Urban Expansion and Kurgan Loss in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Victoria sluka takes us through her research on the visible loss of archaeology due to urban expansion in Almaty

Situated in the south-east corner of Kazakhstan near the Tian Shan mountains and the border with Kyrgyzstan, Almaty is the country’s largest city. The metropolitan area has a population of 2 million (Bureau of National Statistics of the Republic of Kazakhstan 2021) and sees extensive construction and housing development every year. As the city expands, particularly into the fertile lowlands to the north and west, cultural heritage is destroyed with surprising inconsistency. Using historic photos of the area, we can track not only the expansion of the city, but the loss of archaeological monuments.

The area around Almaty is dotted with kurgans (burial mounds), which in this area likely date primarily to the Iron Age. The Issyk kurgan complex, origin of the famous ‘Golden Man’ and his more than 4,000 gold artifacts, sits only 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the east. Despite the potential for astonishing archaeological finds, the sheer density of kurgans in south-eastern Kazakhstan means that they are often not treated as archaeological priorities, but rather as a nuisance to modern expansion. In this case study, we will look at a small area just west of Almaty where the destruction of a kurgan field can be tracked through archived Google images (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The study area (blue) in relation to Almaty. The borders of Kazakhstan (yellow) and the main map area (red) shown in the inset. Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies.

Measuring only 0.7 square kilometres (0.27 square miles), the field examined here contains at least 95 individual kurgans (Figure 2). The kurgans are all badly eroded, some remaining as slight slopes and others flattened entirely to a cropmark. Until the summer of 2018 the field was entirely agricultural, with seasonal ploughing and harvesting running over the kurgans. By August of that year, a small area in the middle of the field had been surveyed and housing construction begun. Two and half years later, the southern half of the field has been completely built over (Figure 3), with a few more homes built along the north edge. The housing development plus a significant highway going in along the west edge of the field has so far destroyed 74 of the original 95 kurgans.

Figure 2: The kurgan field with 95 individual kurgans (circled in yellow). Notice the variation in how distinct different kurgans are. Satellite photos taken 3 May 2014. Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies.
Figure 3: Comparison of the kurgan field pre-construction (3 May 2014), and in the most recent satellite images (30 April 2021). Although construction doesn’t begin until 2018, the 2014 image is used here because the season & vegetation allow the kurgans to be made out more distinctly. Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies.

As archaeological monuments, these kurgans should be surveyed and excavated for salvage before construction work commences. A very common trend in the kurgan-dense parts of southern Kazakhstan, however, is a notable inconsistency in the application of salvage work. Some kurgans are excavated carefully, some are done more hastily, and others aren’t excavated at all. There are no obvious patterns about which are excavated, and which are not: it does not appear to be based on size, visibility, or type of construction planned. In this field of 95 kurgans, only 10 had clear sub-surface excavation, with up to 10 more possibly receiving surface-level investigation (Figure 4). Even among kurgans which are excavated, there are obvious disparities in the amount of time and care taken. Some excavations, particularly of larger and more dimensional kurgans, are systematic, with neat trenches and spoil heaps. Hastier excavations of smaller, flatter kurgans are most commonly characterized by 1-3 deep bulldozing marks (Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 4: Kurgans given sub-surface excavations (indicated by arrows). Notice how few of the kurgans (circled in yellow) were excavated before construction began. Satellite photos taken 25 Oct 2019. Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies.
Figure 5. A large, dimensional kurgan 600 metres north of the main kurgan field excavated slowly and systematically. Photographed 18 June 2019 (left) and 25 October 2019 (right). Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies.
Figure 6: A small, badly-eroded kurgan excavated by bulldozer in the main kurgan field. Photographed 3 May 2014 (left) and 25 October 2019 (right). Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies.

While this field is an excellent example of the different treatment of kurgans in south-east Kazakhstan, it is also a clue to how many similar kurgan fields have already been lost to the expansion of Almaty. Archived Google images of the Almaty area go back to 1985, but only those taken after 2000 have sufficient resolution to identify small kurgans. Unfortunately, the highly-eroded and low-profile kurgans discussed in this example are only visible in certain seasons and under certain drought and vegetation conditions. Between the few older Google images, the changing seasons/vegetation cover, and the rapid expansion of the city, it is unlikely that we can ever confirm how many kurgans were lost in only the last 20 years, much less the last century.


Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Bureau of National Statistics [Қазақстан Республикасы Стратегиялық жоспарлау және реформалар агенттігі Ұлттық статистика бюросы]. 2021. On the Population of Almaty: Early 2021 [2021 жылдың басына Алматы қаласының халқының нақтыланған саны туралы]. Available at https://stat.gov.kz/api/getFile/?docId=ESTAT412929

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