Ice Patch Archaeology in the Altai Mountains of Russia and Kazakhstan

The Altai Mountain region is amongst the archaeologically richest of·Central Asia. The Altai Mountains are famous for frigid temperatures that aid in the preservation of bodies; ice sheets rapidly imprison burials, preventing decomposition. The bearers of the Pazyryk culture, or Scythian culture, were horse-riding pastoral nomads of the steppe, and some may have accumulated great wealth through horse trading with merchants in Persia, India and China. This wealth is evident in the wide array of finds from the Pazyryk tombs, which include many rare examples of organic objects such as felt hangings, Chinese silk, the earliest known pile carpet, horses decked out in elaborate trappings, and wooden furniture and other household goods. These finds were preserved when water seeped into the tombs in antiquity and froze, encasing the burial goods in ice, which remained frozen in the permafrost until the time of their excavation.

A war-like people, Scythians are known to have invaded Syria and Judea and sacked Nineveh and Babylon, yet their tumuli, scattered across the northern Black Sea steppe and Central Asia, are the sole monuments attesting their ancient might. The first tombs were excavated by the archaeologist Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko beginning in the 1920s. While many of the tombs had already been looted in earlier times, Rudenko unearthed buried horses, and with them immaculately preserved cloth saddles, felt and woven rugs including the world's oldest pile carpet, a 3-metre-high four-wheel funeral chariot from the 5th century BC and other splendid objects that had escaped the ravages of time. These finds are now exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Rudenko's most striking discovery was the body of a tattooed Pazyryk chief: a thick-set, powerfully built man who had died when he was about 50.

The most famous undisturbed Pazyryk burial so far recovered is the Ice Maiden or "Altai Lady" found by archaeologist Natalia Polosmak in 1993 at Ukok, near the Chinese border. The find was a rare example of a single woman given a full ceremonial burial in a wooden chamber tomb in the fifth century BC, accompanied by six horses. She had been buried over 2,400 years ago in a casket fashioned from the hollowed-out trunk of a Siberian larch tree. On the outside of the casket were stylized images of deer and snow leopards carved in leather. Shortly after burial the grave had apparently been flooded by freezing rain, and the entire contents of the burial chamber had remained frozen in permafrost. Six horses wearing elaborate harnesses had been sacrificed and lay to the north of the chamber. The maiden's well-preserved body, carefully embalmed with peat and bark, was arranged to lie on her side as if asleep. She was young, and her hair was still blonde; she had been 5 feet 6·inches tall. Even the animal style tattoos were preserved on her pale skin: creatures with horns that develop into flowered forms. Her coffin was made large enough to accommodate the high felt headdress she was wearing, which was decorated with swans and gold-covered carved cats. She was clad in a long crimson and white striped woolen skirt and white felt stockings. Her yellow blouse was originally thought to be made of wild "tussah" silk but closer examination of the fibers indicate the material is not Chinese but was a wild silk which came from somewhere else, perhaps India. Near her coffin was a vessel made of yak horn, and dishes containing gifts of coriander seeds: all of which suggest that the Pazyryk trade routes stretched across vast areas of Iran. Similar dishes in other tombs were thought to have held Cannabis sativa, confirming a practice described by Herodotus, but after tests the mixture was found to be coriander seeds, probably used to disguise the smell of the body.

Two years after the discovery of the "Ice Maiden" Dr. Polosmak's husband, Vyacheslav Molodin, found a frozen man, elaborately tattooed with an elk, with two long braids that reached to his waist, buried with his weapons.

n 2000, a dozen horses sacrificed nearly 2,500 years ago in full-dress regalia have been recovered frozen in a Scythian kurgan, or tumulus, near the village of Berel in Kazakhstan's Bukhtarma Valley. The horses were preserved with their skin, hair, harnesses, and saddles intact. This is the first time a Scythian kurgan in Central Asia's Altai Mountains has yielded such a massive sacrifice of horses with all their equipment and finery in place. The horses were found buried side by side on a bed of birch bark next to a funeral chamber containing the pillaged burial of two Scythian nobles. The horses appear to have been left undisturbed. The wooden cheek pieces of their harnesses are carved with animal figures, while their saddles are decorated with gold leaf, leather, and felt and rested on red saddle blankets. Each horse appears to have worn ornaments relating to an animal commonly represented in Scythian art. Ibex horns fashioned out of wood were discovered near one horse and appear to have been worn on its head, while a griffin sculpture with leather horns was recovered near another pair of false horns.

As recently as the summer of 2012, tombs are still discovered at various locations, such as the January 2007 unearthing of a timber tomb of a blond chieftain warrior that was unearthed in the permafrost of the Altai mountains region close to the Mongolian border. The body of the presumed Pazyryk chieftain is tattooed; his sable coat is well preserved, as are some other objects, including what looks like scissors.

The archaeological heritage not only has an important scientific relevance, but also supernational significance to the indigenous Altaians. The 2003 earthquake was blamed locally on the excavation of the Scythian burial mound of the so-called ice princess of Uko and led to an ongoing dispute between archaeologists and the indigenous population that has impeded excavations ever since. There is the possibility that the current inhabitants of the Altai region are descendants of the Pazyryk culture, a continuity that would accord with current ethnic politics. Archaeogenetics is now being used to study the Pazyryk mummies. A local archaeologist, Aleksei Tishkin, complained that the indigenous population of the region strongly disapproves of archaeological digs, prompting the scientists to move their activities across the border to Mongolia. Thus, the conservation of·the archaeological heritage of the Altai can also be considered socio-culturally imperative.

Mary Stapleton

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