Aside from being difficult to pronounce, the burials found at the Pazryk Valley, Altai mountains, Siberia are something of an archaeological wonder. Dating to the Iron Age, the burials there are found within barrows and are called Scythian-type kurgans, being a mound containing a wooden chamber covered over by rocks and boulders. The ones we’re interested in date from between 6-3rd centuries BC, and are special because the finds from them are in remarkable states of preservation. In fact, the site is so remarkable that it has been named the type site for the Altai culture. This means that the things found here are in such a good state of preservation, that they have become the base marker by which all other finds from that culture are referenced.
A little more technical detail and then we’ll look at some of the artefacts themselves: you might be thinking how did things survive so well up there? well, for one, it’s Siberia and therefore cold. And for two, water seeping in through the covering rocks, meant that the grave chambers slowly filled with water and froze (see point one). This layer of permafrost and ice meant that items were perfectly preserved within the grave until archaeologists came along with the most unorthodox of excavation tools (the heater) and retrieved the items. What items? you may ask, are worth an archaeologist trekking a heater into Siberia to waste on the contents of hole in the ground? Generally from any given site you’ll get what are called non-organic artefacts, such as items made from stone, brick, metal, ceramic and occasionally wood. Rarer are those sites which preserve organic based items such as wood, leather, woven and embroidered cloth, wool, skin, hair, liquids and plaster, conditions have to be very special, such as very dry, very wet, or in this case very frozen. What got the archaeologists trekking all the way up into the Siberian Mountains with a heater was near perfect organic preservation of items within the graves. So perfect that the worlds oldest pile carpet was found up there, just shy of 2 metres square, and decorated with borders and images of horses, men, stags and griffins.
Keep that animal part in mind, I’ll come back to it later…
Items made in felt also survived, one of which is now described as a felt-carpet:
If you take a look at the figure on the left, it’s a fantastic griffon-with-antlers going up against a bird, identified as a phoenix with a long curling tail.
Other items within the graves include a bronze couch, great chariots, including one three metres high with four wheels, clothing, wooden furniture, household goods, hangings and embroidery, chinese silks, personal items, and odd objects such as this gilded wooden figurine of a deer:
So, who was this all done for and which culture did they belong to? The Pazryk burials are from the Altai nomads, accepted as being part of the Scythian culture. Renowned for their creativity, the Scythians were a race also notorious for their cruelty. Herodotus, the Greek historian, devoted half a volume of his History to the Scythians, describing them as evil red-haired barbarians. Thankfully now we don’t just have Herodotus to go on, and can see that the Scythians also had a rich and extensive material culture.
Like most burials, the whole thing is done for one or more individuals, and these burials are no exception. The most prominent of these is now known as the Chieftain, a powerfully built man covered in tattoos, who died at around age 50. Here are his tattoos, created using the skin-pricking method. The chief was elaborately decorated with an interlocking series of striking designs representing a variety of fantastic beasts. The best preserved tattoos were images of a donkey, a mountain ram, two highly stylized deer with long antlers and an imaginary carnivore on the right arm. Two monsters resembling griffins decorate the chest, and on the left arm are three partially obliterated images which seem to represent two deer and a mountain goat. On the front of the right leg a fish extends from the foot to the knee. A monster crawls over the right foot, and on the inside of the shin is a series of four running rams which touch each other to form a single design. The left leg also bears tattoos, but these designs could not be clearly distinguished. In addition, the chief’s back is tattooed with a series of small circles in line with the vertebral column. This tattooing was probably done for therapeutic reasons. Contemporary Siberian tribesmen still practice tattooing of this kind to relieve back pain. Other examples of which can be found such as Otzi, the Ice Man.
A little distance away, another Scythian was uncovered in the same conditions as the Chieftain: a woman, aged 20-30 years old 5’6″ with long blonde hair and now known as the Ice Maiden, complete with a larch coffin, 6 horses and trappings, wearing a silk blouse and a 3′ high felt headdress which is thought to represent the Tree of Life. Her left arm bore several tattoos of elaborately antlered leaping deer. One is on her upper left shoulder and another is on her forearm of a deer’s head with sweeping antlers. On her thumb is another delicate tattoo of an animal, tentatively identified as another deer. There is a further male body, known as the Warrior. All together, there are nine tattooed bodies discovered from the sites.
Here is an artist piece inspired by the Ice Maiden:
The deer represented in the tattoos are very distinctive: having antlers which curve over their back and end in curled tines, like this one:
So we see the same familiar animal motifs-deer, griffins and birds-but here carved in a fantastical, flowing style. The bodies of the beasts and birds are often filled with swirls and spirals. These motifs are further emphasised in the leather appliques, where spiral, tear-drop and triangular cut-outs create an openwork effect which is clearly echoed in certain metal plaques of the Scythians. Little further information is known about the Altai nomads, in fact most comes from the information gleaned from the few mounds and nine bodies already excavated. Sadly the archaeologists are now banned from further excavation at the main site by the Russian Authorities, but have been able to continue their excavations on the Mongolian side of the border.