The Siberian Ice Princess
ONCE UPON A TIME LONG AGO in a land far away, there lived a young princess. She lived and then she died at the tender age of 25. Some 2,500 years later in 1993, a young Russian archeologist, Natalia Polosmak, found her tomb in the region of the Altai Mountains, located where Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and Russia meet, high up in the mountains in a sacred area called the Pasture of Heaven. But who was she? Who were her people? Was she a fortune teller? A healer? A priestess? What race was she? These and many more questions are explored in this article.
Thousands of tombs have been found in this area but this was the first of a woman alone. The first discovery of her people known as the Pazyryks was made in the 1920s by a team of Russian archeologists. The Pazyryks are thought to be related to a nomadic people of central Asia called the Scythians by Herodotus. He wrote of woman warriors who could not marry until they had made their first kill of an enemy tribesman.
But this lady was no warrior. The first bodies to be found in her tomb were those of horses, sacrificed at the time so that they could accompany the Siberian Ice Princess to the afterlife. Six were found with her. The Pazyrks had acquired great wealth possibly from their trade in horses providing the peoples of Persia, India and China with their superior steeds.
She was outfitted for her burial in thigh-high felt boots lined with compressed sheep wool and a dress made of wool and camel hair, bound with a cord with tassels. Her blouse was of silk, not Chinese silk—which at the time was cultivated—but "wild silk," possibly from India. What this indicates is that the trade routes of the Pazyryks were more extensive than formerly thought
She was a tall lady at 5.3 feet and made even taller by the long headdress that adorned her head—a 40-inch tall creation carved with the animals to which her people felt a special connection—the horse and the goat—but most especially the reindeer. There was also a carving of a mythical beast, the griffin, and all were adorned with gold leaf. The Scythians in their time were renowned for their skill in working with gold.
Her tattoos have triggered much attention for their sophisticated depiction of animals in flight, some twisted in 180-degree angles. The artwork on her body is delicate and at the same time full of life. The artistry of her people once again is obvious. Her body was embalmed, her organs removed and the cavities filled in a manner very similar to that described by Herodotus, who tells us Scythian mummies were filled with grasses, incense, parsley seeds and hefty copper nails sealed the coffin made of a larch tree.
Buried in the permafrost, it was in effect in a deep freeze until being un. This explains the extraordinary preservation of her clothing. When discovered, her dress was completely intact, so much so that it could still be folded and put in your dresser drawer.
The goat, the horse and the reindeer were all crucial to the survival of those nomadic tribes as they remain to the people who now live in that region. But perhaps the connection was also mystical. The imagery was used more extensively than was used by later peoples in the same region, although they adopted or retained much of that culture.
All went well with the excavation until the Ice Princess was moved out of the area. Current-day inhabitants who trace their culture back to the Pazyryks were offended, but the move was made nonetheless. She was finally taken to Moscow where she was preserved with chemicals so that the process of decomposition would be halted.
But the move triggered a controversy. Local inhabitants claimed that she should not have been disturbed at all. Some superstitious residents even stated that the increase in earthquakes was due to her removal.
But who was she to her people? She was obviously a woman of stature, literally and figuratively. It has been noticed by archaeologists that tall men of her tribe were those with the most elaborate graves. She was as tall as they. And she was a free woman, not a concubine sacrificed at the time of her master's death.
But was she an "Amazon" warrior? Most likely, she was not. No weapons were found in her tomb. Polosmak thinks she may have been a storyteller. An American archeologist likened the tattoos to the carvings on European cathedrals which were also put there to tell a story. These tattoos do tell a story, notably the story of the nomadic and hunting life of the Pazyryks. The horns of the reindeer get a special treatment, exaggerated to the extreme. These people even dressed their horses with fake horns, visually transforming them into reindeer.
She was returned in response to the people of the Altai and displayed in a museum there, but not without the express disapproval of the museum curator who continued to insist that she should never have been disturbed. The curator, herself of Mongol extraction, seemed particularly adamant about this point. Interestingly this attitude is quite similar to the stance of the American Indian community in reaction to the discovery of Kennewick Man, a 10,000-year-old Caucasoid skeleton found in Washington state. They were successful in keeping further study of those remains from taking place by locking up the remains of this ancient Caucasian. A central reason for their success in denying access to the skeleton was that American law uniformly states that all remains found in the continent that are dated prior to 1492 are automatically considered American Indian. Not only is this unscientific, it is also blatantly racist.
Many Pazyryk tombs, known as kurgans, lie on the Mongolian side of the fence from Russian territory. where they are sure to be ignored.
American archeologist Esther Jacobson seemed particularly enthused about the study of the technology and art of that time, but was cool to the idea of studying the maiden's genetics.
According to the BBC: "To the Altai people, the Ice Princess is part of their world. They share many customs with the Pazyryks. Until this century, they even sacrificed horses with the dead. They are angry that the Ice Princess has been disturbed." The double standards here are extraordinary.
Evidently the feelings of the Mongol or mixed Mongol descendants that now live in the region are more important than either the scientific work of the Russians or the feelings of the Russian people.
It is interesting to note that they have inherited a culture from another group and made it theirs, more than the actual originators. They base their claim to the mummy on a shared culture but reject the claim of those who shared an earlier culture and are more direct genetic descendants. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, they insist that the Russians portrayed her as a Caucasian due to racism.
As in America, the peoples of the region insist that disturbing graves is a gross violation of their religion. Conveniently enough, this prevents any scientific investigation from disturbing not only the numerous kurgans found in that part of the world, but determining ethnicity. And as in the United States, the people of the Altai won, and the mummy of the Ice Princess was returned to a museum in the Altai from Moscow, where it had both been preserved and displayed.
Having successfully undermined one of the major finds of Russian archeology in the past century was not enough for some who still clamor for her to be put back in the ground.
Polosmak shared these thoughts. The Pazyryks believed that they never died but simply moved on to another world. For them the soul was what was important; the body was merely a vehicle for the spiritual essence, a feeling that many share.
It is not controversial to point out that this part of the world was once dominated by the Scythians. They ruled the northern steppes of central Asia from the Ukrainian region to China from the 10th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. And we do know a great deal about their appearance: They were long-headed, tall people with blond hair and blue eyes. This well known fact is attested by various classical sources, and by their skeletal and other remains in numerous archaeological excavations, which give a fairly detailed description of these ancient people.
Note, there is a conflict between those who say the Scythians were speakers of an Indo-European language as opposed to a rlïu•kic language. The word Indo-European has come to serve as a stand-in for the term Indo-Aryan or Aryan. We in the West assume that Turks are a dark-skinned race or an Asiatic race, whereas many claim the original Turkic peoples were blond and blue eyed. The argument put forth by academics today is that race does not exist, only culture does. Certainly it is true that languages are taken up by groups who did not originate the language, such as in the case of the people of the Philippines who spoke Spanish after the arrival of the Spanish and the Uighurs, who are now required to speak Chinese instead of their own tongue. However, a language is originated by some particular people as is a culture.
In the case of the Altaic people and the Siberian ice mummy, their claim is based on culture. The original Scythian people were wiped out or assimilated by the ancestors of these Altaic peoples, but their culture was adopted. In the case of the Kennewick man, the law decreed that the skeleton is Indian, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The Indian claim is based on race. They are called the Native Americans even though their ancestors came to this continent from Asia. In either case, Caucasians lose.
THE BARNES REVIEW • P.o. BOX 1 5877 • WASHINGTON, D.C. 20003 MARCH/APRIL 201 4 . 5 1