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Fashion and beauty secrets of 2,500 year old Siberian 'princess' from her permafrost burial chamber

By 0 and 0 and 0
28 August 2012


'Goodbye... 'Reconstruction of a burial scene of Ukok Princess, with both women dressed in traditional Pazyryk clothes. All drawings, here and below, were made by Elena Shumakova, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 
We recently exclusively revealed the extraordinary tattoos on the mummy of a woman aged approximately 25 years old preserved in her ice-clad wooden coffin high in the Altai Mountains. 

Her story and our pictures of her ancient - yet modern-looking - body art captivated the world and was read in The Siberian Times in no less than 165 countries, while also being followed up by many other news outlets. 

The pictures of 'Princess Ukok's' tattoos can be seen here, if you missed them earlier.  Now, thanks to pioneering work by academics in Novosibirsk, we also show how this ancient Pazyryk woman looked in real life and display not only her clothes but also the vivid colours she wore and her stylish headdress. And her beauty secrets. 

Princess Ukok

Reconstruction of Pazyryk woman's costume. All items were found inside 'Princess' Ukok burial. Right, Pazyryk man's costume. Reconstruction by D. Pozdnyakov, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

Intriguingly, as well as her tattooed corpse, the ice - a natural time capsule - also preserved her elegant clothing enabling a reconstruction to show exactly how she looked some 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Ukok plateau, Western Siberia

Ukok plateau in Altai mountains, Siberia.  

Archeologists even found items from her 'cosmetics bag', which lay inside her coffin next to her left hip, notably a face brush made from horse hair, and a fragment of an 'eyeliner pencil'. This was made from iron rings, inside which was vivianite, giving a deep blue-green colour on the skin.   

There was also vivianite powder, derived from an iron phosphate mineral, apparently to be applied to the face. 

'Scientists did not expect to find any (cosmetics) in the burials of that period, and only after the discovery of this frozen woman's grave did they manage to gather and analyse, the colouring pigments,' said Professor Vladislav Malakhov, of the Boreskov Institute of Catalysis, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences.

'Analyses showed that the Pazyryk women knew and used the natural mineral blue colour called vivianite and they also produced quite complicated fat-based facial masks to protect the skin from extreme climates of high mountains.'

Princess Ukok

Princess Ukok, scheme of her burial, drawing of her clothes, and, right, scientists pictured first minutes after opening her 'coffin', with ice still inside it. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

The exotic dress of the of the 'princess' also 'proved to be far more unusual and unique than any of our guesses', says Professor Natalya Polosmak, who discovered her burial chamber and has analysed her clothing in painstaking detail.    

'She was dressed in a long and wide woollen skirt, made from three horizontal strips of fabric. The skirt was 144 cm long, 90 cm wide on the top, and 112.5 cm at the base. 

'Each strip of  the fabric was coloured separately: the top one was crimson, the middle very slightly pinkish-yellowish, and the third of a very rich Bordeaux colour. 

'All pieces of fabric were manually coloured. The skirt had a woollen braided belt, which could as well change the length of the skirt by holding it either around the waist, or higher, under the breasts.

'There was a long, almost knee-length, light shirt worn over the skirt, with a round neck, decorated with red lace and braid.'  

'There were three shirts found - two of them were complete, one had parts missing.'   Despite there being ' no fashion magazines to let others copy the details of trimmings, Pazyryk shirts were made in an almost identical manner to costumes found in the oasis burials ...... in what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang.' They were made of silk. 

Princess Ukok

Princess Ukok: the ice has just melted. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

The distance here is hundreds rather than thousands of miles yet evidently the actual silk used (rather than the designs of the shirts) was not Chinese, says Dr Polosmak, of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnogoraphy at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  

It came from much further afield. Possibly Assam in India, or elsewhere to the south of modern-day China.

On top, the princess wore a smart and stylish light fur kaftan-style coat. This had long narrow sleeves, shorter at the front 'and a tail from behind'.  It was 'decorated with leather and fur patterns'.

The patterns found on Pazyryk clothes had images of animals, and served both as symbolic guards and to identify her as a member of her ethnic group. 

Princess Ukok, traditional Pazyryk patters and decorations

Lion, left, and deers - traditional Pazyryk patterns used for decorating wall carpets and clothing. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

'Ukok' - she was named by archeologists after the 2,200-2,500 metre plateau where her body was found - wore high, above the knee, white felt 'tight' boots, decorated with patterns also made from felt.

These were typical for Pazyryk  men and women and served as protection against the fierce cold. 

