On the Trail of Attila
It is now a historical fact that has been repeatedly proven: we are the descendants of the Huns. This is what Miklós Makoldi, the Director of Archaeology at the Institute of Hungarian Research, asserts, but he believes that further scientific evidence is required to support this claim.
On the Trail of Attila
Rhymes in History

On the Trail of Attila

The excavations in the Ar Gunt cemetery in Mongolia brought astounding results (Photo: Magyarságkutató Intézet)
Ferenc Sinkovics 06/03/2023 16:00

Thanks to technological advancements, archaeogenetics, and the tenacity of some archaeologists and historians, we are no longer a myth to be laughed at, but a historical fact that has been repeatedly proven: we are the descendants of the Huns. This is what Miklós Makoldi, the Director of Archaeology at the Institute of Hungarian Research, asserts, but he believes that further scientific evidence is required to support this claim.

This year's excavation in Ar Gunt by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Hungarian Research has had astounding results. Forty Hun graves have been identified so far in this Mongolian cemetery, seven of which were opened and examined in the first half of this year. Indeed, the findings are revealing, and allow for a number of conclusions to be drawn. We are discussing kurgans that are round and relatively small, ranging from 3 to 15 metres, with a maximum depth of 3 metres.

Prior to the excavation, Mongol academics believed that poor, ordinary servants or even common warriors were buried in these tombs, which, even if raided, were not looted as extensively as the larger, square Hun tombs. In exchange for forming an alliance with the Chinese in the 2nd century AD, the Sienpi (Chinese: Xianbei) enjoyed the privilege of turning over Hun tombs. They did indeed exercise this privilege. 

However, the excavation revealed that the seven Ar Gunt tombs are no poorer than the larger, square Hun graves. According to Miklós Makoldi, Director of Archaeology at the Institute of Hungarian Research, it is not wealth but the date of construction that distinguishes the smaller, round tombs from the larger, square ones. Although the dating process is still underway, the tombs, recently excavated by the Hungarians, were likely constructed between the 5th century BC and the 2nd century AD.

Just like an inverted pyramid

In the 1920s, Soviet-Russian scientists searched for gold in Mongolia. The country, especially the mountainous northern region, is particularly rich in gold and silver. While prospecting for gold, the Russians came across the first Hun tombs and a large Hun cemetery in Noyon Uul. They made a noble gesture by abandoning their plans to mine for precious metals, despite the fact that they obviously expected to make a considerable profit from the proposed extraction. Researchers have identified a total of 307 Hun graves in the area.

The first excavations were undertaken in 1924 by a Russian archaeologist, Pyotr Kozlov, who found an extremely rich collection of artefacts, including textiles and finely woven carpets, which have survived in excellent condition due to the perpetual frost. This preserving cold is known scientifically as permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, which, according to Miklós Makoldi, dominated the region until the 1980s. The archaeologist stresses that science is in its twenty-fourth hour since the thawing produced by global warming and climate change is threatening fragile artefacts, particularly textiles, leather and wood. We assume that close to 50 per cent of them have already been destroyed. Since only 20 of the 307 tombs at Noyon Uul have been excavated so far, there is an urgent need to act swiftly...

There are two main types of Asian Hun tombs. The small, round kurgans have already been mentioned, but there are also larger, square tombs with a floor area of up to 40 by 40 metres. Their peculiarity is that they most resemble an inverted Mayan pyramid, with a stepped extension and a tapering cross-section reaching down into the ground. The deepest tomb reaches a depth of 22 metres. They are difficult to excavate, and archaeologists have not yet discovered any intact human remains in any of these kurgans. In fact, they have not found any valuable artefacts either, as these graves have been almost entirely plundered by robbers.

By all indications, these graves were not group burial sites, but the burial places of single persons. They were most likely the graves of wealthy, high-ranking Huns, given that only their families or communities could afford 'to pay' for such extensive earthwork.

But why do they resemble an inverted pyramid? Due to the fact that the sides of graves excavated up to 22 metres deep did not collapse, neither the gravediggers nor the burial ritual were jeopardised. It is astonishing that these tombs, containing thousands of cubic metres of earth, were ever constructed and that they were all raided – at least according to the excavations that have taken place to date.

