaeo-astronomy and also of material study, and in its contacts the project team (expanded by three additional experts) also includes a first-time collaboration with archaeologists in Lhasa. A total of ca. 3 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Central Tibet is planned, focusing on burial mound sites that to some extent make reconstructions of the grave’s layout possible or otherwise are considered as highly relevant. The professional regular up-date of the TTT website accompanies the project’s studies and publication work, with the completion of the monograph on the Tibetan tumulus history here forming the main objective.