In 1993, Russian archaeologist Natalya Polosmak and her team excavated an ancient tomb at the Ukok Plateau, located in the Altai Mountains near Russia’s border with China. What they had found was a tomb embedded in ice.
As the archaeologists melted the ice, it became clear that they had found the burial of a person of some status. The body was surrounded by six horses in full harnesses and was buried in a wooden coffin made of solid larch wood.
At the center of the tomb was a young woman, preserved so well that her tattoos could even be still seen. But who was she and why did she have such a luxurious burial?
The Ice Princess of Siberia
The woman’s body had been carefully embalmed using peat and bark. She was laid on her side as if she was peacefully sleeping. The woman was young, and her head was shaved though she wore a wig and a tall hat.
She was 167cm (5 feet 4 inches) tall, and the tribal tattoos depicting animal forms could still be clearly seen on her pale skin. Dressed in a long wool skirt decorated with red and white stripes and white felt stockings, her coffin was made large enough to accommodate the 90cm (35 inch) tall headdress.
Archaeologists believe that the “princess” as they dubbed her belonged to the Pazyryk culture. This loose congregation of Scythian nomadic tribes lived in the Altai mountains from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC, brought together by a similar ethnicity and a similar lifestyle.
A large focus of the latter was their affinity for a life spent on horseback. It is believed that they lived in yurts and herded sheep back and forth between summer and winter pastures. Much of their diet was made up of cedar nuts, blackberries and boiled meat, along with mare’s milk made into cottage cheese.
The embalmed body had been buried at least three months after death. However, this was not her final role for her tribe, as traces of material from a chair found on her skin showed that her mummified body played a special role, even after her death.
However, the scientists had misnamed her, and evidence from the tomb suggested that she was not a princess at all. Her tomb is decorated in a way that was representative of the middle layer of the Pazyryk society.
It was not as big or richly decorated as tombs of the Pazyryk nobles found in the same area. These richer burials were found at some distance from the “Ice Princess” which, combined with her apparently ceremonial role after her death, suggested an intriguing possibility.
Distance between the burials was a common practice for women whose professional occupation involved celibacy. Scientists have thus suggested that the buried “princess” was in fact a healer or a shaman. Her body shows that during her lifetime she has repeatedly inhaled fumes of copper and mercury, likely connected to rites and rituals.
Cause of Death
The cause of death of the shaman or healer was unknown until relatively recently. In 2014, researchers suggested that the cause of death may have been breast cancer.
There was evidence that the body had sustained injuries linked to a fall. However these injuries were not serious and this has led researchers to believe that it was the breast cancer that caused the person’s death.
The scientists had also initially assumed that the body was of Mongolian descent, but again they were in for a surprise. Through further DNA testing, scientists were able to show that the body in the ice was in fact Caucasian.
A reconstruction of her face by Tanya Balueva, a forensic sculptor from Moscow, confirmed this. Balueva used features and measurements as well as comparisons with modern-day Altai inhabitants in her reconstruction and the conclusions were clear.
Natalya Polosmak, the lead archaeologist on the dig, and her team were guided through the plateau to a group of “kurgans”, a type of burial site popular in this strip of land between Russia and China. The kurgan was built with notched wood logs to form a cabin, and then surrounded by sediment and rocks. This use of organic material allows for the burial to be dated.
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Before reaching the “Ice Maiden’s” chamber, Polosmak uncovered a later burial in the same kurgan. She believes that this later burial was an outsider burial from a subordinate peoples who wanted to honor their dead by burying them in the same place as the Pazyryk groups.
The later burial also showed signs of robbery which perhaps allowed for the water and snow to collect in the principal tomb in the kurgan. This would explain the frozen remains.
A Controversial Extraction
The excavation was carried out with great care, though the team still ran into problems in removing the contents of the tomb. The methods used to melt the ice and remove the artifacts and body resulted in some deterioration of the grave goods.
The hot water used to remove the ice damaged some of the tattoos that had remained on the body’s skin. The subsequent transport of the finds from the site to the lab, despite being kept refrigerated, resulted in further damage.
As if this was not enough, a dispute developed between Russian authorities and local inhabitants regarding the find. The locals had mythologized the burial as their ancestor from the nomadic Altaian people. The Russian Federation attempted to undermine this link and as such the cultural sovereignty on the Altai became focused on the “Ice Maiden”.
For 19 years after the discovery, the body was kept under lock and key in a scientific institute in Novosibirsk. In 2012, however, the body was returned to the Altai, where it has been kept in a special mausoleum in Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Altai Republic. There have been no more excavations as the process has been forbidden.
The Maiden in the Siberian Ice
After having been returned to the Altai region, the body in the museum has been placed in a special room in accordance with the beliefs of the Altai people. She was placed in a copy of the coffin she was originally found in.
Visitors to the museum are only able to see the remains on certain days of the year, as there is a risk that exposure of the body would further damage the finds. When she cannot be viewed, visitors are instead shown an exact copy of the burial site and interpretations of how the “Ice Maiden” may have looked when she died, offering a glimpse into the world of the Pazyryk, more than 2,000 years ago.
Top Image: An Altaian woman dressed in traditional Pazyryk dress, similar to that worn by the Princess of Ukok. Source: П. Филатов / CC BY-SA 2.0.
By Kurt Readman