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Mike Carter, The Observer, 2009

Race against time and waves as Russian archaeologists rescue Siberia’s remarkable Atlantis

By Svetlana Skarbo
21 June 2019

Sensational underwater treasures - including mummies of Hun-era fashionistas - recaptured from oblivion.

The precious archeological site is located at the bottom of the so-called Sayan Sea. Picture: RGO

Unique necropoli in remote republic of Tuva with more than one hundred undisturbed burials from the Bronze era to the time of Genghis Khan appear eerily from under the water only once a year.

The precious archeological site is located at the bottom of the so-called Sayan Sea, an artificial reservoir created upstream of the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, Russia’s biggest power plant. 

Scientists can only work here from mid-May to the end of June, with water daily destroying burials made at sea shores, and threatening graves hidden on the reservoir bed. 

Ala-Tei when submerged


Ala-Tei excavations


Ala-Tei excavations


Terezin GV


Map

Scientists can only work here from mid-May to the end of June, with water daily destroying burials made at sea shores, and threatening graves hidden on the reservoir bed. Pictures: Institute for the History of Material Culture, RGO, The Siberian Times

Last year a 2,000-year-old mummified ‘sleeping beauty’ dressed in silk emerged from one of the stone graves. 

In this case, the artificial sea - which one day will wipe all traces of this ancient site altogether - has worked as a blessing, as it washed off several layers of soil and revealed a rectangle-shaped stone construction with the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ inside it. 

Luckily for archeologists, the burial had been so well-sealed with a stone lid that first it enabled a process of natural body mummification, and then protected the mummy when the grave was submerged after construction of the dam, on which work started in 1963.

Mummy


Burial 21


Lower part of the body

Rectangle-shaped stone construction in the burial 21 with the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ inside it. Pictures: Institute for the History of Material Culture

The young woman was laid to rest wearing a silk skirt held by a beaded belt with a precious jet gemstone buckle. 

There was a rich funeral meal and a pouch of pine nuts prepared for her afterlife, and inside her most intricately-made stylish wooden bag was her Chinese mirror.

Among the young fashionista’s other treasures were turquoise beads used to decorate the belt, a set of much smaller purple beads, fragments of a belt’s ring made of copper alloy and a bone belt buckle with beautiful engraving. 

There was also an iron knife with a ringed handle.

‘This site is a scientific sensation’, said Dr Marina Kilunovskaya from the St Petersburg Institute of Material History Culture, who leads the Tuva Archeological Expedition. 


Wooden box-bag


Wooden box-bag


Wooden box-bag


Comb burial 21

Wooden box-bag (with numerous leather pieces inside) and broken wooden comb, found in the burial 21. Pictures: Institute for the History of Material Culture

‘We are incredibly lucky to have found these graves of rich Hun nomads that were not disturbed by robbers. 

‘We discovered 110 burials at the Ala-Tey burial site, which is usually 15 metres underwater. 

‘Another site which was made at what is now the Sayan Sea shore is getting quickly destroyed by crumbling soil. 

‘It is called Terezin, and there we found 32 graves.’

Purple beads


Coal buckle burial 21


Coal buckle burial 21

Purple beads and charcoal belt buckle found in the burial 21. Pictures: Sankt-Peterburg TV, Institute for the History of Material Culture

Russian archeologists thought that the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ woman must have been a priestess based on how rich was her burial. 

Extra studies of the finds led them to believe that in fact she was an ancient leather designer, buried with her work instruments - several pieces of leather and tendon threads tacked inside a little bag. 

Not far from this prehistoric ‘leather designer’, scientists found the mummy of a Hun weaver, with a wooden spindle packed in a leather bag. 

Preserved in her burial through thousands of years were sparkling glass beads, two stone pendants and two belt buckets made of bone, one with linear and another one with circular patterns, and a birch bark double cover with holes along its edges.

