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Beautiful ancient ring found by archeologists on the Arctic Circle was not for a woman...but a bear

By Anna Liesowska
26 August 2013

The find, as old as Christ, is the latest treasure from the sacred and mysterious site of Ust-Polui in Salekhard, say experts.

'I'm writing still under the impression, as I've just seen these things. This is literally a world scale discovery'. Picture: Bear ring, bronze, finding of 2013, by Andrey Gusev 

The 2,000 year old ring is seen as proof of a bear cult among these ancient polar people who left no written records but whose intricate artefacts, now the subject of intense interest by archeologists, are as artistic as they are valuable.

Made of high quality bronze, this ancient Arctic jewellery features an image of a bear's head and paws. 

Archeologist Andrey Gusev, from the Scientific Research Centre of the Arctic in Salekhard, said: 'It is important to understand that bronze items for this period, and this area of Northern Siberia, are sparse and each bronze thing is a significant addition to our database.

'Ust-Polui is rich in such objects. More than this, many of them have genuine artistic value and help us understand something about the beliefs of these ancient inhabitants. This is the case with this ring showing the head and paws of a bear, which we have found this year. 

'The ring is tiny in diameter so even a young girl, let alone a woman, cannot wear it. We concluded that it was used in a ritual connected with a bear cult and was put on the bear claw.'

The theory is that the ring was fitted to the claw of a slain bear, an animal worshipped by ancient Khanty tribes as an ancestor and a sacred animal. 

'After killing the bear they had a bear festival to honour the animal's memory'. 

'The head and front paws a bear was adorned with a handkerchief, rings, and a few days lying in the house. This combination of images on the ring and the fact that it was found in the sanctuary of Ust-Polui led us to believe that there was also practiced a bear cult'.

Ust-Polui archeological site


Ust-Polui archeological site

Ust-Polui archeological site, and 2013 year findings - a bear ring, a head of a waterfowl, made from antler, a bronze pendant with a bird and a mask on its chest, and a bronze pendant with an animal biting a bird. Pictures: Andrey Gusev 

While the scientists will search for more evidence, the ring 'brings us closer to understanding what rituals the ancient inhabitants had here.

'When we have no written sources, each finding of such type makes clearer the picture of the past.'

Interestingly, the archeological evidence points to Ust-Polui being an sanctuary with spiritual importance for more than one tribe in the far north of Siberia. The site functioned for perhaps the first three AD centuries, it is believed, and its importance began in the 1st century BC. 

Other intriguing recent finds in the 2013 digs include a bird with a mask on his chest, and a pendant showing a fur animal biting a bird, both made from bronze. Another is a fragment showing the head of a waterfowl, made from antler. 

Earlier was found a figure of an apparently seated man, carved from bone. It shows a warrior with some kind of war-paint mask on his face. He seems to be in a sleeping posture, but archeologists wonder if he was in fact dead.

The study of this site began in the winter of 1932, when, during the construction of the hydro-port workers found numerous bones and shards of pottery. At that time a young Leningrad archaeologist Vasily Andrianov was on a business trip to Salekhard.

The scientist examined the findings and soon realised that it was a scientific sensation.

Ust-Polui archeological site

Interestingly, the archeological evidence points to Ust-Polui being an sanctuary with spiritual importance for more than one tribe in the far north of Siberia. The site functioned for perhaps the first three AD centuries, it is believed, and its importance began in the 1st century BC. Picture: Ust-Polui documentary, directed by Ivan Golovnev, cameraman Dmitry Khodakovsky

In 1935-36 archaeological excavations began and Andrianov and his associates found 18,000 artifacts. But then the search of this site was dramatically halted. In autumn 1936, Andrianov was arrested by the NKVD - the forerunner of the KGB - on charges of a counter-revolutionary plot to assassinate Soviet apparatchik Sergey Kirov. Soon, the famous archaeologist was shot dead, aged just 32.

It was only in 1993, after the end of the Soviet era, that a Senior Fellow from the Centre for the Study of the Arctic, Natalia Fedorova, began to work here again. 'The intertribal sacred place Ust-Polui was functioning on the Arctic Circle in Western Siberia in the 1st century BC,' she wrote, pointing out that the site was beyond what was then the 'civilised world' stretching from 'the Mediterranean to the Huang He basin and occasionally interrupted by deserts and mountains', and also outside the 'second circle' of nomadic tribes on the Eurasian steppes. 

'It was located on the cross-roads of the natural zones and the cultural traditions. While meeting there during the sacred ceremonies the people from various territories of the Ob region exchanged knowledge, technology and cultural achievements, in these meetings they created new cycles of magic legends and epic tales, the motifs of which inspired the ancient artists.