The secrets of old masters 

As it happens, the seven tombs in Ar Gunt were likely not considered important by the Sienpi. One of them was left fully intact, but the ones that they opened were not completely raided either. The coffin of the intact tomb contained the complete skeleton of a man. On the coffin lay the fragments of a reflex bow, and clay pots were found near the skeleton's head. Experts who are curious to know what the Asian Huns ate and drank are doing archaeobotanical analyses of the contents of these vessels. They certainly consumed fermented horse milk, called kumis, but Miklós Makoldi believes they may have also been familiar with wine. The Huns, like the ancient Hungarians, stewed their meat rather than roasting it. It is believed that their ‘cuisine’ included a variety of grain-based, porridge-type dishes, but their primary food source, like that of the Mongols today, was meat.

Dovetail joints, as well as wedges for additional reinforcement, were used to fasten the sides and cover of an extremely robust coffin discovered in one of the graves. It is practically indestructible, says Miklós Makoldi. The coffin, which is on its way to Hungary at the time of writing, was once housed in a well-constructed wooden burial chamber. The remaining fragments will be preserved by specialists in Hungary, as the Mongolian Academy is not yet technically/technologically prepared to do so.

Outside the said burial chamber, researchers also found animal bones on a step: three horse skulls with the ends of their feet. This method of partial burial was typical only of the Huns and later of the Hungarians, while the Avars buried the entire animal in one piece. According to Miklós Makoldi, this difference was not the result of cultural alienation, but rather of differences in beliefs. Besides horses, the grave in Ar Gunt also contained the bones of other domestic animals. This suggests an advanced agrarian culture, which is remarkable because the scientific mainstream has never accepted that nomadic peoples could have engaged in advanced agricultural production, as this would have required them to stop migrating.

A cauldron discovered resting atop animal bones is a genuinely remarkable discovery from the joint Mongolian-Hungarian excavation at the site of Ar Gunt. It is a footed cylindrical cauldron that is approximately 65 centimetres tall and 45 centimetres in diameter. However, unlike traditional Hun cauldrons, this one is made of iron rather than bronze, and was cast. First of all, in order to make it, they needed about ten kilograms of iron, whereas at the time a single kilogram of iron could buy a stud. What is even more exciting, claims Miklós Makoldi, is that during the casting process, the masters of the time had to maintain a temperature of 1800 degrees Celsius for at least four hours in the smelter. The method and type of fuel they employed to do this is still a mystery. Cast iron technology certainly only appeared in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Hun — and this is again the mainstream scientific view — were a ‘nomadic’ people. This disparaging view was in all likelihood spread and reinforced along the lines of the theory of Finno-Ugric origin that developed in the 18th century, and it is only by good fortune that some researchers do not affix the label ‘barbarian’ as well. In contrast, many accounts record that the Huns had ore mines, metal workshops, industrial plants, were skilled in agriculture, and even engaged in advanced trade.

 Miklós Makoldi points out that, the Chinese, for instance, were taught by the ancestors of the Huns, the eastward-moving horse-riding peoples of the Steppe, the art of bronze casting. Owing to this reason, the Bronze Age is missing from China’s history, since, having mastered the more sophisticated bronze-casting techniques, they simply skipped this step, only to further develop the art of bronze-working to a fairly high level indeed.

The handbell has rung

Borbála Obrusánszky, the Hungarian ambassador to Mongolia, is largely responsible for bringing the cast-iron Hun cauldron to Hungary, which is a significant cultural diplomatic triumph. And, also owing to the faith that Mongolian academics have put in Hungarian researchers. This feeling is undoubtedly fuelled by a sense of kinship, as the Mongolians also consider themselves to be sons of the Huns.

