Who Were the Alans? Searching for an Early Medieval People

By Minjie Su

The Early Middle Ages saw many peoples migrating throughout Eurasia. In a talk given earlier this month at the University of Oxford, a Russian archaeologist offered new insights into the Alans.

Dmitry Korobov introduced the audience at Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology to his recent research and archaeological findings in the Kislovodsk basin, part of the North Caucasus.


Korobov is the head of the Department of Theory and Methodology at the Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Science, Moscow. He specializes in landscape archaeology, which is defined as ‘the multidisciplinary approach in study of the ways in which people in the past constructed and used the environment around them’. In particular, Korobov deals with the early medieval traces of the Alanian tribes.

The Rise and Fall of the Alans

Now you might want to ask: who were the Alans? The Alans were an ancient Iranian tribe mentioned in the first century AD by various classical authors such as Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) and Ptolemy (AD 100–170). In the early history of the Alans, they appeared as a nomadic people who were especially renowned for their cavalry. They took military service with the Romans, Parthians, and Sasanians. From about AD 450 to 750, the Alans were caught between the military struggles of Byzantium and Iran.


The invasion of the Huns split the Alans into two groups: European and the Caucasian. The latter group – who are the focus of Korobov’s research – settled down along the North Caucasus and became an agricultural, sedentary people. Later, the Alans were included in the Khazar Empire and formed its northern border. During this time period, they benefited from the Silk Road, as indicated by the rich silk products excavated in the Caucasian regions. From the tenth century onwards, the Alans created their own state – known as Alania – and were baptised Orthodox. In 1239 Alania was crushed by the Mongols. The Alans broke into three groups: some moved eastwards to Beijing and took service under the Mongol khans as guards; some moved to Europe and settled in Hungary; the third group retreated into the central Caucasus region.

Archeological Discoveries

Various types of archaeological sites have been found and excavated in the North Caucasus region, including huge fort hills and burial sites. The main archaeological features, however, are the catacomb graves. These are further divided into barrow graves, and flat graves – the oldest ones date back to as early as the first century, and the latest to the fourteenth century. In addition to a high concentration of the flat graves, the Kislovodsk basin is also home to more than 900 archaeological sites and around 150 settlements of the early medieval Alans. Yet, Korobov reassures us, there is still room for new discoveries, for the Kislovodsk basin, with its rich mineral sources and fertile grasslands, is indeed a ‘national archaeological park’.

Korobov aims to explore three main research areas: first, the earliest traces of the Alans in the Kislovodsk basin in the early stage ( pre-400 A.D.); second, the early medieval system of habitation and land use between 400 and 750; third, changes in the system of habitation and land use during the transitional period from the Early to the High Middle Ages (1000-1200). To achieve his goal, Korobov’s team employed a variety of investigative methods in the Kislovodsk basin, including aerial photography, field survey, geophysical prospection, soil studies, test excavations, and spatial GIS analysis.

To give the audience a small taste of his study, Korobov showed and discussed some of his discoveries regarding the terraced land in the basin. The main sites – dated to the early Middle Ages – are a large number of small fort hills with fortified stone structures and flat catacomb graves nearby. These forts tend to be constructed on steep, high cliffs, with an area varying from 1000 to 3000 square metres. The ruins are now mostly covered by grass, but from time to time one can still find remnants of stone walls and tower ruins.

View of Kislovodsk basin at sunset. Image: By Ivan Andreevich (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.
View of Kislovodsk basin at sunset. Image: By Ivan Andreevich (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

Traces of agriculture in the surrounding areas – terrace and ridges – are first mentioned by M. M. Kovalevsky and I. I. Ivanjukov in 1881, and various interpretations have been made since. In 2005, a new investigation concentrating on the terraces was started. The terraces are divided into two main types: single, double, or triple large terraces with high banks, located on steep slopes, and cascades of long low-rise terraces on smoother slopes. These terraces are clearly artificial, constructed with carefully controlled erosion. Artefacts such as ceramics were discovered that can be dated to the Late Bronze and the Early Iron Ages. The study of the landscape allows the archaeological team to construct the possible population density as 3.5 to 7 individuals per square kilometres. Each fort may be occupied by up to five small households, which is a typical feature to the early medieval period when the Alans formed a cluster of small tribal kingdoms.

Curiously, similarities have long been noted between these Alanic fort hills and the lynchets of the British Isles. Better understanding of one may cast some light on the understanding of the other. Korobov’s new approach, though not very well known in Russia, has proven to be incredibly fruitful when applied to the North Caucasus region, considered one ‘the oldest and the best’ due to the number of sites and their condition of preservation. His recent research and use of groundbreaking archaeological techniques have given invaluable insights into the hitherto unexplored lives of the early medieval Alan tribes.

You can follow Dmitry Korobov on his page

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Top Image: Early modern map of the northern Caucuses region, showing Alania