'Having performed the sacred rites the people distributed the material evidence of the contacts across the wide spaces of the West Siberian taiga. The remote northern sacred place became one of the facts of the common culture of the world. The archeological monument known as the settlement (sacrificial place) Ust-Polui was located within the bounds of the contemporary city of Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous Okrug'.

Ust-Polui archeological site

The scientist examined the findings and soon realised that it was a scientific sensation. Picture:Ust-Polui documentary, directed by Ivan Golovnev, cameraman Dmitry Khodakovsky (year 2012)

Fedorova described the number and quantity of finds by Adrianov as 'amazing': 13,000 items in 1935, and 35,000 a year later. It is a word long associated with these Arctic artifacts from the site near the confluence of the Ob and Polui rivers.

Leningrad University professor Ravdonikas wrote to a Finnish colleague, Talgrenn: 'Amazing things were brought by our young researcher Adrianov from the excavations that he made in the summer on the Ob. About 7,000 things, of them about 1,500 bone artifacts of exceptional artistic quality. I'm writing still under the impression, as I've just seen these things. This is literally a world scale discovery'. 

He concluded: 'It is not clear from what type of monument they come, Adrianov believes it to be a settlement, but the artifacts are too good for a cultural layer of an ordinary settlement. It might have been a sacrificial place.'

Other scientists would examine the site during the Soviet era but as Fedorova said 'a lot of unanswered questions remained, and the most important among them - what was this monument - a settlement, as V.S.Adrianov called it, or a sacrificial place as was indicated by V. Ravdonikas and later implied by V.N.Chernetsov and V.I.Moshinskaya? 

'Since all the field materials and drawings of V.S.Adrianov were lost, apparently they were seized at the time of his arrest, many archeologists felt the need for the new excavations. That need became pressing when the territory of the monument became part of the city construction area and began to suffer from annual destruction'.

Ust-Polui archeological site


Ust-Polui archeological site

'We do not know, why people stopped visiting the shrine. This may be due to the fact that the climate has become more severe and the changed culture, the way of movement. But it is clear that people did not forget the place completely. There is a newer sanctuary on Polui river not so far from this place'. Pictures: Ust-Polui documentary, directed by Ivan Golovnev, cameraman Dmitry Khodakovsky, year 2012

The new work began a decade ago. 'In anticipation of the 400 years anniversary of Salekhard the studies on Ust-Polui were resumed. For three years- from 1993 to 1995 the Yamal archeological expedition of the Institute of History and Archeology of the Ural branch of RAS and the Ural University worked there.

Along the edge of the terrace and the northern side of the cape three fire places were excavated, located at a distance of not more than 3-5 m from one another,' Fedorova wrote. 

'They were confined into a wooden frame and had a birch bark flooring for protection from moisture, around them were the artifacts layouts: arrow heads from bone and antler, bone spoons and blades with sculptured animal heads, parts of compound bows, knife hafts. 

'Around the fire place on the bank of the river Polui many of the crucible fragments were collected - the vessels for melting and casting of copper, as well as the slag, that remained from the process. The excavation adjoining the bank was the location of the find of most of the artifacts, which were not known anywhere else apart from the Ust-Polui - the bas-relief models cut from shale, that were used for the future bronze castings. 

'In the northern part of the monument site a big heap of large stones was cleared with traces of fire on some of them.

'Near that heap the traces of certain actions were registered, most likely related to ritual ceremonies: a heap of wood chips, between the layers of which a birch bark box was found with the mummified bird figure, a skeleton of the fur animal, several dog's skulls, fragments of birch bark things, including a rectangular plate with square holes cut in it. 

'Lower, practically already in the ravine, the foundations of two small oval structures not bigger than 2 meters in length were excavated. The walls were made from wooden blocks placed on a rib, in the foundation of one there was a dog's skull, the northern walls were sluiced with some organic liquid - black and oily to the touch.

'In the same part of the monument site two female burials were found. One of the graves, in which the buried woman was placed on the birch bark bedding on her side, was covered with multi-layer cultural strata; another one, where apart from the birch bark bedding only the skull was preserved, was registered not deep under the surface'.

Ust-Polui archeological site


Ust-Polui archeological site

In 1935-36 archaeological excavations began and Andrianov and his associates found 18,000 artifacts. But then the search of this site was dramatically halted. In autumn 1936, Andrianov was arrested by the NKVD - the forerunner of the KGB - on charges of a counter-revolutionary plot to assassinate Soviet apparatchik Sergey Kirov. Soon, the famous archaeologist was shot dead, aged just 32. Pictures: Ust-Polui documentary, directed by Ivan Golovnev, cameraman Dmitry Khodakovsky

Natalya Fedorova made clear that 'the finds from the cultural layer of Ust-Polui were represented with a vast number of artefacts, among which were the arms items - arrow heads, bow parts, ornamented armour plates, bronze tooth; parts of the deer harness; bone artefacts with sculptures decorations, that became a kind of the 'identity card' of Ust-Polui: spoons, combs, belt hook. 

