20120210-Sengge_rinchen.jpg The Pazyryks were a horseman group that lived at the same time as the Scythians and were similar ethnically to them and had a similar lifestyle. They lived in the Altai region and are associated with Ukok Plateau described above. Scientists believes the Pazyryks traveled on horseback in clan groups made up of perhaps 30 or 35 families.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Pazyryk Culture is one the related Central Asian cultures of the Scythian time. On the large area of the Altai Mountains it existed from the 6th to the 2nd centuries BCE. This culture has left clear evidences which are presented by unique burial complexes. The archaeological sites presenting cultural heritage of Pazyryk time include burial mounds (the frozen tombs of tribal nobility) and petroglyphs made in an "animal style".” [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“Though in general, later Pazyryk Culture was transformed into the culture of Hun (Bulan-Koba) type, as evidenced by the succession of the funeral rites and the elements of material culture. But as a self-sufficient culture with the whole range of characteristics, the Pazyryk Culture fits into the category of lost one. The patterns of the highest decorative art, material culture and the traditions of funeral processions, unique techniques of embalming the deceased tribesmen, and the ways of playing the ancient musical instruments (the pazyryk harp, the ritual drums) were lost.”

Based on what has been found in their tombs, it is believed that they lived in yurts; herded sheep between summer and winter pastures; and carried supplies on low carts dragged behind their horses. The yurts were decorated with pillows, rugs and small tables they ate off of while they sat on the ground. At night they slept on thick blankets of fur and rested their heads on wooden pillows. Women wore felt stockings or pants and sometimes sported elaborate hairdo.

The Pazyryk gathered cedar nuts and blackberries, baked unleavened tortilla-like bread from barely or wheat. and made tea from wild roses. Meat was boiled, and sometimes seasoned with wild onions and garlic. Mares milk was made into cottage cheese or fermented into koumiss. They may also have smoked marijuana which grows wild in the area.

Ukok Plateau

Ukok Plateau (southwest Altai Republic) is a bleak area near where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan all come together and is where many of the important Pazyrk tombs have been discovered. The climate here is ideal for preserving the bodies in the tombs. Some of the mummified remains and artifacts are now in the Hermitage. It is difficult get to the plateau. Many of the archeologist who work here rely on helicopters.

During the winter this 2,285-meter-high (7500-foot-high) region is hit by such nasty winds the "grass stands free of snow." The plateau is a sacred place. Ukok means "the end of everything" and people that live in this region believe it is a step on the way to heaven. People are not allowed to shout out of fear that it might offend the spirits who they believe reside are close by. [Source: Natalya Polosmak, National Geographic October 1994]

The Ukok Plateau ranges in height from 2200 to 2500 meters and is part of the Altai Golden Mountains UNESCO World Heritage List. More than 150 archaeological burial sites and a number of petroglyphs and larger Nazca-like geoglyphs — images made on the surface of the earth that can only be seen from a height — are found here. In 1993, the plateau received worldwide attention when the “Ukok Princess” — a female Pazyryk mummy dated to the 5th-3rd centuries B.C. — was unearthed. Locals consider her to be their ancestral moth and patroness of their land. The mummy is now in the museum of Gorno-Altaysk.

The tourist season is short — from July to August. The climate on the plateau is severe. The differences in daytime and nighttime temperatures can be as much 40°C. Tours with trekking and climbing to the peaks are organized. Trekkers sleep in tents. Snow leopards live here but they are rarely seen. . The cost of a five- to 14-day Ukok tour or trek ranges from 33,000 rubles to 60,000 rubles per person.

Ukok Quiet Zone Natural Park is a protected natural area of national importance. Covering 2542 square kilometers, it is designed to preserve the historical, ethnic and cultural heritage of the country, as well as its landscapes and biodiversity. Among the 1,500 or archaeological sites are early nomads of the Afanasiev culture, ancient fences, funeral steles, and petroglyphs from different time periods. It was here, near the border with China, in the course of archaeological excavations at the Ak-Alakha cemetery in 1993, that scientists discovered the mummy of "Siberian Ice Maiden", also called the “Ukok Princess.” A total of 16 plant species and 30 animal species found in the park are listed in the Red Book of the Republic of Altai.

