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Siberian princess goes global 2,500 years after her death

By Will Stewart
08 March 2014

Her ancient tattoo is a showpiece of the glittering opening ceremony for the Sochi Paralympics.

The tattoo featured in Sochi was from Pazyryk woman's left shoulder. It shows a mythological animal, a deer with a griffon's beak and a Capricorn's antlers. The antlers are decorated with the heads of griffons. And the same griffon's head is shown on the back of the animal. Picture: Vesti.ru

Known as 'Princess Ukok', her superbly-preserved remains were found in a permafrost burial chamber high in the Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia. 

The ancient mummy of the mysterious young woman - her body covered in entrancing tattoos - is now kept in a glass sarcophagus at a special mausoleum at the Republican National Museum in capital Gorno-Altaisk. A stunning montage of the tattoo on her shoulder featured prominently in the Paralympics opening ceremony - seen around the world - in Sochi on Friday night. 

The Games, featuring  547 athletes from 45 countries across nine days of competition, were opened by President Vladimir Putin.

'The idea behind the ceremony is to praise the human spirit, we wanted to show how important it is to overcome barriers,' said Marco Balich, the renowned Italian director of such occasions. 

The burial place of this 'princess' - around 2,500 metres high - and the beauty and intricacy of her tattoos is testimony to the power of the human spirit in ancient Siberia. Her remains were discovered two decades ago by Novosibirsk scientists on the Ukok Plateau, and were preserved in part by the experts who maintain the body of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin. 

In August 2012, The Siberian Times obtained exclusive reconstructions of the tattoos made by Elena Shumakova, of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science. You can read our previous stories on her here  and here.

Siberian princess goes global 2,500 years after her death


Siberian princess goes global 2,500 years after her death

Princess Ukok's shoulder, tattoo of fantastic animal, and a drawing of it made by Siberian scientists. The drawing was made by Elena Shumakova, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science. Picture from Paralympic Opening ceremony, courtesy Dmitry Medvedev

The Princess came from the Pazyryks  - a nomadic people described in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus - and the colourful body artwork found in the Altai burial chambers is seen as among the best preserved and most elaborate ancient tattoos anywhere in the world. 

To many observers, it is startling how similar they are to modern-day tattoos. The remains of the immaculately dressed 'princess', aged around 25 and preserved for several millennia in the Siberian permafrost, a natural freezer, were discovered in 1993 by Novosibirsk scientist Natalia Polosmak during an archeological expedition. 

Buried around her were six horses, saddled and bridled, her spiritual escorts to the next world, and a symbol of her evident status, perhaps more likely a revered folk tale narrator, a healer or a holy woman than an ice princess. There, too, was a meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold.  And a small container of cannabis, say some accounts, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander. 

'Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful,' said Dr Polosmak. 'More ancient tattoos have been found, like the Ice Man found in the Alps - but he only had lines, not the perfect and highly artistic images one can see on the bodies of the Pazyryks. It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.'

'While the tattoos, preserved in the permafrost, have been known about since the remains were dug up, until now few have seen the intricate reconstructions that we reveal here. Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification - like a passport now, if you like. The Pazyryks also believed the tattoos would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death.'

The tattoo featured in Sochi was from her left shoulder. It shows a mythological animal, a deer with a griffon's beak and a Capricorn's antlers. The antlers are decorated with the heads of griffons. And the same griffon's head is shown on the back of the animal'.

Jessica Long in Sochi March 2014

Jessica Long during Sochi 2014 Paralympics Opening ceremony. Picture: Jessica Long's Facebook

The ceremony was themed around the concepts of unity and inclusiveness, disabled performers played prominent roles as singers and dancers.

'Sochi 2014 will gather a record number of athletes representing the Paralympic Movement,' said President Putin. 'And we will do everything we can to make every one of them feel at home in Russia, among close friends, so that they can show their skills, athletic character and conquer new heights.'

Among the media pundits from around the world covering the event is the acclaimed American summer Paralympics swimmer Jessica Long, 22.

She also has Siberian roots, having been adopted by her US parents from an orphanage as a baby. 

We have told Jessica's story before, including her epic trip last year to meet the parents who gave her up for adoption. 

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