Mary Lynn E. Turner (Kemp)
M.L.Turner@UMSL.edu or Mary_Lynn_E_Turner@yahoo.com
University of Missouri – St. Louis – Anthropology Student
“A Mummy Unearthed from the Pastures of Heaven,” the article announced to the readers of the October 1994 National Geographic. Natalia Polos�mak, senior research fellow of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, Siberia, had finally made her find on the Ukok plateau of the Altai mountains public, and the article was just the start. Only a few days after publication, the television show National Geographic Explorer would dedicate a full twenty minutes to the “Ice Tombs of Siberia” focusing almost entirely on her find, for quite a find it was. In all of the kurgan burials that had been excavated since Sergei Rudenko began his methodical excavations of the Pazyryk back in 1929, this woman was the first to be found buried alone, interred six horses and frozen beneath a kurgan mound for 2,400 years. While their cousins, the Scythians and the Sarmatians had the Greek historian Herodotus touting their barbaric ways, their love of horses, and their insurmountable gold, the Pazyryk people were being brought to world-wide attention via television.
Although it is uncertain and very debatable as to how and when horses were first domesticated, their being brought into human-kind�s service changed the world on a vast scale that modern-day folk are vaguely aware of. Now relegated to either breeders, racers, or devotees, horses have become less important to human culture, replaced instead by the automobile, but what Ford did with the car, the horse had been doing for millennia: long-distance transportation. Before learning how to ride, the farthest a person could go on land was as far as their feet could carry them. With the domestication of the horse, not only was there meat and milk more readily available, but so was trade and communication. Humans could go farther, faster, gaining both contacts with other peoples and their goods, and widening the variance and availability of natural resources.
Figure 1: Scytho-Siberian Map
The Eurasian steppeland was the perfect place for the horse. Ranging from north of the Black Sea all the way to Mongolia, it provides 3000-mile-long corridor of grasses and other vegetation needed for fodder, as well as open space for roaming and creating a large breeding population. It was only eventual that humans would build a culture around the horse, as well as an economy based around nomadic pastoralism. Horses could be used not only for transportation but for meat, milk, blood, hides, and even their dung could be used as fuel. Interestingly enough, mares had to milked repeatedly throughout the day from June to September, and each day they yielded roughly 2 and a half liters.
Horses were the perfect livestock for a rather harsh and arid environment, and they were easy to convince to take a saddle if the trainer was patient. When asked by Howard Reid how they broke their horses, a modern Kazak at first didn�t understand what he was saying (the western style of training being called “breaking” because the trainer is literally breaking the horse�s will). When he clarified by asking how they got a horse used to the saddle they explained it in very simple terms. “Just keep the young horse near you for a few weeks. Feed it, talk to it. After awhile put a blanket on its back, then a bit later a saddle. They�ll soon let you climb up after that.” (51) Reid then preceeded to note that in comparing the Kazak horses and their way of training to the “breaking” done in the United States, the Kazak horses were found to be very calm and very easy to handle.
In the west were the Scythians (800-100 B.C.E), a semi-nomadic group that eventually turned to agriculture, growing wheat and good horses in exchange for Greek goods and artisan-work. In the mid-planes were the Sarmations (600 B.C.E � A.D. 450) (and other smaller groups, and to the east would be the Pazyryk (600-200 B.C.E), all of them very nomadic tending to their horses, their cattle, and their sheep. Gathered under the singular term Scytho-Siberian, these three major groups and their smaller cousins shared several things culturally in common leaving little doubt of the trade and communication between the groups. The most striking of these commonalties was both their artwork and the burial of the dead, and the term “pazyryk” had been given to the Altai branch of this culture by Rudenko being as that it was the local word for “mound” meaning the kurgans in the area.
