But archaeologists in recent years have moved beyond this mind-set by breaking through some of the vast silences of the Central Asian past.
These excavations dispel notions that nomadic societies were less developed than many sedentary ones. Grave goods from as early as the eighth century B.C. show that these people were prospering through a mobile pastoral strategy, maintaining networks of cultural exchange (not always peacefully) with powerful foreign neighbors like the Persians and later the Chinese.
Some of the most illuminating discoveries supporting this revised image are now coming from burial mounds, called kurgans, in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders with Russia and China. From the quality and workmanship of the artifacts and the number of sacrificed horses, archaeologists have concluded that these were burials of the society’s elite in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. By gift, barter or theft, they had acquired prestige goods, and in time their artisans adapted them in their own impressive artistic repertory.