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Keeping Mummies Frozen: Climate Change and Scythian kurgans in the Altai
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Keeping Mummies Frozen: Climate Change and Scythian kurgans in the Altai


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Summary of the literature on Scythian kurgans uncovered by archaeologists in the Altai mountains, as well as the climate change concerns with preservation of world heritage sites in the face of global …

Summary of the literature on Scythian kurgans uncovered by archaeologists in the Altai mountains, as well as the climate change concerns with preservation of world heritage sites in the face of global warming.

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  • A project I learned about in graduate school for anthropology Generally you have to take classes about culture, archaeology, biology, and linguistics (the four fields) Overview of the archaeology on Scythian burial mounds in the Altai mountains
  • the Altai mountain range crosses China, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan the 'ancient crown of Asia' steppe, forest steppe, mixed forest, sub-alpine, and alpine zones Snow leopards, nomadic Kazakhs, Mongols, Uighurs
  • dug out of the ground in mid-summer when temperatures were warmer, with a large wooden burial chamber constructed with a sarcophagus inside After burying humans and horses, the burial chamber was covered with heavy stones in a mound ranging from 5 to 20 meters in diameter and one to two meters in height construction of these kurgans in the permafrost climate was ideal for preservation
  • - Scythian Kurgans in the Black Sea region have been excavated as early as the 17 th century, but those in Altai region were first excavated by S. Rodenko at Pazyryk in 1929; he found embalmed mummies buried with such items as cloth saddles still soft after 2000 years and woolen rugs. - Rudenko's most noted excavations were in Pazyryk on the High Ukok Plateau of Russia, from 1945-1949; The "Pazyryk" label for this branch of the Scythian peoples is due to his excavations in Pazyryk.
  • The second wave of excavations came in the 1990s and 2000s The Ice Maiden was found on High Ukok Plateau in 1992-1993 by Natalia Polosmak Berel' II was excavated was excavated from 1998-2000 in Kazakhstan, and is most noted for the food found in the stomachs of horses in the tombs, originally buried in the 4 th -3 rd century BC The last major excavations were conducted in 2004-2006 by Vyacheslav Molodin in the Bayan Olgy region of Mongolia, at Kurgan Olon Kurin Gol. A mummy touted as the "Warrior" was uncovered, supposedly a blond-haired male surrounded by weapons, buried in the 3 rd century BC
  • Details on Berel' in the Kazakh Altai: Situated 1200 meters above sea level at an ancient pass between Chinese Turkestan and Southern Siberia, twenty mounds were found that were dated across fifty years in the 5 th century BC Berel' was excavated in 1998 and 1999. One of the largest tombs was 23 meters wide and 2 meters high, with a five by five meter pit in the middle from a previous looting shaft. “Most of the Pazyryk burial sites were destroyed and looted by grave-robbers during the Dark Ages.”* Entry into the sarcophagus during that looting had destroyed the mummies, but sixteen horses were found in the tomb, with wooden ibex horns in gold and silver leaf above their heads; The burial chamber had been covered in birch bark and branches, and had walls made of wooden planks. *Siberian Icemaiden and Pazyryk Bodies, Michelle and Giselle, at,+Russia.
  • But… once the stone covers were removed, the contents beneath began to rapidly decompose! (Read above) To deal with these issues at Berel' II, refrigerated trucks were brought up onto the mountains and used to maintain the 'cold chain‘. horse bodies were piled on top of each other (six bodies covered in birch leaves, covered by another six bodies), it was not advisable to allow the horses to thaw enough to be pulled apart, and so the bodies were photographed, cut into sections with a chainsaw, wrapped in cling film and bubble wrap, and quickly taken to the truck The remains of the horses were taken to Almaty, Kazakhstan, and stored at -14C for further study.
  • The "Ice Maiden" mummy is described as being buried in "A large intact wooden chamber that had flooded with water, now turned to ice. Propped against the outer wall of the chamber were the frozen remains of six horses" In the tombs as a whole, there seem to have been around 4-16 horses in each kurgan, slain on site and buried with golden headdresses and harnesses. In Berel' II, for instance, two partially decomposed mummies were found (the victims of earlier looting) along with thirteen fully-harnesses horses. Fly larvae found in the stomach indicate burial soon after the ground at the permafrost edge thawed, which, if the climate then was similar to the climate now, would be in the second half of June. This need to wait for the ground to thaw may have been part of why the mummies were embalmed. Other types of items found in the tombs include dishes with coriander seeds (fragrant; covers the dead body smell) and marijuana seeds (also quite fragrant if seeds are thrown onto heated stones), and wooden tables with mutton . Oh Yeah!
