Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Siberian Ice Maiden: Discovery and Controversy Shrouded in Mystery on the Borderline of Siberia

For the past few weeks I have commented much on Russian Archaeological finds, much of which is focused within Siberia.  Rightly so, for today I have another finding that is truly astonishing.  Amidst a disputed borderline fence area between Russia's Siberian territory and China, lies many ancient burial mounds.  One in particular, excavated in 1993 by Natalia Polosmak along with her team, revealed for the first time to the world the "Siberian Ice Maiden", as the mummy found preserved was to be called throughout the world.

The steppes of Siberia have long been home to tribes of horse riders.  The ancestors of those who live there today ruled the steppes for centuries, developing unique societies and cultures.  Within the Ukok Plateau region that the Ice Maiden was found lives the descendants of the Pazyryk, one of these ancient horsemen tribes.

Not since the 1920's had the region been explored till Natalia Polosmak's expedition.  The Pazyryk culture was actually discovered by her predecessor, Sergei Rodenko, in the 1920's.  From a transcript of a PBS show on which Natalia and others were interviewed, the narrator provides a background on the discovery of the Pazyryk culture:

"Sergei Rodenko, launched a series of landmark excavations in Southern Siberia. High in the mountains, he found great mounds of stone—both signifying grand burials and preserving them. The stones allowed water to seep down, but deflected the heat of the sun. This, together with the long winters, kept the ground below permanently frozen. Like Natalia Polosmak decades later, Rodenko unearthed sacrificed horses, and with them immaculately preserved cloth saddles, still soft after more than 2000 years. Woolen rugs and other splendid objects had escaped the ravages of time. They gave testament to the richness of this culture, and to its artistry.  Yet, these artifacts pale beside Rodenko's most astounding finds: Mummies unlike any seen before. Their bodies were meticulously embalmed. Their internal organs and even their muscles were removed. Their skin was stitched back together with thread made of horse hair. The care lavished on these corpses and the bounty in their bombs suggested these men were once great chiefs. Rodenko assumed that the women buried with them were their concubines, likely sacrificed to join their lovers in death"  ("Ice Mummies").

What Natalia Polosmak found however, was truly as remarkable.  A 2,400 year old women, possibly regarded as an important figure head, was found in an ornate coffin surrounded by sacrificial horses.  All of this was encased in a tomb that, due to water seeping in and the cold temperature like other Pazyryk tombs found before, was protected by ice.  It was indeed a rare find, given that many tombs in the region had been pillaged long ago.

How Natalia Polosmak came to find the tomb is a story in itself, as she explains in the program:

"We had a visit one day from the border guard who helped us to choose the burial mound. Their commander knew all the burial sites in the area. When I explained that I needed a large and beautiful mound, he told me he knew of one within their view. This also meant that they could protect us. So we went to find this burial mound, which turned out exactly as he described it. We liked it as much as he did" ("Ice Mummies").

The tomb location was a close call however for Natalia Polosmak and her team, as the kurgen, the local term for burial mound, was only 10 meters from a border fence between Russia and China, within a strip of no-man's land ("Ice Mummies").  I can only imagine how disappointing it would have been if the mound was within Chinese territory.

After removing the stones that covered the kurgen and beginning to dig, they came upon the tomb itself, a wooden chamber encased in a large block of ice.  Upon reaching the coffin within it, Natalie commented on the construction of it and the period at which they began to open it:

"All the important, rich Pazyryks were buried in coffins. The larch tree was considered a sacred tree similar to the tree of life. Many believed that when they placed a body in a coffin it was a return to the source of life, like returning to Mother Earth to be reborn.  The coffin was secured with large nails—heavy copper nails. There were four of them, two on each side. The nails held the lid tightly down and helped trap the water that ran into the coffin.  As we opened the lid, we were gripped with excitement because of this aura of mystery surrounding the coffin. But after it was open and we discovered the ice was so opaque we couldn't see through it, we calmed down and got on with our work" ("Ice Mummies").

So, unlike the coffins of ancient Egypt you often see Hollywood actors or Scooby Doo open, there was still work to be done just to see what rested inside.  Smoot, an American student helping Natalia Polosmak with the excavation, describes the process:

"The thawing process was undertaken by taking huge drums of water from the nearby lake and heating them up with a blow torch, and then taking cups of heated water and pouring it very carefully and slowly. That process took quite awhile" ("Ice Mummies").

Quite an irony, using water in one form to melt it in another, isn't it?  It makes ponder how much fuel they needed to keep the water heated, especially in the cold conditions of the cave.

Smoot has another portion from the show that I feel like sharing, primarily because I believe it captures what it is really like to work in a site like this, in stark comparison to what many would expect:

"You're bailing in buckets constantly. It was damp. You know, when you were inside the tomb your feet were wet. There was a kind of a musty smell to it all, because in fact it had been preserved. So you had the organic materials—wool, wet wool—everyone knows what that smells like. And the horses were strong smelling as well, especially as their stomachs had been preserved. And when we opened that to get a sample, that was quite, quite strong" ("Ice Mummies").

 I do not think I could handle such smells.

What the women was adorned with however, certainly made the work seem worthwhile:

"We pulled back carefully the clothing, and on her left arm, the right thumb, and then again on her left shoulder are these amazing tattoos. Creatures just in immediate action poses, and they are in fact twisted oddly at 180 degree angles. They have amazing horns that end in flowers, fantastic creatures. At that point, the whole dig stopped and people came down and everyone was looking, not only was this a woman, but one with tattoos and they are quite elegant"  ("Ice Mummies").

While tattoos have long been recognized as being prominent in ancient cultures, this was surely something that defied all data currently known at the time.  Furthermore, the body was embalmed, the brain and organs removed. 
When it came to transporting and maintaining the body though, the team hit several snags.  First off, the helicopter they used at first to transport the Ice Maiden back to Natalia's research facility was forced to make an emergency landing.  Following this mishap, the freezer used to preserve the body was faulty, causing the body to decay further, some of the tattoos fading as a result.  The body was rushed to Moscow to be preserved by former Soviet specialists.

The Ice Maiden is currently on display in the Altay Regional Museum, where political and ethnic fueled debate still reigns over her.  From calls for reburial by the tribes to arguments over the 3d modeled ethnic features of her and their proficiency, the Ice Maiden continues to drive a wedge between the past and present.  Natalia and her team are currently banned, as are other archaeologists, from continuing to explore the Ukok Plateau, and now Natalia keeps up the struggle to understand the women she unearthed.

To read more, I would encourage everyone to read the full transcript listed as my source.  It is truly an educational read.  It's link is http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2517siberian.html

 Ukok Plateau

Siberian Ice Maiden

Controversial face reconstruction, showing Caucasian rather than Mongolian features.

 "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden."  Nova.  Narr. Stacy Keach.  PBS/BBC.  WGBH, Boston, 1997/1998.  Television.

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