Leather bag burial 27


Leather bag burial 27


Come burial 27


Bone buckle burial 27

Leather bag, wooden comb and bone belt buckle, found in the burial 27. Pictures: Institute for the History of Material Culture, Sankt-Peterburg TV

‘Both mummies that were found with fragments of leather, threads and a spindle could have carried a special role in the Hun society’, said Dr Kilunovskaya.

‘Huns cherished women. 

‘It wasn’t a matriarchy, yet women  - mothers and skilled artisans - were treated with great respect.’ 

The scientist also explain great attention that was paid to belts found inside the burials. 

‘For nomads a belt was an extremely important part of their clothing, indicating wealth and society rank.

'They didn’t use pockets, so all key elements of day-to-day life had to be hung on belts - which in case of Huns women were intricately decorated.’


Mirror from the burial 21 before restoration


Mirror from the burial 21 after restoration


Mirror from the burial 27 before restoration


Mirror from the burial 27 after restoration

Bronze mirrors (before and after the restoration) from the burials 21 and 27. Pictures: Institute for the History of Material Culture

Among the other finds were masterpieces of the infamous animal style with female belt buckles depicting scenes of tigers fighting dragons, and beautifully made bronze bulls, horses, camels and snakes. 

Other treasures from the underwater necropoli came from China.

These were silk, mirrors and coins made during the Han dynasty time (206BC-220 AD) which is described as a golden age in Chinese history and culture.

Burial 23


Coal buckle Ala-Tei


Coal buckle in situ


Coal buckle with engravings


Bronze belt buckles


Bronze belt buckles

Coal and bronze belt buckles found in Terezin (top) and Ala-Tei burial grounds. Pictures: Institute for the History of Material Culture

This summer the work at this Siberian Atlantis will be over by the end of June. 

Tuva archeological rescue expedition in flooded areas is possible thank to a grant from the Russian Geographical Society, and help from Society for the Exploration of EurAsia (Switzerland).

SIBERIAN ATLANTIS, video courtesy Russian Geographical Society 



Comments (6)

“Nothing of useful value”?! Seriously?! This is an amazing find. These few Burial sites show us a magnitude of culture, art, and history of these people. Bravo to the scientists for working so quickly and tediously to document this history slowly slipping away. And like many aboriginal discoveries, a small sample may be taken to discover DNA/lineage, but many get ceremonially reburied to honour cultural beliefs. Not sure if that’s the plan here but I’m positive the gain in this discovery isn’t to pillage the dead for personal gains. Great work to all involved. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about these artistic woman of days gone by.
Shawna, Calgary Canada
15/07/2019 01:09
1
0
@Dan: "A disgusting, immoral profession. Let's be honest, nothing of useful scientific value is gained by digging up bodies that were buried long ago". Just wow. Did you miss the part where continued erosion will destroy the burials altogether? '...nothing of useful scientific value..?" Seriously> Of course NY.
Keith, Guam
04/07/2019 23:10
2
1
Rezeg a léc, amit a hamis tanaitok emelt nagyon magasra? Mi lesz ha kiderül, hogy a biblia szent írásai hamisak?
Is it the bar that your false teachings raised very high? What if it turns out that the Holy Scriptures of the Bible are false?
Joe Wolfy, Eridu
03/07/2019 00:56
1
0
Yes, it is sad and disrespectful when graves are disturbed. Unfortunately, real grave robbers get to many first for their own pocket or amusement. Sometimes, animals dig up remains, trees grow through them or they are eroded by nature in other ways. There are no guarantees once we leave it behind. At least science is interested in learning and preserving. Worldwide the traditional owners are slowly having their ancestors and cultural items returned to them. In Australia they are ceremonially re-buried.
Jo R, Australia
27/06/2019 09:04
9
1
Grave robbers never rest! What gives these "archeologists" the right to disturb the final resting place of these people? A disgusting, immoral profession. Let's be honest, nothing of useful scientific value is gained by digging up bodies that were buried long ago. This practice is horrifying and disgusting. Disgraceful.
Dan, New York, USA
26/06/2019 22:48
0
23
Wish some day the spaceship that brought us from home is found far deep.
AL Lien, US
26/06/2019 09:15
5
10
1

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