The real eye-opener for Dr Polosmak was the high and  distinctive head wear. And the linked discovery that the 'princess' in fact had a shaved head, with no hair, but instead wore an elaborate wig, that remains intact to this day, enabling detailed study.

'It was a total surprise to find a wig,' she says. 

'It was put on a shaved head. The base of the wig was a felt 'hat', with two layers of women's hair sewn into it. Between the layers was a black flexible substance, which helped to fix and hold the shape and the volume of the wig.'

This seems to have solidified to make a kind of base to hold this elaborate headdress structure. 

Princess Ukok

Scheme of Princess Ukok's wig. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

'A mop of hair on top was tightly wrapped around with a woollen cord, which helped this mop to stand upright,' she says. 

'On top of this mop was worn a red 'nakosnik' (a braided decoration made from threads), and atop of this structure was a bronze pin with a deer, standing on a sphere. The deer was made from wood, and was covered in golden foil.'

Yet it was more intricate, still. 

'The wig had another very important detail,' she says. Its crowning glory  looked like a giant feather, 68.5 cm long, made from felt and covered with black woollen fabric, with a stick inside it to help it stand straight.' she says.  

'This feather had the figures of 15 birds attached to it, which like in modern Russian Matryoshkha dolls with one inside another, were each of smaller size compared to the previous one. The birds had leather wings, tails and legs, and long necks, which most likely meant they were swans.

'This feather can be interpreted as a symbol of  the Tree of Life - a healing tree which existed in so many cultures all around the planet. 

By the roots of the tree there is a wooden figure of a deer with a Capricorn's antlers.  'There was also ... a cap for the wig.... some 84 cm tall. It was found in Princess Ukok's burial chamber.'

princess Ukok princess ukok
Golden earring found in 'Royal' Pazyryk mound, and left - drawing of the wig, with a picture of the wig cap. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

Her coffin, made from a hollowed out tree, was sufficiently long to accommodate the headdress which she wore when she was buried.  

There is evidence that other Pazyryk women - both of royal and lower status - shaved their heads but not always completely: it appears to be not simply a death ritual. Intriguingly, too, some evidence has been found that women kept plaits of their own shaved hair with horse hair extensions. 

'It can be linked to a universal understanding about hair, namely that - specially when it is long, it contains magical powers. So hair cutting  symbolises the end of the previous life.'

Some Siberian peoples did shave the women's hair to mark the end of her childbearing age - which, to them, meant that the woman was ready to travel to another world. 

'The information carried by the Pazyryk hair styles and wigs is truly priceless.

'But to decrypt it, to be able to understand it we should have lived with them. A hypothesis about hair style changes linked to marriage or children or death is plausible, but will remain just that - a hypothesis. I don't yet see the end of the thread, which I can hold to start undoing the tangle of this complicated issue'. 

Amid this tangled conundrum is another question.

The Pazyryks were horsemen and women during the time they dominated in the Altai region of southern Siberia, especially  between sixth and third centuries BC. How on earth did the women ride wearing these beautiful hats?  The answer on this is not clear but surprising secrets are revealed on other aspects.  

The colourful skirt - and other clothes found in Ukok's burial chamber and those of two male warriors nearby - hold within them a secret that shows the extraordinary reach of the nomadic Pazyryk people. And the fact that they needed to repair their own clothes. 

princess Ukok princess Ukok
Pazyryk man's trousers, with visible traces of darning. Right - colourful emboidery found on Pazyryk textiles . Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

'The Pazyryk costume was made from textile which is quite unexpected for  people who lived high in the mountains,' says Dr Polosmak. 'This type of fabric is quite inconvenient, as it gets very quickly worn out.'

Which suggests perhaps that Ukok and her clan were fashion-conscious, wanting to look good in a modern sense, and not simply ready to wear the most utilitarian clothes for a cold climate.

'Almost all the clothes, found in the burials, had traces of intensive wearing - and darning,' she says. 

'People which inhabited the Altai Mountains at different times never developed textiles manufacturing to the level of the quality of this Pazyryk clothing. But the Pazyryks, too, did not produce their amazing woollen textiles in the  Altai - rather, they were bringing it to the mountains.  

'We cannot define the exact spot where it was delivered from. But we can approximately understand the region from where the samples of these stunning Pazyryk clothes we found high in the Altai Mountains could have arrived.'

She explains how they have been able to investigate the source of the clothes worn by the 'princess' and the warriors found buried nearby.  

'A big role in defining the region is played by a set of substances used to colour the Pazyryk textiles,' she says. 