  • "Ice Maiden," uncovered in 1993 on High Ukok Plateau by Natalia Polosmak. Polosmak describes this mummy as an elite woman in a single burial (in itself unusual), aged 25 and with a height of 5'6“ Her body is covered in elaborate tattoos (shamanka?) Three foot headdress of felt, a necklace of wooden camels, a sheep's wool and camel-hair dress, a braided cord belt with tassels, a silk blouse, and thigh-high riding boots; The blouse is of perhaps the most interest, as it is made of non-local tussah silk from undomesticated silk-worms, probably originating in India Photo: Preserved body of the Pazyryk Ice Maiden. E439/0033 Rights Managed,
  • The surviving mummies have undergone a fairly elaborate embalming procedure. Two to six embalmed bodies are found in most sarcophagi, with their innards removed and stuffed with natural preservatives such as peat and bark, which "helped, maybe, to preserve the body and the skin because it contains a lot of tannin" (NOVA 1998). After having removed the soft innards and stuffed the body with these tannins and scented herbs, it is sewn up with horsehair and embalmed with wax. Herodotus describes Scythian burial practices in a surprisingly similar manner: "When their king dies, they take up the dead man, having coated his body with wax and cut open his belly and cleaned it and filled it with chopped marsh plants and incense and parsley seed and anise, and sew it together again"
  • Skin had darkened; tattoos faded; only way to see was with infrared on some skeletons: Blue tattoos: “The depth of skin into which the ink was placed suggests that a skin-pricking method was used to create them, as opposed to the sewing-in of patterns which was customary among the Inuit and other Siberian tribes. The tattoos are beleived to result from the use of  bone type needles and a soot mixture was used as the ink.  The tattoos are located on the shoulders, arms, hands and legs of the mummies” Site: Image from hermitage museum; posted
  • allow analysis of 2500 year old organic material. The archeologists put samples of the mummies' hair and other organic materials under isotopic analysis and synchrotron radiation in order to study their diet (includes fish) and cause of death (poison from copper vapors). Wood was also dated with dendro-chronological dating, and a floating scale for the timber in these tombs was developed covering 415 years in the last few centuries BC
  • The textiles are of special interest, as Persian and Chinese textiles found in Pazyryk mounds are older than similar extant textiles found in Persia and China (Han 2006/2007). Site: posted Scythian saddle blanket – 4 th century BC
  • "The Pazyryk believed that after they died they would go to a mountain pasture" (NOVA 1998), and so Scythian people sometimes travelled long distances with their dead in order to bury them in mountain pastures like these. Connection of nomads with land; common belief in higher and remote places as being closer to the spiritual world. so the mummies may have needed to be preserved for some time prior to burial. This might also explain the number of horses, if carts and horses alike were dismantled and buried with the mummies. Pic:
  • This leads us into a larger discussion of their cultural significance. The Scythian people originated in southern Siberia and extended across Eurasia in the first millennium BC, replacing the Sarmatians by 200 BC (Parzinger 2008), and settling "from the Black Sea to the Yellow River They may have interacted with or traded with civilizations as far-flung as China, Iran, India, Greece, and parts of Mesopotamia Many of the people buried in the Altai kurgans come from the Pazyryk, or Saka people, an eastern tribe of the larger Scythian range Picture:
  • There are few records of these people groups, and so most of what we have comes from archaeological excavation of kurgans, and from the Greek historian Herodotus; Some of the earliest excavations were undertaken in the time of Peter the Great (circa 1700 CE), occurring alongside an increasing interest in Scytho-Siberian art. Useful: “Over past millennia, many cultures have spread out over and influenced vast geographical regions... Empires... have exerted enormous influence over the rest of the world... Yet, cultures are not the exclusive product of such empires. Indeed, these empires' distinctive cultural patterns, created by elite groups, have always existed in contrast with or in parallel to patterns that evolved independently of the empires' sedentary elites, and these co-existing cultures often stood in symbiotic relationship with each other... Sedentary civilizations and empires of the past often came into contact with the nomadic cultures around them, and each evolved by interacting with the other. As a result, in order to grasp an accurate picture of such sedentary civilizations, it is also important to have a sense of the nomadic cultures outside them. The ... Pazyryk culture... marvelously preserved traces of the Persian civilization” (Junhi Han, 2008)
  • Molodin (2008) describes the two primary threats to archaeological sites in the region as global warming and economic activity, both adventure tourism and local livelihoods Russian archaeologists currently forbidden from further excavations in Siberian Altai, due to complaints by indigenous people that tombs contain the bodies of tehir ancestors. Recent work on Mongolia since 2006 for this reason. Because of the historical significance of this region, as well as the potential threat of climate change, UNESCO has become involved in mapping and monitoring archaeological sites and permafrost in the region "The Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains" project, UNESCO has, since 1995 [sponsored] develop an inventory of tombs in the region, and to monitor permafrost and enact preservation measures as needed An inventory of all archaelogical sites in the region was conducted from 2006-2008; the remaining kurgans were compared to CORONA satellite imagery taken in the 1960s and 1970s, which is useful both for documenting changes in the landscape over the past 40 years Having conducted these inventories and surveys, UNESCO's other goals are continued monitoring for climate change; also preservation of the "World Heritage value" of these sites - "Golden Mountains of the Altai" in Russia are already a natural World Heritage Site.
