History Mystery: Pazyryk The frozen tombs of Altai -3
The grave-robbers of Pazyryk carried off much of its jewellery. But there was one kind of adornment that they did not consider valuable. The arm, legs and torso of one man were covered with fantastic tattoos. He had pronounced mongoloid featured. Though this was unusual at Pazyryk, where most were of a European type, there must have been a Mongol presence on the eastern fringes of the Altai. The man was about 60 years old and fairly stout. The tattoos had obviously been applied while he was young, for they were faded or distorted over the areas where he had gained weight.
An entire bestiary of weird and wonderful animals hugged the curves of his musculature: stags with antlers teeming with the heads of birds, and winged feline creatures with pointed teeth. A fish had been traced between ankle and knee, and four wild sheep ran up the inside of his leg. The head of a lion-griffin had been positioned exactly over his heart. The creature’s curving back wound round the man’s torso up to the shoulder blade, where the coiled whorl of the tail ended.
This ‘Lionheart’ had died in battle. His skull had been smashed and the scalp removed – scalping was referred to by Herodotus as a way of appropriating the enemy’s vital force. To compensate for the deformity of the skull, before the burial the man’s comrades had sewn on a wig.
A false beard of horsehair, dyed jet black, had been fixed under his chin.
The practice of tattooing was, like scalping, referred to by ancient writers as one of the more extraordinary habits of the barbarian nomads. The Greeks associated the markings with the degrading stigmata used to brand slaves. But the wearers bore their embellishments with pride. Tattoos are still worn as sings of bravery and nobility by the Kyrgyz of central Asia.
The tattooist’s art may have had practical uses, as well as an aesthetic and spiritual resonance. One man found at Pazyryk wore tattoo marks on his ankle and at key points along his spine. The points are well known in acupuncture, a practice widespread among the Asian peoples of his time.
The decoration on the skin, clothes, and household items of the people of the Altai reflects the fact that they lived in intimate contact with animal world. The piercing eyes and beak of the eagle, the supple spine and sharp teeth of the wild cat, are rendered with expressive simplicity and accuracy. It is as though, by depicting an animal in art, its particular qualities were magically appropriated.
When death came to an important member of the tribe, the nomads exercised their skills in a different form of handiwork, creating burial mounds using rough wooden tools.
Samples of these tools survive, including wedge-shaped wooden stakes, their ends hammered flat by mallet blows. The stakes must have been used to break up the ground before the digging began.
All the kurgans were built in roughly the same way, beginning with the construction of a rectangular pit, and inside it a chamber of larch logs to receive the body or bodies. It had a ceiling and plank floor and often doubles walls. The tombs were then ready for the funeral.
Little is known about the religion of the people of the Altai. Writing of the Scythians to the west, Herodotus noted that ‘it was not not their custom to raise cult statues, altars, or temples’. No places of worship have been found in the Altai. Since the nomads had no writings, there are no texts to shed light upon their beliefs.
Evidence of ritual practices has been found at Pazyryk – a leather bag containing fingernails and hair, which may relate to some obscure ceremony. There are other indications of practices similar to shamanism, widespread in Mongolia and Siberia.
The shaman was a priest, sorcerer, and healer, the mediator between the natural and supernatural worlds. To reach the spirit world, the shaman would don a stag’s head or antlers and enter into an ecstatic trance induced by drugs and music.
Shamans are likely to have presided over the burials at Pazyryk. From evidence at the site, some aspects of the funeral ceremonies can be reconstructed.
They probably took place in the summer, the only time of year when the ground was not frozen. The bodies of the dead were embalmed, the muscle tissue removed through incisions in the skin and the cavities stuffed with grass. The incisions were then sewn up with sinews. The coffin containing the embalmed bodies, perhaps of the chieftain and his wife, was placed inside the larch-log chamber with the possessions that had been chosen to accompany them into the afterlife: fine carpets and hangings, and vessels of food and drink. The resplendent horses were screened from the coffin area by a wooden partition.
The arrangement of the chamber seems to have been followed by a feast and a ritual fumigation using narcotics. Two of the Pazyryk tombs contained equipment for smoking hashish: small bronze cauldrons which held carbonized seeds of hemp and stones. A framework of sticks supported a miniature felt tent which could have retained the smoke for better inhalation.
Herodotus recorded how the Scythains performed fumigations after funerals, describing it as a ‘vapour bath’. The details fit in remarkably well with the evidence that has been found at Pazyryk:
‘On a framework of three sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woolen cloth, taking care to get the joins as perfect as they can. Inside the little tent they put a dish with red-hot stones on it. Then they take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed onto the hot stones.
‘At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour bath one could find in Greece. The Scythains enjoy it so much they howl with pleasure . . .’
Music almost certainly contributed to the sacred ceremonies of death. Drums made of a membrane stretched across a horn body have been found in the tombs, and are similar to items that are still used in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Iran.
After the last rituals had been performed, the pit was covered with birch bark and twigs, followed by layers of lorch logs. The earth dug out earlier was heaped on top, and covered with a pile of stones up to 4.5m (15ft) high. As the centuries passed and the nomads disappeared from the Altai, the stone mounds remained as the only visible testament to their civilization.