Pazyryk Tombs and Mounds

20120210-Pazyrk Mummy_of_the_Ukok_Princess.jpg
Pazyrk Mummy of the Ukok Princess
Much of what is known about the Pazyryk is based on artifacts and frozen mummies found in Pazyryk tombs. The bodies Pazyryk mummies were gutted and scraped clean of muscle before they were wrapped. The skull was split open so the brain could be removed and the remains were embalmed with aromatic herbs, grasses and wool and the skin was sewn back together

The tomb that yielded the world's oldest carpet was found in 1949 in southern Siberia. Inside were two tattooed mummies. One belonging the man thought to be a chief and another man. In 1991, a Russian team of archaeologists found a man and woman, believed to be a husband and wife, near Ukok. Both were wearing armor but the bodies had been reduced to skeletons. The shape of wooden Altai-Paryzyk (500 B.C. to 100) tombs is almost identical with Korean tombs from the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. to 935)

“The most famous monuments of the Pazyryk Culture are: archaeological mounds in Pazyryk, Ukok, Bashadar, Tuekta, Katanda, and petroglyphic complexes - Elangash, Kalbak Tash. Currently in the Altai Republic over six hundred burial mounds (kurgans) associated with the exponents of Pazyryk archeological culture have been investigated. Objects found in the frozen tombs are of high importance when investigating the social history and worldview ideas of the Pazyryk populations.

“All the burial monuments of the Pazyryk Culture have the same general structure: the diameter of stone mounds range from 25 to 50 meters, the height above the ground is measured from 2 to 4 meters, the depth of the grave pit is up to 7 meters, the total area of the grave pits is from 25 to 50 square meters. Inside the burial pit there was placed a funerary chamber made of hewed logs with double walls and double ceiling, at the southern wall was placed a wooden sarcophagus up to 5 meters, carved from a thick larch and closed with a slotted lid. Perfectly preserved funeraryconstructions, made from a log cabin testify ancient skills of home construction.”

Preservation of the Contents in Pazyryk Tombs

Due to the considerable height of the Ukok Plateau, where many of Pazyryk are found, and climate features there and the structure of the mounds, the contents of the tombs became entombed in a kind of permafrost soon after they were buried, ensuring the safety and preservation of the body and burial goods. As a result, the body and items made of wood, felt, leather and fur, clothing, household goods and vehicles were well preserved items

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has a hall dedicated to the culture and art of the nomadic tribes of the Altai from the 6th -4th centuries B.C., which displays many objects from Pazyryk archaeological sites. Study of the objects found in the mounds, suggest that the Pazyryk had contacts with ancient China, Persia and other ancient cultures.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO:“The phenomenon of permafrost ice lense formation under the stone mounds of the kurgans was registered nowhere so far outside the Altai Republic. The permafrost created a thermal insulating layer that prevents the soil from heating in the summer and provides fast freezing of soil in the winter due to free convection in the stone mound of the barrows. Thus, a special microclimate different from surrounding climate outside was created in the stone mound.

Pazyryk Burial Goods

Pazyryk carpet
One Pazyryk tomb yielded an elaborate funeral chariot, wood carvings, and the world's oldest carpet. The carpet, dated to the 5th century B.C., has over 1,125,000 knots and the deer and horse motifs are of Persian origin.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Objects found in archaeological barrows were superbly preserved. They are horse harness, carpets, clothing, shoes, hats and articles from wood, precious metals, leather, fur, felt, as well as all kinds of textiles and horse equipment. Objects from the archaeological barrows such as tools, household items, clothing, jewelry, and items of weaponry make it possible to represent the material culture of the Altai Mountains populations that lived more than two thousand years ago. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

Finds from Pazyryk barrows provide evidence that 2,500 years ago local nomadic peoples already had trade relations with distant countries. Ancient burial mounds of the Russian Altai have preserved handicrafts from China, shells from the shores of the Indian Ocean, Anterior-Asian carpets and textiles of local production. Pazyryk people themselves rather exported fur and gold articles to China, India, Persia, Sogdiana, which caused myths about "the griffins guarding gold".

