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Siberian Princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos

By The Siberian Times reporter
14 August 2012

The ancient mummy of a mysterious young woman, known as the Ukok Princess, is finally returning home to the Altai Republic this month.

Reconstruction of a warrior's tattoos, who was discovered on the same plateau as the 'Princess'. All drawings of tattoos, here and below, were made by Elena Shumakova, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

She is to be kept in a special mausoleum at the Republican National Museum in capital Gorno-Altaisk, where eventually she will be displayed in a glass sarcophagus to tourists. 

For the past 19 years, since her discovery, she was kept mainly at a scientific institute in Novosibirsk, apart from a period in Moscow when her remains were treated by the same scientists who preserve the body of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin. 

To mark the move 'home', The Siberian Times has obtained intricate drawings of her remarkable tattoos, and those of two men, possibly warriors, buried near her on the remote Ukok Plateau, now a UNESCO world cultural and natural heritage site, some 2,500 metres up in the Altai Mountains in a border region close to frontiers of Russia with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.

They are all believed to be Pazyryk people - a nomadic people described in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus - and the colourful body artwork is seen as the best preserved and most elaborate ancient tattoos anywhere in the world. 

To many observers, it is startling how similar they are to modern-day tattoos. 

Princess Ukok

Reconstruction of Princess Ukok's tattoos, made by Siberian scientists 

The remains of the immaculately dressed 'princess', aged around 25 and preserved for several millennia in the Siberian permafrost, a natural freezer, were discovered in 1993 by Novosibirsk scientist Natalia Polosmak during an archeological expedition.

Buried around her were six horses, saddled and bridled, her spiritual escorts to the next world, and a symbol of her evident status, perhaps more likely a revered folk tale narrator, a healer or a holy woman than an ice princess.

There, too, was a meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold.  And a small container of cannabis, say some accounts, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander. 

'Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful,' said Dr Polosmak. More ancient tattoos have been found, like the Ice Man found in the Alps - but he only had lines, not the perfect and highly artistic images one can see on the bodies of the Pazyryks. 

'It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.'

Princess Ukok

Princess Ukok's shoulder, tattoo of fantastic animal, and a drawing of it made by Siberian scientists

While the tattoos, preserved in the permafrost, have been known about since the remains were dug up, until now few have seen the intricate reconstructions that we reveal here. 

'Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification - like a passport now, if you like. The Pazyryks also believed the tattoos would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death,' added Dr Polosmak. 'Pazyryks repeated the same images of animals in other types of art, which is considered to be like a language of animal images, which represented their thoughts. 

'The same can be said about the tattoos - it was a language of animal imagery, used to express some thoughts and to define one's position both in society, and in the world. The more tattoos were on the body, the longer it meant the person lived, and the higher was his position. For example the body of one man, which was found earlier in the 20th century, had his entire body covered with tattoos. Our young woman - the princess - has only her two  arms tattooed. So they signified both age and status.'

The tattoos on the left shoulder of the 'princess'  show a fantastical mythological animal: a deer with a griffon's beak and a Capricorn's antlers. The antlers are decorated with the heads of griffons. And the same griffon's head is shown on the back of the animal.

The mouth of a spotted panther with a long tail is seen at the legs of a sheep. She also has a deer's head on her wrist, with big antlers. There is a drawing on the animal's body on a thumb on her left hand. 

On the man found close to the 'princess', the tattoos include the same fantastical creature, this time covering the right side of his body, across his right shoulder and stretching from his chest to his back. The patterns mirror the tattoos on a much more elaborately covered male body, dug from the ice in 1929, whose highly decorated torso is also reconstructed in our drawing here. 

His chest, arms, part of the back and the lower leg are covered with tattoos. There is an argali - a mountain sheep - along with the same deer with griffon's vulture-like beak, with horns and the back of its head which has a griffon's heads and an onager drawn on it. 

All animals are shown with the lower parts of their bodies turned inside out. There is also a winged snow leopard, a fish and fast-running argali.  

Princess Ukok


Princess Ukok

A drawing of a tattoo on a warrior's shoulder. Below: this is what the tattoo looks like now, thousands of years after it was made

To some, the clash depicted on the tattoes between vultures and hoofed animals corresponds to the conflict between two worlds: a predator from the lower, chthonian world against herbivorous animals that symbolise the middle world. 