It was in June of 1993 that after a break from work to raise her daughter, Natalia Polos�mak was returning to the field in search of yet another kurgan to excavate on the Ukok plateau a five hour helicopter flight from Novosibirsk, the nearest city, and the only source of supplies. With “The Pasture of Heaven” having served as a sacred burial ground (it was also believed to be the second level of heaven) since 1000 B.C.E., she was certain she would find something, hopefully something that hadn�t already been looted by tomb-robbers. If there was one thing that she knew would be on her side as both she and her predecessors had found, nature in this area served as a wonderful preservative of both human remains and materials. The stone heaps that capped the burial mounds served to allow water in and keep the sun out creating a permanent area of permafrost beneath. Although most kurgans had been plundered before, what had remained for archaeologists to find had been invaluable in understanding the Pazyryk and their Scythian and Sarmatian kin.
Figure 2: The Ukok Plateau
The Ukok plateau resides in the Altai mountains of the Autonomous Republic of Altai, hemmed in by China to the south, Mongolia to the east, and Kazakastan to the west. At 7,500 feet above sea level the summers can be deceptively warm, thawing the normally frozen ground, but come winter the �20 degree Fahrenheit temperatures are joined by harsh winds that keeps the snow off the grass. It is precisely for this reason that the Ukok (meaning “the end of everything” in the local dialect) became the winter pastures for the Pazyryk. Although cold, they could build houses out of the larch trees (a kind of fir) not more than fifteen miles away, line them with felt carpets, and call it home. Meanwhile, the horses, the cattle, and the sheep would have no difficulty being fed for the grass was easy to get to.
Polos�mak was fortunate, while searching for a kurgan in Ak-Alakh the boarder guards approached her, and as that the commander was very familiar with the area he pointed out a kurgan nearby, a large one, only 10 meters away from the fence that marked the 10-mile-wide “no-mans�-land” between the Russian and Chinese boarder. Being where it was, he also pointed out that he and his fellow mounted guards could protect them if the need arose.
The kurgan turned out to be more than what Polos�mak expected. At first, when the rocks were pulled away, they found the plain burial of a Pazyryk man in a shallow coffin along with three of his horses (a burial that they later found had happened very shortly after “The Lady�s” interment), but instead of stopping, they chose to dig deeper and that was when they found the tomb of “The Lady” as Polos�mak would dub her, or “The Siberian Ice Maiden” as a 1998 NOVA program would later call her for their PBS audience.
Figure 3: The Lady’s Coffin & Tomb
Figure 4: Example of a Pazyryk Kurgan
Approximately seven-and-a-half feet wide by eleven feet long, and nearly nine feet tall, the burial chamber was lined by four walls of larch logs (eleven from top to bottom) and covered by a ceiling of larch planks. Within was a nine-foot-long coffin carved from a single larch log placed against the south wall, and upon the floor was carpet made of black felt strips sewn together to cover the pebbles that had been laid out before, as well as the folded fabrics of felt hangings that had once covered the walls, but had since fallen. What was once theorized to be the symbolic version of someone�s winter home as a burial turned out to be a literal fact. Tree-ring dating of the larch-pine logs placed them as being cut down and used fifteen years previous to the time the log for the coffin was cut down. The Pazyryk were proving that among other things, they were very practical. The logs that had once served to make a home for the winter pastures on the Ukok plateau now made a home for eternity.
The family and people of this woman worked hard to make it seem like home. Next to the coffin stood a small table with a high rim set on removable legs. On it was a slab of horse meat with an bronze knife still in it, the handle decorated to look like a wolf with ram�s horns. On the table, beside the horse meat was a small plate made of birch with mutton on it, specifically the tail of the sheep, the most fatty and most tasty part to eat, and about the size of a fist. On the floor near the table were the remains of two flat-bottomed ceramic jugs, destroyed by the ice. In one corner stood a round-bottomed wooden vessel nestled on a felt pillow to hold it upright and within it was not only a wooden stirrer, but the remains of a dairy product, possibly yogurt, or maybe even khoumiss. What was unprecedented about it, though, was that carved into the handle of the vessel was the image of two cats, not tigers, not lions, but cats, meeting head on, a sight thus far not seen in Pazyryk, let alone Scythian artwork. Next to it sat a yak horn vessel to delicate that it was described by Polos�mak as being practically translucent when held up to the sun.