Pazyryk Art and Music

Images of wolves and deer, predators and prey were common themes in their art. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The masterpieces of Pazyryk art enriched the world culture with unique articles created by the hands of the ancient craftsmen. Pazyryk culture formed a unified "animal style" in the Altai Mountains. Pictures of animals with reversed hindquarters or thrown on back hind limbs were depicted on clothings, tattoos of the embalmed bodies found in archeological mounds and petroglyphs. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“Pazyryk animal style is distinguished by unique mystic perception of the universe, what was expressed through truly beautiful images. The dynamism of compositions and three-dimensional images which perfectly fit the shape and material of articles are especially highlighted. Artistic techniques of the animal style show the big scale of mixing the Anterior Asian and Scythian-Siberian styles. These were the cultural traditions with a long history of development. Therefore Pazyryk artworks present one of the most amazing trends of ancient art, exquisite and elegant, which are considered to be the highest achievements in the world of decorative art as a whole. Images of animal style allowed the Pazyryk society to unify the expression of the ancient model of universe.

“Some samples of ancient musical instruments such as harp, horn drum were found in Pazyryk kurgans. A small drum made of two halves of bull horn has an average height of 18 centimeters. Researchers suppose that the discovered drum was likely of sacral and ritual use. The more complicated four-stringed musical instrument — a small harp (its Altaian name is “diadagan”) has a length of 83 centimeters. It was hollowed out from a single piece of wood coloured in red outside and its open parts were covered by membranes from a skillfully made leather. According to the Altaian mythological legends a folk hero Shunu liberated his people which were captured by enemy and kept for a long time in a dark cave. Shunu managed to withdraw his people from the cave due to playing the diadagan and due to throat singing.

Pazyryk Tatoos

The Pazyryk are known for their tattooing skills. Fish tattoos have been found on the frozen bodies, archaeologists believe, were made my "stitching" the skin with a fine needle and thread and using soot as a coloring agent. Fine bone needles and thin sinews of thread have been found in Scythian graves.

On the three frozen bodies discovered in the tomb described below the first had a tattoo of a deer with fantastic antlers on its wrists and shoulders; the second, a woman, had a large tattoo of a an elk that spanned her chest, back and shoulders; the third had 14 dots tattooed on his spine and six on his head.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Pazyryk populations still remain one of the few “ancient people in the world, whose tattoo we can see. Those tattoos can personally convince of the reality of this ancient information. Tattoo applied on the body of men and women, indicate a high level of its performance: the mummies found in the “royal” burial mounds were covered with drawings from head to toe. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

“Pazyryk tattoos, besides typical for this culture images of the mystical griffin-deer-ibex, feline predators with hook-like mouth, depict the real animals dwelled in Altai (tigers, mountain sheep, ibex) and koulans unknown here. Among the tattoo images there is also a spotted predator, which can be as well as Altai snow leopard or the leopard which did not dwell here (the latter is quite possible, since articles from the fur of leopard were found in the first and second Pazyryk mounds). Thus, the tattoo shows that people buried in the "frozen" tombs of Altai were representatives of the highest cultural community.”

“Pazyryk burials preserved mummies with intact tattoos representing unique samples of the oldest tattoo in the world in general. Pazyryk tattoos are distinguished by not only complicated technology, but also repeatable design elements. That gives evidence to the tradition of using applied to a human body tattoo not only as an ornament or pattern, and also a sign, a kind of symbolic text.

“Pazyryk tattoo artists had distinctive personal style and they were not only professionals in their field, but also acolytes of cult, since the creation of indelible ink images on the body was an elaborated sacral ritual which completely changes the spirit of the person. It was the rite of passage, allowing someone to gain access to the sacred knowledge. Mummification of bodies of Pazyryk people was based on local traditions of conserving the embalmed bodies using mercury compounds. Due to it the tattoos on mummified bodies were preserved in a good condition. And that provides the more comprehensive interpretation of the semantics of tattoos of other peoples in the world.”