Dr Polosmak is intrigued at way so little has changed. 

'We can say that most likely there was  - and is - one place on the body for everyone to start putting the tattoos on, and it was a left shoulder. I can assume so because all the mummies we found with just one tattoo had it on their left shoulders. 

'And nowadays this is the same place where people try to put the tattoos on, thousands of years on. 

'I think its linked to the body composition... as the left shoulder is the place where it is noticeable most, where it looks the most beautiful. Nothing changes with years, the body stays the same, and the person making a tattoo now is getting closer to his ancestors than he or she may realise. 

'I think we have not moved far from Pazyryks in how the tattoos are made. It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible.

'For example, about the British. A lot of them go on holiday to Greece, and when I've been there I heard how Greeks were smiling and saying that a British man's age can be easily understood by the number of tattoos on his body. 

'I'm talking the working class now. And I noticed it, too. The older a person, the more tattoos are on his body.'


FINDING THE ICE-CLAD 'PRINCESS'

'It was an international research programme, devoted to the Pazyryk Iron Age culture,' said Academician Vyacheslav Molodin,  deputy director of  Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences.

To modern man, the only way in is by helicopter, yet in ancient times this was on the 'southern steppe road' used by migrating nomadic peoples in the  pre-Christian and Dark Ages.

'The burial mound with the 'princess' seemed to be half deserted, with big holes which border guards dug to use the stones.

'It seemed less than hopeful. But Natalya Polosmak was determined that we had to start working on it..... 

'To our utter surprise, there was an untouched burial chamber inside the mould. 

'We started working on opening the 'ice lense' - the burial inside the mould was filled with ancient ice. 

'We  started to melt the ice. First the skeletons of six horses appeared, some with preserved wooden decorations on the harness, some with coloured saddles made from felt. 

'On one of the saddles was a picture of a jumping winged lion. 

'Then the burial room appeared from under the ice. It was made from larch logs. Inside stood a massive hollowed wooden log with a top, shut with bronze nails. Inside the log was all filled with ice. 

'It was a tanned arm that appeared from under the ice first. 

Princess Ukok


princess Ukok

Princess Ukok's hand, as the scientists saw her first, with marked tattoos on her fingers and, below, the drawings of tattoos

'A bit more work and we saw remain of a young woman, lying inside the log in a sleeping position, with her knees bent.

'She was dressed in a long shirt made from Chinese silk, and had long felt sleeve boots with a beautiful decoration on them. 

'Chinese silk before was only found in 'Royal' burials of the Pazyryk people - it was more expensive than gold, and was a sign of a true wealth. 'There was jewellery and a mirror found by the log.

'The great value of Pazyryk burials is that they were all made in permafrost, which helped the preservation.

'It was quite unusual to have a single Pazyryk burial. Usually men from this culture were buried with women. 

'In this case, her separate burial might signify her celibacy, which was typical for cult servants or shamans, and meant her independence and exceptionality. 

'She had no weapons buried with her, or on her, which means that she certainly was not one of the noble Pazyryk women-warriors. 

'Most likely, she possessed some special knowledge and was a healer, or folk tale narrator.

'From the inside the mummy was filled with herbs and roots. Her head was completely shaved, and she wore a horse hair wig.  

'On top of the wig there was a symbol of the tree of life  - a stick made from felt, wrapped  with black tissue and decorated with small figures of birds in golden foil. 

'On the front of the wig, like a cockade, was attached a wooden carving of deer. 

'The princess's face and neck skin was not preserved, but the skin of her left arm survived, and we saw a tattoo, going all along it. 

'She had tattoos on both arms, from shoulders to wrists, with some on the fingers, too. The best preserved of all was a tattoo on her left shoulder, featuring a deer with griffon's beak and a  Capricorn's horns. A bit below is a sheep, with a snow leopard by its feet.' 

It is said tattoos, once done, are for life. In this case, though, it was a whole lot longer. The experts say they were made with paint, partially concocted  from the burned bits of plants, their soot or ashes which contained a high level of potassium. The drawings were pierced with a needle, and rubbed with a mixture of soot and fat. 