Figure 5: Akal-Teke Breed Horse
Just outside the north walls to her eternal home rested six horses dressed in full regalia, ready to carry her into the next world. Of the horses the Pazyryk had, there were two types. One thought to be a Przewalski type, a short, but very sturdy horse used for heavy labor and for pulling carts as had been seen in a previous kurgan excavated by Rudenko. The other type, more prized and the basis of wealth across the steppe, was the Akhal-Teke. Graced with long necks and standing on average 14 – 15 hands high (roughly 62 inches or 5�2″) at the withers (highest point of the horse�s shoulders just below the base of the neck), they are still an active breed known for being slender and built for endurance, able to cover long distances in sever climatic conditions. In a famous race in 1935 from Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan (which now houses the world�s finest and largest spa dedicated to horses) to Moscow, a distance of 2580 miles, the journey was made in 84 days, most of the way made without water! Two other unique features to this horse that made it prized from Greece to China was that no matter the color of the horse (dun, bay, or chestnut), it�s coat always had a golden metallic sheen to it, and it was known for having such fine hair and thin skin that at times it would sweat blood (a feature thankfully not detrimental to the health of the horse).
Of all the Pazyryk burials, only one mare was found, the rest being geldings from a young age to make them more maintainable. Aside from their ability to give milk, mares were preferred over stallions for various reasons. Firstly, mares are of a more relaxed nature, while the stallions are in constant competition. As hunters, the Pazyryk also preferred mares because they didn�t urinate as much, nor give their presence away by neighing. As to the single mare, it was believed that she was chosen to be buried due to the fact that they found evidence not only of her age, but that she had arthritis bad enough to make her lame. As to the other sacrificial horses, for they indeed had their skulls punctured by a very pointed axe made for the job, as I said before, they were all geldings as well as past their prime of usability. In short, in the Pazyryk way of being practical, this was their permanent retirement, but they were still useful, and thus, after being killed they were lowered into the chamber and put into position.
When found, these six horses were facing east, patches of chestnut fur still on their bodies. Contents of their stomachs would confirm that the burial had happened in June, while the ground was still warm. Their manes were clipped and covered with leather, which was an every-day kind of occurrence along with their tails being braided. Ownership was shown by special ear-clipping, cutting small pieces out of the horse�s ear to make a unique pattern. What was most remarkable though was their tack.
Figure 6: Pazyryk Bridle & Bit
Figure 7: Pazyryk Saddle
As was to be expected, each of the horses worse saddles made by a wooden frame secured by a breast band, a girth, and a cropper, thus far the oldest known saddle ever found. On top of each of the wooden frames were saddle pads made of two felt cushions 20 inches in length stuffed with stag hair, and saddle covers depicting creatures of both nature and myth. One saddle cover bore a lion on each side while another had a griffin attacking a deer. Each saddle had square fringe tassels, but none had stirrups, a fact which hasn�t gone unnoticed. In all of the items found thus far, only once has stirrups (very useful items not only for putting your feet out of the way and giving your legs a rest, but also for maintaining balance and staying on the saddle) been seen and that in a Scythian torque made by the Greeks. It is also uncertain as to if need these were stirrups or just loose leather straps for holding feet. Bridles decorated with wooden creatures covered in gold foil were found on each horse, but with it another thing unique to the Scytho-Siberian culture…headdresses made to resemble deer antlers.
Figure 8: Deer Antler Horse Headdress
Considered creatures of magic and rejuvenation, a part of the cycle of life and death, the horses had been dressed for all intents and purposes as deer. As seen in other pieces of artwork by the Pazyryk, it was not uncommon for them to combine animals in their artwork, the griffin and the winged lion being perfect examples. It is thought, though, that although the horses were symbols of the sun, the antler headdresses were a kind of throw-back reminder to the days before herding horses, back when the people of the steppe herded reindeer instead (before a warming climate drove the animals north).