Pazyryk Queen

In 1993, a 2400-year-old frozen mummy of a Pazyryk woman, perhaps a warrior queen, was found during the excavation of the "Ak Halacha" mound in southern Siberia on the Ukok Plateau. The woman was amazingly well-preserved because soon after her funeral water from rain or melting snow seeped into the burial chamber and froze and remained frozen for over 2,000 years in a kind permafrost. [Source: Natalya Polosmak, National Geographic, October 1994]

The woman — dubbed the “Pazyryk Queen,” the “Ice Maiden of Siberia” and the “Ukok Princess, was five-feet-six — tall for a women at that time — and had tattoos of mythical creatures on her wrist, thumb and shoulders. According to Tatyan Buluyeva, an anthropologist who helped preserve her at Moscow's Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, "She was young, 18 or 20, and had European features. I think its all right to say she was pretty."

The Pazyryk Queen was draped in a robe of marten fur, and was dressed in robe of silk and wool, a white silk blouse, red skirt and white stockings Her head was fitted with a wig and golden headdress. Her vital organs had been removed and replaced with moss and peat. Her body was filled with silk from wild not domesticated silkworms, believed to be from India. Her skull had been shattered after death.

Pazyryk kurgan, tomb-style of early steppe people

In the hands of her revealed numerous tattoos. Worn by the mummy was a silk shirt, a woolen skirt, felt socks, coat and wig. All of these clothes were made very high quality, which confirms the high status buried.

The tomb was discovered by Russian archeologist Natalya Polosmak One of the reasons she believes the woman was a warrior queen is that on top of the wooden chamber was elaborately decorated and her golden headdress was a lovely work of art and she was buried with a bridled horses and man. The horse had been dispatched with a blow from a battle-ax to the forehead. The man, possibly a slave or a servant, was buried with the horse. Altogether six horses with saddles and a harnesses, as well as the wooden deck of larch, assembled with bronze nails was found using a camera that peered into the tomb.

The Pazyryk Queen was treated with preserving chemicals by the same people who take care of Lenin's corpse at the research Center for Biological Structures. Studies have shown that the woman was buried during the Pazyryk Altai period from the 5th-3rd centuries centuries B.C. Genetically she is close to modern Selkups and Uighurs. The mummy was found lying on its side, slightly tilted downward.

Burial of the Pazyryk Queen

The Pazyryk Queen was found on her side, laying inside a coffin hollowed out of a like a dugout canoe. The coffin was over eight feet in length to make room for her massive headdress. Around her body were scattered flecks of gold foil. The coffin was found in an underground wooden chamber that resembled a box made of large Lincoln logs. It was no easy task e making this chamber. The logs were hauled from forest fifteen miles away and the mound was topped by a mound and boulders. The way she was consistent with burials described by Herodotus.

Placed on a table next to the coffin was a large piece of horse meat with a knife sticking in it; smaller pieces of mutton; a vase with something to drink; and a container of cannabis. These item likely were intended for nourishment on her journey to the afterlife. The cannibas, archeologists believe, may have been used in rituals and smoked for pleasure. The tomb also contained wooden head ornaments, necklaces, bow-case ornaments, bronze mirrors with handles, wooden shields, pendants with fish shapes, horn bottles,

When the frozen bodies were found they were extraordinarily well preserved. The horse still had grass, twigs and pine needles in their stomach. When Russian archaeologists poured hot water on them to free them from the permafrost they gave of the foul odor of spoiled meat. The flesh was still firm and fresh when it was dug up but quickly shriveled and darkened. In didn't help matters that helicopter taking the ice maiden back to Moscow crashed landed after its engine failed.

The Ice Maiden was given to scientists at Moscow's Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, an institution set up by Mikhail M. Geraimov, an anthropologist and sculptor who developed a theory for approximating the faces of famous people like Ivan the Terrible by analyzing their skulls and was immortalized in the book and film Gorky Park. At the institute the Parzyrk Queen was dipped into a secret, green, alcohol preservation solution used to embalm Lenin and Ho Chi Minh.