'The most typical style was a colouring made with three different substances - which means that all of them must have been available in the area where it was made.'

Remarkably she concludes that the source of the dyes is around 3,000  kilometres from Altai and the home of the Altai Pazyryk civilisation.

princess Ukok

Pazyryks, detail of carpet's decoration. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

'This area can be Eastern Mediterranean - the only habitat of Kermes vermilio Planchon, a tiny insect, which is a source of nape acid, used in Pazyryk textiles colouring, and a neighbouring territory of the Armenian uplands - a source of Carminic acid. The third colourant - a source of alizarin and purpurin - was made from madder' (a Eurasian plant). 

Dr Polosmak explains that there are two types this third dyeing ingredient - 'Rubia Tinctoria L from Iran and the Mediterranean countries. And another, coming from China and India.'

The second was closer to Altai, yet the Pazyryk textile was coloured with Rubia Tinctoria L madder - so pointing to the region of the Eastern Mediterranean.

'The combinations of the tree colourants proves a very high culture of fabrics colouring, as well as a high level of colour tones distinguishing by craftsmen, who specifically aimed at getting different shades of red and purple.'

'Ancient China influenced the so-called 'Northern Barbarians', teaching them to use things like silk or massive bronze mirrors,' explains Dr Polosmak.  'The contacts between Pazyryks and the ancient kingdoms of Chu, and Jan Tsin seem to have been well established.'

So 'what they could not have made themselves, they received as a result of exchange - or capture - from their neighbours'. 

In this sense the 'princess' is - says Dr Polosnak - and example of an early bridge between the great ancient cultural fiefdoms. 

'The Pazyryks so well accepted and blended in the experiences and traditions of two great ancient civilisations that some of the animal images they created - like some of their signs, and iconography - became their own Pazyryk art.'

The fusion of influences, seen in her clothes, of Ancient Chinese, Iranian and Mediterranean cultures 'make the Pazyryks indeed one of the most ancient examples of synthesis between cultures of East and West'. 

Several hundred years later Alexander the Great was famed for 'mixing people by the power of his will, trying to unite East and West by pushing them together, and gluing them with political methods.

'At the same time in the middle of Asia, on an immeasurably smaller scale, that process which the great warrior was only dreaming about, has been happening all by itself. That same mixing of cultures, and the mixing of Caucasian and Mongoloid....This synthesis, on a small scale, proved to be very fruitful, and resulted in a formation and rise of Gorniy Altai Pazyryk culture'.

princess ukok

The most ancient in the world - fleecy carpet found in one of Pazyryk mounds, currently on display in Hermitage. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

There are also some intriguing revelations about male fashion at the time, especially from a man's burial chamber close to Ukok's which was examined by Siberian scientists in Novosibirsk.

'The Ukok Plateau Pazyryk burials gave us a true gift of complete sets of clothes,' says Dr Polosmak. 

'Now, years after we found them, we can say that these clothes gave us results even more interesting, than that fact of their discovery.'

'The man's costume was one of a horseman - and Altai burial gave us perhaps one the most ancient examples of it in the world. 

'First of all, it had trousers - which, to remind you, was part of a wardrobe considered to be 'barbaric' by Greeks and Romans, who did not accept and did not wear them. 

'Yet the trousers were an essential part of the Eurasian warriors' and herders' wardrobes.

'The Pazyryk man's trousers were made - surprisingly! - not from leather, but from a thick fabric  from a mixture of sheep and camel wool. The colour of the trousers was red.'

'The design of the trousers is very basic -  two legs, sewn together by a third square-shaped piece of fabric. 

'The trousers had a  braided woollen cord which helped to hold them around the waist. 

'The legs were narrowing towards the knee, and the part below  the knee was put inside high felt boots with a soft sole that rose above the knee. 

'There was a short coat with no collar, made from a comfortable sheepskin put on a bare body, with its fur touching skin.'

'A peculiar part of his coat is the 'tail', made from the piece of sheepskin 57 to 49 cm in length, and attached from behind,' she says.

This looks like the earliest tailcoat. It mirrors the female dress. 

princess ukok

A modern day tailcoat ancestor? Closer look at Pazyryk warrior's coat. Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science 

It was decorated with leather patterns, sable fur, black foal's hair, and red coloured tufts made from horse hair. 

'The coat had no buckles, but had two leather belts which held it together - first was for a felt bow case, the second, the main one - for the warrior's knife and chisel.'

It had long sleeves, which could be tied up with a cord, and then became pockets to carry little things around (in which case the coat was worn around the shoulders).'