The coffin itself would hold more surprises. Outside, the single great larch log had been carved smooth, but with a gentle curve to it reminiscent of cradle. Four thick copper nails with round heads had sealed the lid shut and on the side leather deer with huge horns flying out behind them (a very common motif in Scytho-Siberian art) had been carefully appliquéd. Removing the lid, Polos�mak would find a solid block of milk-white ice within, meaning that whatever was there had probably been well preserved.
It took quite some time and effort to melt the ice, heating up buckets of water with blow-torches to carefully pour into the casket. After a time things began to come into view, a bit of black here, a bit of white there. At 10:35am Monday the 19th of July Polos�mak realized that the black she was seeing at the end of the coffin and the white in the middle weren�t corresponding. It was then she realized that the head of the person hidden within the ice was not at the end of the coffin, it was in the middle! More time and more hot water would eventually reveal a lone woman within the coffin, a sight never before seen with the Pazyryk nor with the Scythians and Sarmations thus far. Up until then graves of this kind of quality had been attributed to powerful men, and the women in those graves had been considered their consorts. This was a very important woman in more ways than one.
Figure 9: Pazyryk Belt Buckle
Figure 10: Panel of a Wall-Hanging
Atop this woman�s head was a three-foot headdress made of felt molded onto a wooden frame of larch. On it were eight wooden cats covered in gold leaf, possibly Tien Shan snow leopards, along with gold-covered birds perched in the branches, along with an ibex, and a griffin. All totaled, it is thought to be a physical representation of the Tree of Life, depicting the link of human to spirit, heroes to deities, a symbol of a mythic epic. Other representations of this can be found in a belt-buckle found in an earlier kurgan as well as in a felt tent panel. On the belt-buckle, a woman with a similar headdress to “The Lady” is seen sitting beneath a tree, both the headdress and the branches of the tree interwoven. In her lap rests the head of a reclining hero, while a another man waits with their horses. While the headdress marks the woman as a spiritual person, what hangs from the tree, a gorytoi (combination bow carrier and quiver holder), marks the man as a person of solidity, or of the earth. The other example of the Tree of Life in the mythic aspect appears on a felt tent panel from an earlier site. On it a mounted hero approaches a goddess on a throne wearing a robe of honor, and holding a tree in her hand with many branches.
As if to add to this spiritual aspect of this woman, a small bowl with burnt seeds in it had been found behind her headdress. At first it was thought that this was cannabis and that indeed Herodotus had been right in the manner in which the Scythians purified themselves as well as grieved. Later, the seeds would be found to be coriander, a strong-smelling oily seed that was probably burned to cover the odor of the body when it was interred.
Sadly, although the woman was curled up on her right side as if in sleep, and her head had rested on a felt pillow, the flesh of her face had deteriorated to the point of being just tiny patches of skin. Later, upon closer inspection of her skull, it would be realized that not only had her hair been shaved off, but in the process of mummification, a hole had been put in the back of her skull as a method of trepanning after her death. Emptying the braincase, they then filled her skull with soil, pine needles, and larch cones, and sewed the flesh of the scalp shut with thread made of sinew. The fissures of her skull placed her age between 25 and 30 years (some place her in the middle at 28), but what really took researchers by surprise was finding that to aid in the mummification, her eyes had been cut out and replaced with balls of fur in order to keep the eyelids from sinking into the skull from dehydration.
Figure 11: One of the Lady’s tattoos
Pulling back the blanket of martin fur that had covered her for nearly 2,500 years, Polos�mak would find yet more astounding discoveries. Around “The Lady�s” throat was a torque tipped with yet more cat figures, as well as a necklace of carved camels. With her hands folded over her navel, they found a simple bead bracelet, and flesh! Carefully pulling back the cloth of her shirt on her shoulder, they began to find tattoos, deep, midnight-blue tattoos of mythical and fantastic creatures. A creature that looked like deer with horns that ended in flowers and muzzles that turned into the beaks of birds of prey graced her right shoulder, as a stylized doe ambled around her left wrist. Even on her thumb she had a tattoo.