Pazyryk Society as Reflected in the Burial System

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Archaeological monuments of Pazyryk Culture represent changing of human values in Central Asia. So, burial traditions of Pazyryk society are different from the previous Arzhan- Maiemir cultures. "Horizontal" system of relations between the alive and the dead (burials on the “horizon” and in shallow grave pits) used in the previous era was changed drastically: Pazyryk funeral rites presented deep grave pit and the level of the outer surface, and "communication with another world". These rites come from their ideas of more complicated cosmological model of the universe in three dimensions (the upper, middle and lower worlds). [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

Hewed grave chambers draped with carpets and felt did not only serve as the burial place, but also represented a kind of shrine in which the sacrament of transition from the world of the alive to the world of the dead was performed. Thus, transformation of worldview ideas led to a change in the burial practice of Pazyryk society.

Pazyryk Culture significantly influenced on the development of horse riding in Central Asia, as it was typical for Pazyryk society to use horse riding, they were the first to invent horse-mounted cavalry in contrast to chariot riding in the previous era. A horse played a particular role in life activity of the ancient Pazyryk people, as well as in funeral and memorial practice. This fact is testified by horse burials, carts or chariots found in burial complexes. Their preference for certain color of horses evidences that Pazyryk society had basics of selection works in horse breeding.

Pazyryk Religion

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The worldviews and beliefs of Pazyryk society are widely covered through their funeral rites, rock paintings and a huge layer of fine art preserved in the samples of material culture. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

The sun cult was the main in the worldview system of Scythians what is evidenced, first of all, by round hemispherical stone mounds imitating the sun. Different images of griffons, roosters, tigers on the sarcophagus, and a chariot necessary for performing the cult symbolize the Sun. The most exponential are the scenes with goddess on the skythian carpets.

Pazyryk art has images presenting connection of the soul of the deceased with the totem animal. The goddess of fertility is unique, as it's one of the ways of ancient artistic expressions of the divine characters.

The Pazyryk people's ideas of the universe consisting of the upper world (consisting of spirits of animals and human figures), the middle world (the people and the spirits of the middle world), the lower world (where water serves as a entryway to the lower world, and there are also illustrations of sunset being swallowed by a beast) served as a basis for subsequent cultures. The trinity model of the universe was brightly reflected in the epic literature of the Altai people.

Pazyryk Sites in the Altai region

Treasures of the Pazyryk Culture — found in the Kosh-Agachskiy, Ulaganskiy, Ongudaiskiy, Ust'-Koksinskiy and Turochakskr regions of the Altai Republic — was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Altai is the unique region on the planet. It guards huge layers of life - sustaining activities of human civilization. It's a place of formation and cultural evolution of ethnic groups that are scattered through the Eurasia. The "Treasures of the Pazyryk Culture" of the Early Scythian Epoch includes the unique and world famous burial mounds (kurgans) and petroglyphs of the Pazyryk Culture. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

The main burial sites: 1) Pazyryk is a group of archaeological mounds (N50°44'45.26" E88°4'16.69"). It is located at a distance of 80 kilometers southeast of Lake Teletskoye and on the territory of buffer zone of the Altaysky Zapovednik, which is the World Heritage Property component. 2) Katanda is a group of archaeological mounds (N50°54 890' E085°34'623'') situated in the cooperation area of Biosphere Reserve "Katunsky" - another component of the World Heritage Property "Golden Mountains of Altai". It is at a distance of 5 kilometers to the northwest of the Katanda Village. 3) Tuekta is a group of archaeological mounds (N50°50'726" E085°52'981") situated also in Ongudai region, on the left bank of Ursul River, in the northeastern part of the village of Tuekta;

The main petroglyph sites: 1) A petroglyphic complex Elangash (N50°08.853' E088°18.280') is located in the Elangash River Valley in Kosh-Agach district, in the cooperation area of the natural park "The Ukok Quiet Zone". The task of the park is conservation of the natural objects of Ukok Plateau which is also a component part of "Golden Mountains of Altai". 2) Kalbak Tash presents a petroglyphic complex (N50 40 272 E86 82 076) located on the right bank of the Chuia River, 18 kilometers southeast from Inya village of Ongudai district on the pass named Kalbak Tash.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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