WHAT RESEARCH ON HER BODY SHOWS

The experts say she died in her 20s, with the best guess at 25 to 28, and that this was 2,500 or more years ago, making her, for example, some five centuries older than Jesus Christ, and several hundred years the senior of Alexander the Great. 

'She was called 'Princess' by the media. We just call her 'Devochka', meaning 'Girl'. She was 25-28 years old when she died,' said Irina Salnikova, head of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences Museum of Archeology and Ethnography. 

'The reason for her death is unknown, because all her internal organs were removed before the mummifying. All we see is that there is no visible damage to her skull, or anything pointing to the unnatural character of her death. 

'Her body is curled, so we cant say for sure how tall she was. Some estimate her to be 1.62 metres, others say she could have been as tall as 1.68 metres. We could not establish when the young woman has had her tattoos made, at what age. The horses, found by her burial, were most likely first killed, and then buried with her.'

In 2010 an MRI scan was conducted on the mummy, the first time this had been done on ancient remains in Russia. The final results of exhaustive analytical work has still not been released. 

Princess Ukok

A sculptor's impression of how Princess Ukok looked 2,500 years ago

But Andrei Letyagin, chairman of the MRI Center of the Siberian department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: 'The cause of death remains unknown. I don't believe that it will be possible to find an answer to this question because there's no brain and no internal organs in the body.'

In all probability she did not die from injury. 'Her skull is fully preserved, and so are the bones,' he confirmed. DNA obtained from her remains is intriguing. 

The Princess of Ukok is not related to any of the Asian races, the scientists are convinced. She is not related, evidently, to the present day inhabitants of Altai. Moreover, she had a European appearance, it has been claimed.

'There was a moment of gross misunderstanding when a legend came about this mummy being a foremother of people of Altai,' said Molodin. 

'The people of Pazyryk belonged to different ethnic group, in no way related to Altaians. Genetic studies showed that the Pazyryks were a part of Samoyedic family, with elements of Iranian-Caucasian substratum.'

So perhaps more Samoyedic than Scythian.   

'We tried to overcome the misunderstanding, but sadly it didn't work.' 

OBJECTIONS

Many locals in Altai were nervous from the start about the removal of remains from sacred burial mounds, known as kurgans, regardless of the value to science of doing such work. 

In a land where the sway of shamans still holds, they believe the princess's removal led immediately to bad consequences. 

'There are places here that it is considered a great sin to visit, even for our holy men. The energy and the spirits there are too dangerous,' warned one local.  'Every kurgan has its own spirit - there is both good and bad in them - and people here have suffered much misfortune since the Ice Princess was disturbed.'

It is nothing short of sacrilege to pour hot water on the remains of ancients who have survived in the permafrost for thousands of years, he said.

The 'curse of the mummy' even caused a crash of the helicopter carrying her remains away from Altai, some believe.  Then in Novosibirsk, her body, preserved so well for so long, started to decompose.

Stories circulated that the princess had been stored in a freezer used to preserve cheese. Fungi began growing on the preserved flesh, it was claimed. 

Whatever the truth, the scientists sought emergency help from the world-renowned Lenin embalming experts who worked on her remains for a year. 

Back in Altai, many ills have been blamed on her removal: forest fires, high winds, illness, suicides and an upsurge in earthquakes in the Altai region. 

Altai, Ukok plateau


Altai, Siberia, Ukok plateau

One of the most mysterious in the world: Ukok plateau, Alta, Siberia. Pictures: Elena Nikultseva 

Local woman, Olga Kurtugashova, said: 'She may be a mummy but her soul survives, and they say a shaman communicated with her and she asked to go home. That's what the people want, too.'

'Our ancestors are buried in these mounds,' insisted Rimma Erkinova, deputy director of  the Gorno-Altaisk Republican National Museum  as a war of words raged over the last decade.  'There are sacred items there. The Altai people never disturb the repose of their ancestors. We shouldn't have any more excavations until we've worked out a proper moral and ethical approach.'

THE CAMPAIGN FOR HER RETURN TO ALTAI

'She was a beautiful young woman, whom they dug up, poured hot water and chemicals upon, and subjected to other experiments. They did this to a real person,' complained Erkinova to the Irish Times newspaper in in 2004. 