Finding tattoos on a Pazyryk woman was important, and enlightening. Of all the kurgans that had been excavated, “The Lady” was not only the first woman to be found with such markings, but only the second person, and both hers and the gentleman that Rudenko had found bore a fair amount of similarities, namely the deer motif. Theories abound as to why this is so. Were they nobility? Were the tattoos a mark of rank or a rite of passage, perhaps even personal achievement? Maybe they were even tied to therapeutic or spiritual treatments, taking on the aspects of the animal as needed. I myself am left to wonder if it was as someone else said a way to carry stories, a potent reminder made of mythical symbols to tell the tales and histories these people only carried in their heads and in their hearts. Either way, even after being frozen for almost 2,500 years, and then being subjugated to ill-treatment and negligence, “The Lady�s” tattoos are still a brilliant shade of blue today.
Figure 12: The Lady’s clothing
Much to the amazement of Polos�mak and others, “The Lady�s” clothing needed little restorative care, and it gave even more information about her and her people. Her silk beige chemise with maroon trim and sleeves that were long enough to cover her hands was found to have been made from the silk non-domesticated silk-worms in India. Her skirt of horizontal maroon and white strips was found to be made of both wool and camel hair. Beneath her skirt, her thigh high riding boots (much needed to keep the skin of the legs from chafing while in the saddle) were still pliant, as were her white felt stockings trimmed with felt appliqués. About her waist she even wore a thick maroon belt made of wool thread that also made it through the centuries unscathed.
Behind her slightly bent knees was found a red pouch within was found a brass mirror with a wooden backing decorated by a deer. A string of beads were also found along with a pendant. Interestingly enough, also with her was a “vanity case” containing a horse-hair brush and the makings for blue and green cosmetics and a kind of application “pencil” made of iron rings.
Thought to have died in early spring, the mummification process shows yet more similarities with the Scythians to the west. Internal organs were removed from an incision in the abdomen which was then sewn shut. More incisions were made, one across the back, one across the hips, another down the spine, and one more down the backs of each limb. Such cuts gave the mortician the ability to remove muscle from throughout the body and replace it with preservative materials such as peat and salt, as well as sedge grass and wool to fill the body out again. Once done, the corpse would be carefully sewn shut, dressed and interred. It is believed that because the woman had died so early in the spring, even preserved, her body did not have the chance to deteriorate as much as others that had been found. In short, for the Scytho-Siberians, preservation of the body was done to let the body survive the time between death and when the ground was soft enough to make a proper burial.
Figure 13: Bust of the Lady
Aside from the question of who “The Lady” was, be it shaman, healer, or story-teller, the biggest debate by far about her and the Pazyryk is her ethnicity. With her burial 600 miles north of Turpan, there have been those who have attributed her to the Scythians as well as the Yuezhi, the Wusun, the Ziongnu, and the Arimasptians of Aristeas. When a facial reconstruction was done with a model of her skull, some took exception if not outright insult that she looked completely Caucasian, most especially those of the Altai who considered her their ancestor. Years later and after taking several DNA samples from kurgans all throughout the steppeland it was found that the Scythians were not purely Caucasian, nor purely Mongolian in appearance, let alone genetics. Because of the trade and the obvious intermarriage between cultures across the steppes, the Pazyryk as well as the Scythians were varying mixtures of both! After a run-in with fungi that nearly destroyed her, “The Lady” has since been re-preserved thanks to embalmers and scientists who worked on her for a year before returning her to Novosibirsk where she currently resides in the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, but the Altai want her back. Negotiations between the Academy of Sciences and the Altai regional administration still lingers and falters, and as of 2002 Russian archaeologists have been banned from working in Altai, or on the Ukok plateau.
Meanwhile, “The Lady” and her possessions are on display in the museum in Novosibirsk, her 5�6″ denuded body is now covered with a kind of cheese cloth while her clothing hangs behind glass on mannequins. Fewer than thirty people a day enter the building, either by going through certain channels, or by joining in a foreign tourist group. Although there is a suggestion that scientists are still studying her, it is my humble opinion that they are not only dragging their feet, but there�s a greater chance of winning the lottery than seeing their work.
I just wonder when something equivalent to N.A.G.P.R.A. is going to be put into law in the states of the former Soviet Union.
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