'Several dozens of bone hafts of the iron knives, hundreds of ceramics fragments, ornamented birch bark and wooden items. As well as the shale models and bronze castings in the shape of the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Huge information on the history of the Ob region is encoded in these finds: the ethnic genesis and military traditions, religious beliefs and the art, transport, economy, crafts are studied and shall continue to be studied for a long time on the materials from the Ust-Polui excavations.'

After the most recent excavations at this remarkable site, Gusev concludes: 'Now we are completely sure that Ust-Polui was precisely the sanctuary but not the settlement. This is indicated by the absence of traces of dwellings and an abundance of findings. 

'When people leave the settlement to move on, they try to pick up all their belongs to take with them.  

'As a rule there remain only broken or lost objects. Here we see that people intentionally left things around the fireplaces. There are two types of fireplaces. Some of them were merely lined with the stones. The fireplaces of the second type were constructed in the following way: the first layer of birch bark, the second layer of light river sand and only then - the fire. 

'The sanctuary was surrounded by a moat, about a meter deep. Most likely people wanted to emphasise the special nature of this place. We cannot know how people thought 2,000 years ago. But it is clear for us that it did not have a defensive function.

He stressed: 'It is obvious now that highly artistic things were not only brought to the sacrificial place, but also made there. We find traces of casting objects of bronze and iron. Probably people here not only performed rituals, but also exchanged experiences, knowledge. 

'Maybe they even made some discoveries here. Some kind of a place to meet and communicate. And in this format place existed for centuries. We see here also the findings from the other areas, like glass beads from the Black Sea, pottery and tools of the taiga zone and from the territory of the modern Komi-Perm Autonomous Okrug. 

'By the way, high-quality bronze made as ritual objects came from southern Siberia. There were broken bronze kettles. Local inhabitants re-melted this bronze scrap and made the things according to their own taste.'

Ust-Polui archeological site

Aerial view of the Ust-Polui archeological site. Pictures: Ust-Polui documentary, directed by Ivan Golovnev, cameraman Dmitry Khodakovsky

Questions still remain unanswered: 'We cannot definitely say what kind of rituals were practiced here. For example, we have found human burials and scattered human bones. We assume that there could be human sacrifice. It can hardly be doubted that the universal tendency bypassed the ancient inhabitants of the Ob region. 

'Sacrifice - the motive in the past of all civilised peoples. But we can give this only as a suggestion. We also cannot say the ancestors of what ethnic groups they were. Certainly they entered into the gene pool of the modern Mansi, Khanty, Selkup, and Nenets. But for a more definite conclusions we do not have enough anthropological materials. The only thing we can say - these people  belonged to Uralic race, combining the features of Caucasoid and Mongoloid.

'We do not know, why people stopped visiting the shrine. This may be due to the fact that the climate has become more severe and the changed culture, the way of movement. But it is clear that people did not forget the place completely. There is a newer sanctuary on Polui river not so far from this place.'

A question that has been answered relates to transport.

'Very important information that is given to us by findings from the sanctuary is that already at the turn of the eras, these people used the deer for transport purposes. The problem is that there is no written sources about the history of reindeer herding. 

'The first text were left by Russians, who came in Siberia in the late 16 century. But when people began to use the deer for household purposes we can understand only with help of archaeology. Last year we found here carved from antler, a deer harness. The harness is worn, has a trail of damage. That is people obviously rode the reindeer sled in the first centuries AD. It is the oldest part of a reindeer sleigh known to date.

'So we can see that this sanctuary is the priceless source for the study of ancient metallurgy, bone carving crafts, reindeer herding, religion, culture contacts and many other aspects of life in the ancient population of north-west Siberia. 

'The excavations will continue until at least 2015. Funds allocates Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, so we can work thoroughly. After processing, the collection will be passed to the Museum and Exhibition Complex named after I. S. Shemanovsky in Salekhard so everyone can see them'.

Comments (4)

Apel Mjausson, yes but in Russian language only http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piSyaS7mwbw
Anna , Siberia
28/08/2013 14:05
1
Fascinating finds of an ancient and apparently sophisticated culture. Is the documentary about Ust-Polui available online?
Apel Mjausson, San Francisco Bay Area, US
28/08/2013 12:12
2
The views in the Anastasia books, The Ringing Cedars series, by Vladimir Megre may expand on this article about found artefacts in northern Siberia.
, Novosibirsk
28/08/2013 09:14
1
The books about Anastasia in the Ringing Cedars series by Vladimir Megre may have some clues to this story!
,
28/08/2013 09:12
1
1

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