Friday, August 17, 2012

Marked mummy

Her tattoos were what brought recent attention to the "Ukok Princess," a 2,500-year-old mummy found buried in the Siberian permafrost. One of several Bronze Age burials in the area, she was discovered by Russian archaeologist Natalia Victorovna Polosmak (Наталья Викторовна Полосьмак) in 1993. But she has gained notoriety for a number of reasons:
It was evident that the woman was wealthy and of a high position. She had been embalmed and buried with full ceremonial honors beneath an ornamented fur blanket in a decorated larch trough within a spacious sepulcher. Her status was confirmed by what she wore (a black felt headdress, a wooden necklace, leather boots, a red woollen dress, a long-sleeved silk shirt, a 2-colored belted skirt, and long white felt stockings) and her grave goods (an iron knife, meat in ceramic dishes, a bronze mirror, a horse-hair brush, make-up, and amulets). And her burial chamber contained 6 harnessed horses.

The Ukok young woman had blue tattoos on her arms from shoulder to wrist, her fingers, and her right shoulder. These include fantastic effigies of deer a ram. The tattoos and the circumstances of her burial suggest that she may have been a shaman, healer, seer, or story-teller.

As Polosmak and team excavated the tombs and defrosted the artifacts, rumors circulated among the locals that disturbing the dead would cause bad things to happen. Subsequent negative events included an engine problem in the helicopter transporting the remains that resulted in an emergency landing and some deterioration to the mummy. In addition, the area was hit by an earthquake in September 2003.

Residents of the Altay Republic, where the princess and the other Pazyryks were found, demanded the return of the burial artifacts, insisting that they belong at the site of their discovery and should not have been removed. The mummy has been placed in a permanent glass sarcophagus in the National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the Altai Republic.

The occupants of the tombs in the area have been identified through their clothing as belonging to the area's ancient Pazyryk culture. But modern testing has determined them to be Caucasian with no typically Mongolian features. Rima Eriknova, one of the native Altayans who lobbied for the return of the artifacts, believes that the Russian forensic findings are suspect and an attempt to erase the local heritage.

The Ukok princess has been controversial since her discovery near the disputed Chinese, Mongolian, and Kazakh borders.The mummy and associated artifacts were removed for study by Polosmak, who - with other Russian archaeologists - has been banned from the excavated gravesites on the Ukok Plateau. Having made the area where she found the "Ice Maiden" her life's work, Polosmak has expressed her hurt regarding the ban.

Polosmak states, "The fact that I dug her up gives me a heavy responsibility.Although I think the soul is immortal and the body is only a shell, somethingthe Pazyryk believed, it always provokes a feeling of unease, pity, and sadnesswhen you see a once great woman lying there in front of you."

Thanks, Franck!
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