The body of 'Princess Ukok' were originally dug from the ice in 1993 since when detailed studies led by Dr Polosmak have been conducted on her remains and possessions. The mummy is scheduled to be returned in August 2012 to a museum in Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the mountainous region where her burial site was located, and the findings on her tattoos, clothes, and cosmetic secrets, are revealed to coincide with this. 

Comments (25)

I have been always interested in Altai culture and find it as my own. There are so much to study and know and no wonder Russian academics have done great job. I am fascinated by Saka Culture and extent of its spread throughout our region. I was surprised to find bronze pieces of Scythian jewelry found from various burial mounds found in northern Pakistan (yet very few might know this)
This article engineers great interest to this least known part of the world
Zia ul Haque, Pakistan
11/03/2023 18:57
Excellent article on the Pricess Ukok. I’ve always wondered about her clothing’s colors and what fabrics they were made of-not to mention what supported the high headdress that she wore. The details in the color drawings of her clothing enable one to be able to copy them correctly. Article also shows that people everywhere have had long trade routes for thousands of years (and people always want to look good) for items of luxury, ideas, and food.
Nancy D., Bradenton/USA
17/10/2021 12:07
nice article. Very helpful :)
maddie, australia
02/06/2020 11:28
Deer? Moose. Deer? MOOSE.
Bel, Australia, aka the best country every bitch
04/09/2018 15:08
Curious that she had a shaved head and an elaborate wig made of human hair. Recent MRI data shows that she died of breast cancer. Would be interesting if they had primitive cancer treatment (like our chemotherapy) that made her loose her hair and that's why she wore a wig. The tattoo art is very striking, very similar to Norse and Celtic tattooing.
Jim W., Long Beach CA USA
29/05/2018 16:16
They had to go along ways to get the logs
Alice, British Columbia, Canada
01/06/2016 08:13
A great discovery...we still have t o know about our past in different countries of the world. Pharos in Egypt had the same beauty cosmetics for their women. In Saudi Arabia we have 3000 years old petroglyphs of women indicating beautiful hair and dresses.

I congratulate the R us suns for this great discovery and study
Dr. Majeed khan, Saudi arabia
07/09/2015 01:58
If the skirt was 144 cm long, how did she wear it? Assuming that she wasn't extremely tall, she'd be about 135-140 cm high from shoulder to ground. So where did the excess length go? When it says the skirt is 90 cm wide at the top, does that mean 90 cm circumference or 90 cm laid flat, i.e. 180 cm circumference? Or maybe it wasn't sewn into a tube, as most skirts are, but wrapped? It would have been nice to know.
Monacensia, München
05/11/2014 18:15
"Sown" into the wig?? Yikes. Somebody get an editor -- seeds are sown. The hair in this wig was sewn into the cap.
Annie, London, Canada
20/10/2014 03:27
Could the tail on the coat have been to sit on whilst riding a horse? Like a saddle that follows you around
Justine, Queensland
19/10/2014 19:57
The article lost me a bit with the detail of the man riding the horse - was this found in her grave or was it found in a separate grave but from a similar time period?
anon, anon
22/06/2014 21:16
To me, the headdress with the swans seems like it could represent a swan flying up into the sky.
Hannah, New Zealand
29/03/2014 04:30
i'm coming in late, but think most are missing the point. she did not ride with (all the) clothes unless ceremonial. she was a beauty that represented the merge of peoples in a frozen place that had grazing country, but too harsh for most.

her people went further than alexander and he followed her trail. guessing the greeks were told the stories and rather than living there, they were greeks. she was a capitivating symbol of birth and the makeup was proof at that time
m matush, santa fe nm
25/02/2014 04:34
Tony from South Oz assumes there were no woman of power in those times with their own autonomy. There's enough evidence in the burial that Ukok was a local Pazyryk woman of high status within her own culture, buried with such items that high priestesses used. It's doubtful that a mere Chinese concubine would inherit/garner tattoos of such particularly cultural spiritual/status-laden import for the Pazyryk.

Though they don't show the entire carpet with the large Pazyryk horseman, if one does a google search one can see he is actually in pilgrimage to a enthroned Goddess / woman of high status holding the sacred Tree of Life.
Nicole, Red Deer, Canada
21/02/2014 02:32
Really great reporting and very interesting topic. I notice that the horse in close up has the same hair spike in its mane as featured on the woman's wig (though apparently smaller and not decorated).
Susan, Virginia, USA
21/01/2014 21:36

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