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Tattooed owners of the world's oldest carpets get health check after 2,200 years

By 0 and 0 and 0
31 January 2017


Tattooed owners of the world's oldest carpets get health check after 2,200 years. Picture: Dmitry Koshcheev

New technology has been used to obtain the secrets of two ancient mummy's excavated from their graves in the Altai Mountains in 1949. 

The pair are seen as a local chieftain from the Pazyryk culture and his wife or concubine who was incarcerated alongside him, evidently with cannabis burning in the burial chamber.

Their remains - preserved because they were encased in ice for thousands of millennia in the valley of the River Bolshoy Ulagan - are held in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Computer tomography

This scan is the first of its kind for the world famous Hermitage. Picture: The State Hermitage Museum

Now the body of the curly-haired male, between 55 and 60 when he died, and the woman, some ten years younger, have been scanned to create tomograph images using a Siemens SOMATOM Emotion in 16 separate modes.

Multi-disciplinary analysis will be undertaken including radiologists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists and other scientists, with the results announced later. 

This scan is the first of its kind for the world famous Hermitage. The aim is to establish the cause of death, and reconstruct the appearance of the ancient pair, and to study the techniques of mummification in more detail.


Burial mounds



Their remains were preserved because they were encased in ice for thousands of millennia in the valley of the River Bolshoy Ulagan, Altai Mountains. Pictures: The Siberian Times, StanRadar, Sergey Rudenko

Most of the treasures of the grave were robbed in prehistoric times, but famously two carpets remained - which are the oldest in the world. They contain remarkable images - shown in these striking pictures - of life in the Pazyryk era in Siberia. 

Inside the vast mound was a wooden burial chamber covered with logs. In the larch sarcophagus lay the two bodies, on which are intriguing tattoos.

Soviet archeologist Sergey Rudenko - who led the excavation - wrote after his discovery: 'Both the man and woman were of Caucasoid type.

Hermitage exhibition

Male mummy

Larch sarcophagus


Exhibition with the findings from the burial mound in Hermitage. Male body. Larch sarcophagus. Cahriot. Pictures: KunstWerk, Dmitry Koshcheev, The State Hermitage Museum

'Their hair was soft, the man's a little curly and dark. The woman's dark brown. Their faces were long and narrow, the man had a sharply protruding aquiline nose.

'The man's head, except for the back, was shaved. The woman's head was also shaved, except that on top was a pigtail. 

'Both bodies were mummified, using the same method. The skulls were trepanned and the brain was removed. Through a slice in the abdomen, from the ribs to the groin, the intestines were removed. 

Felt carpet

Goddess Warrior

Felt carpet was decorated with multi-colour applique including sewn figures more than 1 metre in height, carved from fine coloured felt. Pictures: Dmitry Koshcheev, The State Hermitage Museum

'In addition, through special sections of the chest, back, arms and legs were removed all the muscles of the body, so that remaining was only the skeleton and skin.'

The burial ritual then involved restoring the shape of the human form by stuffing the remains with horsehair. The cuts in the skin were also sewn with horsehair.

Archeologists found traces of an incense burner, sheep and goat skins, and shards of pots. 



The world earliest pile-woven carpet. Pictures: The State Hermitage Museum

Guarding the burial chamber were nine horses - all geldings - with saddles and complete harnesses, decorated with wooden figurines of griffins, a lion or tiger, a saiga antelope, deer and felt. 

Undisturbed lay two precious carpets, the most ancient ever found. One was made of felt - some 4.5 by 6.5 metres in size, probably originally a wall hanging. 

It was decorated with multi-colour applique including sewn figures more than 1 metre in height, carved from fine coloured felt. The central scene shows a rider approach a throne on which is seated a goddess with a flowering branch in her hand.

Male tattoo

Male tattoo

Male tattoo

Male tattoo

Male tattoo

Male tattoos: feline predator on the right shoulder, images of birds on his hands and ungulates on the leg. Pictures: Lyudmila Barkova

The other is the world earliest pile-woven carpet, some 183 by 200 centimetres in size. It is seen as having Iranian influence. Radiocarbon testing indicates it was  woven in the 5th century BC.

Another precious find was a disassembled wooden chariot with large wheels, presumably used in the funeral rite. 

The tattoos - with the images shown here - depict on the man's left shoulder a feline predator, probably a tiger, and on the right shoulder - a horse. On the forearm of the right hand is an Asiatic wild ass or horse and some predator with a striped tail. These figures cannot be seen in full because of the skin folds.

