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Mummified by accident in copper masks almost 1,000 years ago: but who were they?

09 April 2014

Academics restart work to unlock secrets of mystery medieval civilization with links to Persia on edge of the Siberian Arctic.

A red-haired man was found, protected from chest to foot by copper plating. Picture: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

The 34 shallow graves excavated by archeologists at Zeleniy Yar throw up many more questions than answers. But one thing seems clear: this remote spot, 29 km shy of the Arctic Circle, was a trading crossroads of some importance around one millennium ago. 

The medieval necropolis include 11 bodies with shattered or missing skulls, and smashed skeletons. Five mummies were found to be shrouded in copper, while also elaborately covered in reindeer, beaver, wolverine or bear fur. Among the graves is just one female, a child, her face masked by copper plates. There are no adult women.  

Nearby were found three copper masked infant mummies - all males. They were bound in four or five copper hoops, several centimeters wide.

Similarly, a red-haired man was found, protected from chest to foot by copper plating. In his resting place, was an iron hatchet, furs, and a head buckle made of bronze depicting a bear.

The feet of the deceased are all pointing towards the Gorny Poluy River, a fact which is seen as having religious significance. The burial rituals are unknown to experts.

mummified by accident - but who were they? mummies found in Salekhard


mummified by accident, but who were these people?


Child mummy with the facial copper mask


Mummified hand of a child

Five mummies were found shrouded in copper, while also elaborately covered in reindeer, beaver, wolverine or bear fur. Pictures: The SIberian Times, Natalya Fyodorova

Artifacts included bronze bowls originating in Persia, some 3,700 miles to the south-west, dating from the tenth or eleventh centuries. One of the burials dates to 1282, according to a study of tree rings, while others are believed to be older. 

The researchers found by one of the adult mummies an iron combat knife, silver medallion and a bronze bird figurine. These are understood to date from the seventh to the ninth centuries. 

Unlike other burial sites in Siberia, for example in the permafrost of the Altai Mountains, or those of the Egyptian pharaohs, the purpose did not seem to be to mummify the remains, hence the claim that their preservation until modern times was an accident.

The soil in this spot is sandy and not permanently frozen.A combination of the use of copper, which prevented oxidation, and a sinking of the temperature in the 14th century, is behind the good condition of the remains today. 

mummified by accident, but who were these people?


mummified by accident, but who were these people?


mummified by accident, but who were these people?

Belt buckle, fragments of the belt, bracelet and silver decorations researchers found inside the burials. Pictures: Natalya Fyodorova

Natalia Fyodorova, of the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: 'Nowhere in the world are there so many mummified remains found outside the permafrost or the marshes. 

'It is a unique archaeological site. We are pioneers in everything from taking away the object of sandy soil (which has not been done previously) and ending with the possibility of further research.'

In 2002, archeologists were forced to halt work at the site due to objections by locals on the Yamal peninsula, a land of reindeer and energy riches known to locals as 'the end of the earth'.

The experts were disturbing the souls of their ancestors, they feared. However, work is underway again, including a genetic study of the remains headed by Alexander Pilipenko, research fellow of Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Face of mummified adult man

Mummy of adult man

'Nowhere in the world are there so many mummified remains found outside the permafrost or the marshes'. Pictures: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

Fyodorova suggests that the smashing of the skulls may have been done soon after death 'to render protection from mysterious spells believed to emanate from the deceased'.

With work underway again, archeologists hope for clearer answers. 

Comments (19)

I would say that the chief died for whatever reason and the others were killed to accompany him to the afterlife as protectors and servants as was the custom in most ancient cultures.
Marley, New Zealand
21/08/2014 02:29
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Probably the most interesting news article anywhere in the media in months. Keep up the great work.
Ed Stavin , Oakville, Canada
22/04/2014 20:57
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It looks like it could be related to Vikings, with the Red Hair. They were very skilled in metal working as well.
Robynn, Hamilton, Canada
22/04/2014 20:08
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Use google maps to search Yamal Peninsula, its a long way from Ukraine.
Paul Hoba, Ontario, Canada
21/04/2014 10:11
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This is the region where the Nenets live. DNA will show the origin after the results are in
Jan V, Seattle
19/04/2014 07:28
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Very interesting find. A the remains of a baby woolly mammoth were also found in the Yamal Peninsula in 2007. She was 37,000 years old. http://en.ria.ru/science/20071024/85279820.html



Daisy Buchanan, Seattle, Washington, USA
18/04/2014 12:23
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Not in Ukraine (that's realy pretty far from the Arctic... and Siberia...), its in Yamal. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Yamal+Peninsula/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yamal_Peninsula
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yamalo-Nenets_Autonomous_Okrug
fool, us
17/04/2014 19:20
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Dear Yvette, Stockbridge GA would be wrong position; and you wrote it's in Ukraine, which is very far away indeed from Arctic Circle. Zeleniy Yar is a popular name in slavic languages
Alexander, Novosibirsk
17/04/2014 18:51
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Here is the location according to google. Approximately 47.7923808 by 35.4519243 (longitude and latitude respectfully) (Its in the Ukraine)

https://www.google.com/maps/search/Zeleniy+Yar/@47.7923808,35.4519243,9z
Yvette, Stockbridge GA
17/04/2014 17:57
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The purpose of mumification is the energy and information left on earth for as long as possible as memory. Thats why locals didnt want the experts to touch them, as their connection to their ancestors would interfere.
maya, sweden
17/04/2014 16:42
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@Mary Villalba @Carol
http://maps.yandex.ru/?um=t3K3xH3s3ziSGIdBGZl8riVWqmpTn3Ci&l=map approximate location
Alexander, Novosibirsk
17/04/2014 13:50
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Smashed skulls so they wouldn't turn into walkers. I kid. ~ a Walking Dead fan
emily, Colorado Springs/USA
17/04/2014 10:21
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> "Fyodorova suggests that the smashing of the skulls may have been done soon after death 'to render protection from mysterious spells believed to emanate from the deceased'." "Bob's dead?" "Yeah, we're burying him now." "Hold on a sec. --SMASH-- There. I really hated that guy."
James Smith, Detroit, United States
17/04/2014 08:19
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Any connection to the Tarim mummies or the Tocharian peoples?
Yong, NY
17/04/2014 08:07
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I'm very curious about these mummies and would love to visit....I can't find the location on Google Earth. Can you give me better directions or a map? thanks, Mary
Mary Villalba, Centennial, Colorado, USA
17/04/2014 04:38
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