Birch bark in the funeral rite of the Yakuts: a case-study of the Uchugei-Yuryakh burial (15th17th cc.) 

Bravina R.I., Solovyova E.N., Petrov D.M., Syrovatskiy V.V.


Vestnik arheologii, antropologii i etnografii, 2021, 3 (54)


              page 95106




The Uchugei-Yuryakh birch-bark burial, radiocarbon dated to 14801640 cal AD, was discovered in the southern part of the Tuymaada valley, located in the basin of the Middle Lena River, one of the largest rivers in North-Eastern Siberia. This region is traditionally regarded as the area where the most important events of the Yakut history were taking place over many centuries, and as the area associated with the formation of the Yakut ethnic culture. The purpose of this article is to introduce into scientific discourse the results of the study of the Uchugei-Yuryakh birch-bark burial and to analyze traditions of the burials using birch bark among the Yakuts in the 15th19th centuries, according to archaeological, ethnographic, and folklore data. The research objectives are as follows: to determine the level of knowledge of the problem; to identify peculiarities of the grave goods and morphological features of the Uchugei-Yuryakh burial; to identify types of birch-bark burial chambers of the Yakuts on the basis of available data; to trace back their genesis and to determine their semantics, according to the sacral nature of birch bark in the ritual-worldview practice; and to correlate the features of the Yakut burials with archaeological materials from the regions adjacent to Yakutia. Descriptive and historical-comparative methods, as well as scientific methods such as radiocarbon dating of the bones of the deceased, chemical analysis of bead material, botanical analysis of plant material from the burial site were employed in the course of research. A cha-racteristic feature of this burial is the absence of a coffin and the use of birch-bark sheets to form the interior of the grave, which correlates with the legends about the Khoro tribe, who practiced burial in birch-bark sheaths. There are four types of burials identified on the basis of a detailed analysis of the combination of elements of the currently known birch-bark burial structures: 1) in a birch bark sheath consisting of birch-bark sheets placed above and below the buried body; 2) in a birch bark pouch, the sides of which were reinforced by wooden planks set on edge; 3) in a rectangular birch bark sheet, in which the body of the deceased was wrapped to form a case or a cylinder; 4) in a birch-bark sheath sewn in the form of a boat. Analysis of the features of the burial (atypical facedown position of the deceased, scanty set of items of the accompanying goods) revealed a special social status of the buried man. The birch-bark sheets laid above and below the deceased in the considered burial, apparently, imitate the shape of the birch-bark basket tyuktyuye. This suggests the ideas of purification of the soul of the deceased after their death and its rebirth. Birch bark was used in the funeral rites of the nomadic societies of South-Eastern and Western Siberia in the Middle Ages. It is suggested that the tradition of using birch bark in Yakut burials either corresponds with the Samoyed-Yenisei component, indirectly adopted from the medieval population of the Lake Baikal area, or emerged due to direct contacts with the Tungus-Samoyed tribes of the Lower Tunguska.

Keywords: Yakutia, the late Middle Ages, burial, birch bark, birch bark covers and bedding, birch bark coffins, Cisbaikalia, Ob-Irtysh.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Accepted: 27.05.2020

Article is published: 27.08.2021


Bravina R.I., Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North, Petrovsky st., 1, Yakutsk, 677027, Russian Federation, E-mail:,


Solovyova E.N., Arctic Research Center of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Kurashova st., 22, Yakutsk, 677000, Russian Federation,


Petrov D.M., Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North, Petrovsky st., 1, Yakutsk, 677027, Russian Federation, E-mail:,


Syrovatskiy V.V., Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North, Petrovsky st., 1, Yakutsk, 677027, Russian Federation, E-mail: