For thousands of years nomads on the territory of Mongolia practiced various burial practices. Some of them include: burying in underground burial chambers, burying in the caves or natural spaces between stones, sky burial (leaving in the open), burying underground, cremation. Obviously, nothing is left from sky burials and cremations. Finding a random unmarked grave is very difficult.
So the best way to learn burial practices of nomads is by finding the cemeteries. Hunnus (xiongnu), for example, had many places designated for both nobility and common folks. Archeologists have found more than 12,000 graves and burial chambers on the territory of Mongolia alone. Most have been robbed, but there have been some recent extraordinary finds of burial chambers of the Hunnu nobility.
There have also been some extremely interesting cave graves found in Mongolia as well. But they are rare as most of them got robbed during the centuries. About 70 intact cave graves have been found so far.
Now back to the question. Have all the nomads been buried with their horses?
Some of the earliest direct archeological evidence of people using horses for riding and consumption in the present day territory of Mongolia comes from the Bronze Age. The mysterious Deer Stone people lived around 1300BC (3,319 years ago) on the present day territory of Mongolia. The excavations of these sites surrounding the deer stones reveal many horse bones underneath, but no people’s remains were found in the vicinity. The theory is that the horses were killed for some kind of ceremony.
By 7th-3rd century BC, the burials of the Pazyryk culture, early Iron Age Scythians who lived to the north of Mongolia, include not only artifacts such as stirrups and saddles related to a horse, but horses themselves. The number of horses buried together corresponded with the status of the deceased. Graves of people with upto 10 horses have been found so far. In the picture below several people were buried in a wood lined chamber. You can see sacrificial horses outside the chamber.
Another well preserved Pazyryk culture grave with a horse.
This is a animated rendering of a scythian warrior buried with a horse. All the details, such as clothes, horse saddle, bridle, stirrups etc were drawn based on the excavated remains.
The recent discovery of a group of elite tomb complexes from the Hunnu era (Xiognu, 80–100AD) in Gol Mod 2, Arkhangai province where series of graves were excavated provide an unprecedented view of the Hunnu lifestyle. They found large amounts of golden and silver accessories, wooden carts etc. 21 horses were sacrificed outside the burial chamber. Simple graves had no horses.
The picture below is an excavation of a 13th century Mongol era graves. A group of 20 graves were found in Sukhbaatar province Ongon soum, Tavan Tolgoi. Though some of the graves appear to be looted, most were untouched. Interestingly, graves belonging to females were untouched, while the male’s were robbed.
One of the graves is thought to belong to a Mongol queen. She was buried with a golden ring with a falcon sign, signifying connection to Chinggis’s family. Most of the graves had a horse buried together with the deceased.
Graves in the caves are also extremely interesting:
The picture above is from an extremely rare grave of a young woman with a newborn baby found in a cave in Bayankhongor province, Bayan-undur soum. This is a 14th century (Mongol era period) find and is thought to be a princess who died while giving a birth. The picture above is a naturally mummified body of a newborn child which was wrapped in a felt. The grave was partially looted and most of the expensive jewelry and utensils is thought to be missing. There was no horse.
This horse was buried together with the now famous “Adidas lady” from 1500 years ago in a space between stones. This woman is thought to be of common origin. It was found in 2015 in Khovd province, an area with a lot of permafrost.
Mongols and the preceding nomadic tribes had wide variety of burying practices. There was no single way to bury the deceased. Horses have often been sacrificed so that the deceased would have a horse in the afterlife. But as we can see from the pictures not all of them had sacrificial horses. The number of horses tended to correspond to the wealth and status of a person. The sex was not a determining factor.
There was also some variation in the way a horse was sacrificed. Some of the graves from the Mongol era have horse carcasses with missing head. The tradition was to put a horse head on top of a mountain to pay respects to mountain gods. Today we follow a similar tradition with outstanding horses. good racing horses have their head put on top of mountains when they die.