The same year, an Altai regional chief insisted: 'We must calm people and bury the Altai Princess. 

'We're having earth tremors two or three times a week. People think this will go on as long as the princess's spirit is not allowed to rest in peace.'

Many wanted the princess to be returned from the Archaeological and Ethnographic Institute of Novosibirsk, some 600 km away, and restored to her original burial site. 

After some 300 earth tremors in a six month period, the head of Kosh-Agachsky district Auelkhan Dzhatkambaev,appealed to the  Siberian Federal District presidential envoy Leonid Drachevsky for this to happen. 

Drachevsky travelled to Kosh-Agach and told residents that the mummies would not be returned, saying they were serving important scientific purposes, and that he was 'simply uncomfortable hearing about angry spirits, as if we were living in the Middle Ages'.

Erkinova's plan was different. 'We shall put the princess in a glass sarcophagus, so everybody can come and bow before her,' she said. 

'This is a very painful issue. Altai's native people worry about their forbear. The Princess must return to us.'

People were angry, too, that the mummies were taken on a tour to Korea and Japan with one report saying the princess 'was met like a diva, with vast crowds, admirers on their knees and bouquets of red roses'.

Eventually a compromise was reached, though delays and arguments followed. Finally this culminates in this month's return of the princess not to her burial place but to the Altai museum. 

'We agreed to give back the princess once the conditions for looking after it were right. That means proper accommodation with an air conditioner and a special sarcophagus,' said Molodin as long ago as 1997.

'Another condition was that this was our intellectual property and that we would have the right to use it for exhibitions and to study it. We're not doing this out of curiosity but in the interests of science. The soul is somewhere else and we're studying the remains. So I don't see a violation of any accepted social rule here.'

Finally, all now agree the princess is coming home. 

BANNING MORE ARCHEOLOGICAL DIGS

The Altai authorities have now declared the remote mountain area from where the princess and her kinsmen were buried as a 'zone of peace' where no more excavations will take place, despite the near-certain treasures lying in the permafrost. 

Such work amounts to plundering, they believe. 

To Molodin, who found the male mummy several years after the princess, this  deprives the world of a valuable scientific inheritance. He argues, too, that the issue is critical since global warming means the ancient bodies will decay.

Scientists reckon there are thousands of burial mounds here, hundreds of which date to the Pazyryk period, many of which may contain answers to questions about where we come from.

See related: 'Fashion and beauty secrets of 2,500 Siberian 'princess' from her perfamrost burial chamber'
and 'A row has erupted over 'illegal' gas pipeline through burial site of ancient 'tattooed princess'



The Siberian Times thanks Dr. Natalya Polosmak, Elena Shumakova, Irina Salnikova and 'Science First Hand' Magazine for the images and drawings of tattoos.

Comments (107)

Yvonne, a lot of people donate their bodies to science with the purpose of having scientists ogling all over them after they're dead to, for example, get closer to cures for hereditary illnesses, or on a more practical level teach med students about anatomy. Who are you to decide what "sane" people would or would not do? Or do you generally see yourself as the only measuring standard of sanity? Maybe you think organ donation is wrong, too?

How is this fundamentally different from historians looking through ancient diaries, personal letters and so on? It's an important part of understanding any historical event or period, too.

"If I don't want it, no one else can want it - and if they do, they're wrong!" is not exactly a constructive view on life.
I for one would hope archaeologists and historians could one day gain some knowledge from my remains.
Alice, Denmark
01/12/2012 19:35
32
1
she was and she is!