On his hands are images of birds, including a grouse of capercaillie. On the man's legs, below the knee, are tattooed groups of ungulates.

Female tattoo

Female tattoo

On woman's left forearm is a complicated - and unusual for this culture - scene with two tigers and a snow leopard attacking deer and moose. Pictures: Lyudmila Barkova

The images depict only real animals, seen as unusual for Pazyryk remains, when often fantastical creatures have been found in tattoos.

The woman has no tattoos on her shoulders, but many on her forearms. On her left arm is a predatory bird, killing a  deer or moose. On her hand is a cock: she, too, only had real animals depicted on her skin.

On her left forearm is a complicated - and unusual for this culture - scene with two tigers and a snow leopard attacking deer and moose. Some experts believe the images indicate a Chinese influence. 

Comments (13)

Ir appears to me that the seated figure is getting high (as in inhaling cannabis perhaps).
Ron, Longmont Colorado USA
08/12/2019 19:36
@ Arne W. Isachse
I have to say you that cock fights weren't known to the Pazyryks and any other tribe of the informal Scythian League - they had more serious and risky entertainments as for example head hunting. In another place I talked recently with friends about the birds and the cock could be as well a great bustard, still present in Eurasia from Portugal to Mongolia, in Pazyryk times the bird had to be very common, although in Siberia - seasonal (they migrate for winter into Central Asia). Another story that for me the bird is as in the article - common in the area Tetrao urogallus taczanowskii; a Siberian/Tachanovskiy wood grouse,
Gabrielle, Cambridge, UK
29/11/2017 01:09
@ fiona c. brown

I cannot remember what with horses in Rudnko's works, but yes - some horses survived well frozen, although in Pazyryk we have mainly their skeletons with their 'horny' funeral head gear. I cannot bet there were no stallions buried with their owners, but we know from the finds that the Pazyryks didn't sacrifice their best horses for sure, that buried mares were simply old and well used. The people were horse breeders and probably their exporters to China (that ca in the time prepared its cavalry) and I doubt that even in mourning they would destroy their livelihood, so I would also opt for geldings.
Gabrielle , Cambridge, UK
29/11/2017 00:29
Yes, Doug Easton. If I remember Rudenko's books the women were murdered, probably strangled or ... buried alive under influence of cannabis (what is a small possibility, as the Pazyryks killed sacrificed animals and slaves, but still is).
Gabrielle , Cambridge, UK
29/11/2017 00:13
Interesting to see both the man and his female companion. I am curious to know if like in some other cultures the woman would be sacrificed so that she could be entombed at the same time as the man. Thanks so much for the post. I wonder if the site of the mounds looked 2000 years ago as it does now. Very beautiful!
Doug Easton, Tonawanda NY USA
28/07/2017 20:04
If their DNA can be extracted and cataloged for their haplogroup, then we can all determine if we are their descendants...what a wonderful discovery for us to be able to contemplate their lives across the centuries!!!
MD Wingo, Huntsville, Alabama USA
24/04/2017 09:56
I find it hard to believe these graves are "thousands of millennia" old. That would be several million years, if I'm doing the math right.
Rick, Anchorage Alaska
21/04/2017 00:00
Thank you for these pictures. I would like to know what evidence there is that the horses were all geldings? Were their bodies mummified like the humans'? I would have imagined stallions would be preferred .
fiona c. brown, Brecon/UK
07/02/2017 23:08
The archeologists interpreted the birds on the male's hands as grouse or possibly capercilliae. This seems to indicate lack of knowledge of bird phenotypes. They look more like gamecocks for fighting. The stance is that of fighting cocks, the tails are like chickens and the ornaments on the heads could well be combs.
I admit this is early and far north, but bear in mind that recent research has placed chickens in China 2.800 years ago.
I should be grateful for serious comments on this.
Arne W. Isachse, Sauherad, Norway
05/02/2017 23:58
Quite incredible. Do we know the man's DNA yet ?
Suz, England
04/02/2017 23:35
Wish we could learn what objects were stolen from this grave site over the many years as there must have been tools or objects of value that could include Jewelry, swords or daily use items. Love that they did recover so much and the carpets and chariot and tattoos are proof of their technology advancements of that time and area. As the ice melts around the globe I am guessing they will continue to discover more archaeological finds.
GatorALLin, Florida/USA
04/02/2017 20:43
Beautiful carpets, tattoos, inspiring even today. Even chariot look very similar to last used in modern times.
Andrej, Slovaki
03/02/2017 14:41
2.2 millenia, not thousands. fascinating info.
Mous, Albion usa
02/02/2017 16:56

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