  • Global warming is believed to be occurring on earth at the rate of .17C per decade, but the Mongolian Altai has seen rates up to .3C per decade for the past 50 years Scientists working on this project warn that the Altai as a whole seems to be warming somewhat faster than the world average (0.2C per decade), and has seen a 27% glacier loss in the past 100 years, at 9 to 20 meters a year Mountain permafrost is especially sensitive, as "its average temperature remains usually within one or two degrees of freezing“; we have seen the permafrost rise up the mountains approximately 200 meters since 1850; it is projected to substantially disappear by 2050 CE at current rates of warming This is significant for the Scythian kurgans as many of them are situated at the lower boundary of alpine permafrost; Smaller kurgans with fewer stones are most vulnerable.
  • UNESCO has also made some specific preservation recommendations. The goal, of course, is to preserve the ice lens in situ – but too many tombs? Suggestions for preservation have included adding stones, as the height and thickness of 'coarse debris' (stone mound) is critical the temperature beneath – except that enlarging the stone cover could crush or shift what's beneath Another suggestion is the put up a tent or platform of sorts that would shade the mounts from rain, sun, and snow. This is expected to decrease the ground temperature by 3-7C (which seems rather high!) but would have a high visual impact on the flat valleys The final suggestion for preservation is to install "self-regulating seasonally acting cooling devices" called thermosyphons, which would refrigerate the mounds without using a power source, by extracting heat from ground and dissipating it into the air And of course, some of the less vital tombs would probably need to be excavated
  • UNESCO has recommended several collaborative efforts: transboundary "Altai Biosphere Reserve" that would accommodate both natural and cultural heritage ratification of the proposed "Altai Convention" to develop sustainably in the region establishment of an archaeological park that would serve to develop communities, as museum, and as way to prevent the loss of undocumented materials But issue of politics in cultural heritage: The Altai republic has asked for the Ice Maiden to be returned to them from museum in the west; current relatives of the Scythians such as Samodi, Kazakhs, and Uighurs also want input. UNESCO recommends that excavations be respectful of local populations but what does that mean? When the issues of tourism and economic development in these four countries are added in (Bourgeois 2007), the likelihood of anything besides moderate site-by-site preservations and excavation seems unlikely indeed.
  • Transcript

    • 1. Keeping Mummies Frozen: Climate Change and Scythian kurgans in the Altai Celia Emmelhainz Revised 5 April 2012
    • 2. The Altai Mountains China, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan “ancient crown of Asia”
    • 3. What are Kurgans? Scythian burial mounds ~ 5-20m diameter ~ 1-2m of stones ~ At or above permafrost ~ 1000-2300ft above sea level “as rain seeped down into the tombs, it froze and never thawed. As such, all buried material (metal, gold, and pottery… wood, leather, clothes, textiles and even mummified human bodies and horses’ bodies) was kept intact over” 2500 years… “To this day, the only frozen tombs discovered anywhere in theThe Berel II kurgan in the Kazakh Altai world are those that have been found in the Altai Mountains” (Han 2006).