zaltavykste, lithuania
23/11/2012 14:56
1
0
Yvonne, I promise I am not lying when I say this: If I could look at the earth from wherever I might be thousands of years from now, I'd be so pleased if, out of all the bodies that could have been excavated, archaeologists found MY body and were going to use MY body for research. You'd be remembered forever - internet, news articles, history books... That seems pretty fascinating to me. I'd be honored.
Jacqueline, Ohio
22/10/2012 21:37
41
0
This was a life lived, and died. Buried with intention and should be treated with respect. Scientific inquiry is entertaining, for sure, but disregard for this heritige says more about us than we can 'learn' from them
lobol, haiku
15/10/2012 12:25
1
5
Yes, Yvonne, the bottom line is respect. There was a life lived here, that died. Buried, not placed on a pedestal. Indulgence does not honor life. They cared, so should we. Respect.
Marcel, haiku
15/10/2012 12:15
5
1
I have never seen an Yvonne that I would want to see naked, alive or dead, and I believe my internet colleagues would agree that you have little to fear, Yvonne from Illinois.
Frob, Virginia, United States
24/09/2012 09:23
0
4
Yvonne, I doubt that the princess is aware that her body has been discovered. If she is aware, she is probably pleased that people at admiring her tattoos. After all, everyone is looking at those, not her lady parts.
Janet L, USA
23/09/2012 05:31
20
0
OH! Yvonne, I would totally sign up for that! Let me know how please! Sarcasm aside, I personally (not, personally) do not understand the desire to keep one's body in pristine condition underground for eternity. To me, once I'm dead, I'm dead. Anything like a soul is gone, so who cares what happens to my body. I won't need it once I'm dead.
Amy, Georgia
01/09/2012 15:25
26
0
I am sorry Yvonne, Illinois, that you are offended by the work archaeologists do. If it were not for them, though, we would know nothing about the past and the way people used to live back then. Think about it, this princess they excavated is THOUSANDS of years old. And you are obviously curious enough about that, that you read the article. I don't want to start anything, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I will support archaeologists in all that they do. (as long as it is legal, moral, and with respect)
Amber, Albany, OR, USA
01/09/2012 14:18
42
0
Maybe this woman was a Lakian woman from the LAK peoples, her tattoo is a reindeer.
Denise, Usa
01/09/2012 13:33
7
0
I agree that digging up graves is really wrong on so many levels. Anyone else want to sign up for it? Let's all agree to let someone dig up our decomposing bodies and pass them around for scientists to ogle and prod at and then take them on tour to show whomever wants a peak. Sounds great right? I mean no one wants respect or privacy for themselves whether living or dead. I can just imagine how she would feel about this. Anyone who claims to be fine with this thought concerning their own dead body is a liar. No sane person would want this for themselves.
Yvonne, Illinois
01/09/2012 06:52
0
83
@ Kara.



It's known for a while now, that Europoid populations have been far east since the copper and bronze age (Morphology, ancient DNA and archeological (even linguistic) connections are proving it), in Siberia (Afanasevo then Andronovo populations, then Scythians), in western China (Tocharians) and central Asia (Andronovo and Saka/Scythians). Of course there were admixture with Asian populations but in many part the "European" phenotype remained majoritary until the turkish populations came up.



As for "Iranian" maybe it refers to their language and culture i.e. "Iranic" (an Indo-european language) that was spoken by the Scythians or to some admixture coming from the south of Central Asia.

As for Samoyedic, I'm not aware of any reason to claim a link with this people among the Pazyryk that were largely Scythian, culturally.
Bolbi Dobbit, Urtown
21/08/2012 23:27
10
1
To Canadian Kara:



Samojedis don't live near Finland. They live on the Asian side. There is 2000-3000 km distance. Yet they belong to same cultural group with Fenno-ugrians called Uralic cultures. These cultures share old lingustic, cultural and religious elements. Samojedic genetic heredity is more Asian than among other Uralic people.



But what is race? 19th century Europeans tought Finns were like mongols in appearance, because we share the cultural elements with eastern people. I feel connection to these people due our cultural bonds - whatever their appaerance or genetics would be.



Cultural connections are strong along arctic areas. There are similarities even between Finnish and Inuit cultures, although there are thousands of kilometers and no direct connections. And when sami people sing their traditional songs at least one inuit found similarities with their culture.
Em, Finland
21/08/2012 14:29
38
0
Take her home, Now!
Nick Barrett, New Zealand
21/08/2012 10:38
1
9
What explanation is offered for the ubiquitous "bird heads" the non-naturally occurring forms that are found on most of the animal tattoos? The snow leopard, for instance, depicted twice on the male body (once on the ankle and larger spanning back, under arm to chest) has these "bird heads" coming out of it's neck. What is the significance? They are clearly added for a purpose, since they are not a natural part of the animal.
Kent Madin, Bozeman Montana
20/08/2012 21:22
7
0

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