Archaeologist, Miklós Makoldi, has discovered intriguing linguistic parallels between Mongolian and Hungarian, although, linguistics has not yet explored the possibility of a link between these two languages. In the tomb, for instance, he discovered a little handbell suspended by a short leather string, which he rang two thousand years after it was last used. The Mongolian television crew filming at the location exclaimed with a smile, “Bell, bell!” because that’s how small bells are referred to in their language. And when the research team became mired in mud during a field trip, their annoyed Mongolian leader shouted: “Sár, sár!” (“Mud, mud!” - in English) The Hungarian ‘sárga’ (yellow) is ‘sárg’ in Mongolian, and the Hungarian ‘barna’ (brown) is ‘barnul’ in Mongolian. And the sentence ‘A sárga oroszlán iker kölykei.’ (‘The twin cubs of the yellow lion.’), is translated into Mongolian as ‘sárg arszlangik iker gülyük’.

These linguistic factors are thought-provoking, but genetic science has rendered them obsolete. From an anthropological point of view, the Huns were a Europid people, argues Miklós Makoldi. The question then becomes, how did the Mongolians arrive here, and what do they claim in connection with their origin? Archaeological theory suggests that there was a west-to-east migration in the steppe region throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age. In what is now Ukraine or south-western Russia, for instance, the Yamnaya civilisation, which domesticated the horse, thrived in four thousand years BC. This culture then began to spread in two different directions.

On the one hand, it appeared in the Carpathian Basin as the Pit Grave culture or the Ochre Grave culture, and on the other hand, it made its way to the East and flourished as it advanced. Not only did it start using horses, but it also discovered copper and then bronze casting, teaching the Chinese how to do the latter. It is obvious that during the eastward migration, the tribe, which can be considered the ancestors of the Huns, also came into contact with other ethnic groups, and mixed. This may explain, for instance, why graves containing the remains of Europid Huns had been previously excavated in western China.

Archaeogenetic research can now provide precise and correct solutions to the question of kinship and ancestry, eliminating the need for conjecture. According to Miklós Makoldi, the genetic unity of the Huns is a proven scientific truth. Their daily lives were governed by severe regulations and powerful central authority, but their tribes were free to choose their religion.

It is a culture that operated according to a different organising principle and world view than Western civilisation, and in a far more mobile fashion. It was not a nomadic civilisation, but a horse archer culture with all the essential characteristics of state life and state structure. The Huns crossed the River Volga in 370 AD, and arrived in the Carpathian Basin in the 5th century AD. From there they moved further into the heart of Europe, and some theories suggest that a small tribe of them still lives in Switzerland, where they became stranded after the Hun retreat. In his seminal work of 1913, Sándor Makoldy — a descendant of Miklós Makoldi — provided a summary of the history and culture of the Huns of Switzerland.

It is evident how wrong the mainstream scientific view has been to regard the Hungarian chroniclers — especially Anonymus — as mere storytellers. And referred to Hungarians as ‘nomads’, despite the fact that it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was a 7,500-kilometre strip of steppe running east to west, a highway on which ‘traffic’ never ceased, but which nonetheless had its own culture, trade, agriculture and industry. The eastern end of this strip was Mongolia, while its western end was the present Great Hungarian Plain. And indeed, it remained so even after the Huns had retreated.

It was here, in the Great Hungarian Plain, that the culture of the Steppe connected to Western civilisation, and it was from this location that it could observe the events taking place in Europe. This endpoint was challenged by many threats, and many powers viewed it as an alien body wedged into Europe. After Attila's death, the Huns of Europe migrated east and merged with the surviving Huns of Central Asia to form a new empire. The Avars, who regarded themselves to be horse archers of the Steppe and of Scythian-Hun descent, appeared in the Carpathian Basin following the collapse of this empire. They had already inhabited and defended the Zemplén and Bodrogköz regions when the Hungarians arrived in the area, way before the Hungarian conquest! Several artefacts attest to this. Just as to the fact that there was no military conflict between the two peoples, who considered themselves of Hun-Scythian origin.

It is plausible to assume that the Hungarians came to aid and support the Avars. Miklós Makoldi claims that we should reconsider Gyula László's dual conquest theory, which may have had a solid historical foundation.

It is crucial, therefore, for all Hungarians to be able to see the artefacts recently discovered in Mongolia, since they bear out the most recent scientific theories regarding our origins. Next spring, the Institute of Hungarian Research is planning to host a major exhibition of the excavated Hun treasures in Budapest.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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