    • 4. Excavations at Pazyryk, 1945-1949 Pazyryk Scythian burial mounds (500-300 BCE),
    • 5. Second Wave of ExcavationsThis page: diagram of kurgans in one Altai valley. 1993 – “Ice Maiden,” High Ukok, Russia 1998 – Horses, Berel II, Kazakhstan 2004 – “Warrior,” Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia
    • 6. Excavating…View ofArzhan 2
    • 7. "Youre bailing in bucketsconstantly. It was damp. You know, Excavating…when you were inside the tombyour feet were wet. There was akind of a musty smell to it all,because in fact it had beenpreserved. So you had the organicmaterials—wool, wet wool—everyone knows what that smellslike. And the horses were strongsmelling as well, especially as theirstomachs had been preserved. Andwhen we opened that to get asample, that was quite, quitestrong." - Archaeologist JeanneSmoot
    • 8. Inside The Tombs• 4-16 Horses – Slain on site, buried with gold headdress, harness Fly larvae in stomach indicate burial in second half of June, once ground thawed• 2-6 Embalmed bodies in Sarcophagus – soft innards removed and stuffed with peat and bark (tannins), scented herbs, sewn up with horsehair, embalmed in wax Sarcophagus
    • 9. Mummies!“Ice Maiden” • 5’6,” age ~25, tattoos • woolen dress, cord belt, silk blouse, riding boots
    • 10. Mummies!“Warriors” • tattoo of elk, waist-length braids, weapons Left: bicep tattoo of an elk, in blue ink; right, pazyryk male with hair and tats intact.
    • 11. Ancient Tattoos
    • 12. Analysis… Body of Scythian Warrior, Mongolian Altai
    • 13. Textiles Persian and Chinese texttiles found in Pazyryk mounds are older than similar extant textiles found in Persia and China (Han 2006/2007)
    • 14. Sacred Burial Space?
    • 15. Scythian peoples, 800 BCE-100 CE
    • 16. Historical and Cultural Significance Pazyryk/Saka tribe of Scythians – Herodotus: warrior nomads – Goods from China, India, Persia Useful for understanding both nomads and their relationship with nearby settled peoples Arzhan 2 reconstructions by Pozdnjakov
    • 17. Heritage: UNESCO’s Involvement• Russian Altai is a World Heritage Site – expand to Chinese, Kazakh, Mongolian Altai• Investigations 2006-2009• Survey/mapping all archeological sites• Continued monitoring for climate change Pazyryk applique felt carpet, 400bce
    • 18. Climate Change in the Altai• Faster than world average (0.2C/decade) – 27% glacier loss in last 100 years, 9-20m/year – permafrost up 200m since 1850, may be substantially gone by 2050 CE – small kurgans with fewer stones most vulnerable
    • 19. Current Recommendations• Preserve ice lens in situ – Add stones – Shade mounds – “Thermosyphons” Thermosyphons!• Excavate if needed
    • 20. Your Thoughts?• How do archaeologists balance the desire to respect ancestors with the desire to know about ancestors?• How do we make decisions about which sites to preserve, if we can’t preserve them all?• How do we preserve sites in the face of economic development and tourism?
    • 21. ReferencesBorodovsky, A.P., and A.N. Telegin 2007 Horn Saddle Ornaments Dating to the Scythian Period from the OB Plateau. Archaeology, Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia 30(2):52-62.Bourgeois, Jean, et al. 2007 Saving the frozen Scythian tombs of the Altai Mountains (Central Asia). World Archaeology 39(3):458-474.Brilot, Madeleine 2000 Les tatouages des momies de lAltai (Tattoos of the Altai mummies). LAnthropologie 104:473-478.Francfort, Henri-Paul, Giancarlo Ligabue, and Zainullah Samashev 2000 The contents of a Scythian kurgan frozen in the 4th century B.C. at Berel in the Altai mountains (Kazakhstan). Comptes Rendus De LAcademie Des Inscriptions:775-806.Han, Junhi, editor 2008 Preservation of the Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains. UNESCO World Heritage Center. UNESCO, European Union.Jordana, Xavier, et al. 2009 The warriors of the steppes: osteological evidence of warfare and violence from Pazyryk tumuli in the Mongolian Altai. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:1319-1327.Marchenko, Sergei 2008 Climate Change and its Impact on the Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains. In Preservation of the Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains. J. Han, ed. Pp. 61-63: UNESCO World Heritage Center.Rosen, Arlene Miller, Claudia Chang, and Fedor Pavlovich Grigoriev 2000 Palaeoenvironments and economy of Iron Age Saka-Wusun agro-pastoralists in southeastern Kazakhstan. Antiquity 74:611- 623.Vasquez, Jorge 2008 Excavation and Sampling Techniques in the Frozen Tombs of Kazakhstan. In Preservation of the Frozen Tombs of the Altai Mountains. J. Han, ed. Pp. 67-70: UNESCO World Heritage Center.