History Mystery: Pazyryk The frozen tombs of Altai -1
Civilizations are usually founded on urban settlements. But the horsemen of the Altai needed no fixed base. Their alternative, nomadic lifestyle led them to move with the seasons, creating a culture which flourished wherever they pitched their tents.
The Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia are a vast massif of jagged peaks and swooping valleys, thickly forested on the lower slopes in the north-west, yet semi-desert in the south-east. There are no fallen monuments or ruined city walls to break the landscape, but the mountains were once home to a nomadic race whose culture was influenced by both China and Achaemenid Persia (Iran). Only their frozen tombs – scattered through the extensive mountain system near the borders of Russia, China, and Mongolia – reveal the extraordinary vitality of their short-lived culture.
Burial mounds – huge piles of stones known as kurgans – are the only signs of human presence in this area in ancient times. They dot the steppes of Asia, stretching as for west as the valley of the Danube.
Those in the Altai have revealed some remarkable finds – at an altitude of 1,600m (5,250 ft), ice has preserved their contents for more than 2,000 years.
In the early 20th century, Russian archaeologists began excavations at Pazyryk, high in the massif. Here, a group of five great kurgans had been discovered, surrounded by smaller mounds. After digging a shaft in one of the kurgans to allow access to in central chamber, the scientists entered a frozen world. As the ice melted, it revealed a tomb draped in brightly edged brown felt. All around lay scattered funeral objects – bright tapestries and clothing, luxurious animal furs, wooden furniture, and carved objects of bone and staghorn. North of the chamber, behind a partition of logs, lay the bodies of several horses. The manes were trimmed and bound, the tails plaited. Alongside them lay rich saddlecloths, leather cushions on wooden saddle bows, bits, bridles, and harness straps hung with vividly painted wooden ornaments embellished with gold leaf.
It seemed that thieves had penetrated the kurgans shortly after the burial ceremonies. In one of the tombs, the embalmed bodies of a man and a woman had been lifted from the sarcophagus. Their hands and feet had been chopped off to retrieve valuable bracelets and anklets, their fingers amputated to free rings. The heads had been severed from the bodies so that necklaces could be removed easily.
Aside from the desecration, by breaking into the graves the thieves had rendered an invaluable service to the archaeologists.
Autumn rains seeped into the tombs of Pazyryk through the tunnels dug by the grave-robbers. Year after year, the bitter steppeland winters froze the water in successive layers of ice. Screened from the summer sun by the stones above, the ice had never melted. The imprisoned riches had neither perished nor faded, and the bodies of the dead were frozen – preserved almost intact. Fabrics were as richly coloured as when they had been woven and velvety smooth. Carpets were still springy; furs were still silky soft. Textures had endured.
The people buried at Pazyryk were relations of the Scythians – a warlike tribe who made sporadic descents on the great civilizations to the east and west of the barren Asian steppes. These ferocious nomads made terrifying incursions into Persia during the 5th century BC. The Greek historian, Herodotus (c.484-425 BC), recorded some of their customs.
According to Herodotus, each Scythian warrior had to make at least one kill a year, or face disgrace. The skulls of slaughtered enemies were used as drinking cups, and their skins were tanned to make capes and cushions. Slaves were blinded so that they could not run away. The Scythians’ peculiar savagery may have stemmed from their geographical position. Caught between the advanced civilizations of the Middle East and the warrior horsemen of the remote steppes, they had to be merciless in order to survive.
Herodotus also recorded that when a Scythian king died, his subjects embalmed his body and buried it in a square pit covered with stones. Interred with him were horses, personal treasures, and measures of his royal household, strangled before burial.
Many of Herodotus’s observations have been confirmed by the excavation of Scythian tombs on the western plains of Asia. But the Pazyryk kurgans reveal aspects of the nomads’ life absent from the Scythian tombs. At Pazyryk, precious metals had been plundered, bit a unique treasure trove of perishable accessories remained.
When Herodotus described a distant Scythian tribe known as Argippeans, he may have been referring to the people of the Altai. The tribe occupies an important place in Scythain mythology. They inhabited a remote mountain region, and were known as the keepers of the gold. According to legend, it was they who first stole the precious metal from the guardianship of the griffins – the fabulous winged monsters often represented in Scythian art. In Turkish languages, ‘Altai’ means ‘country of Gold’.