Pavel Azbelev, archaeologist and guides’ educator at the State Hermitage Museum, Russia, discusses the frozen treasures of Pazyryk culture, a Scythian nomadic Iron Age archaeological culture whose artifacts and mummies are located in the Pazyryk valley and on the Ukok plateau in the Altai mountains of Siberia, near the Russian border with China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.
The culture was discovered in 1865 by V. V. Radlov and the first tombs of the Pazyryk tribal nobility were excavated by academician S.I. Rudenko’s expedition in 1929. The Siberian permafrost preserves well many artifacts and human remains, including the famous Rug and Altai Ice Princess. They testify to a flourishing culture that benefited from the many trade routes and caravans of merchants passing through the area.
Pavel Azbelev, archaeologist and guides’ educator at the State Hermitage Museum, Russia
The excavations in the Pazyryk kurgans and the artifacts discovered there still excite the minds of researchers and the public alike. Tell us how they first came to the Hermitage Museum.
The treasures of the Pazyryk kurgans of the Altai Mountains are not precious metals or stones. These are the most ancient artistic carpets and fabrics, which escaped decay due to the unique conditions of permafrost. Thanks to many years of work by archaeologists and restorers, we can see in amazing completeness both the domestic and artistic culture of the nomads themselves and the striking breadth of their connections with the ancient civilizations of the East.
Excavation of the Pazyryk burial site began in 1929. The group of Mikhail Petrovich Gryaznov, a member of the Altai expedition of Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko, the head of the Ethnographic Department of the State Russian Museum (SRM), investigated the first Pazyryk kurgan. Gryaznov already had experience: in 1927 he had excavated a kurgan of the same type in the Shibe tract (around 100 kilometers west of the Pazyryk valley). The materials from all these excavations were given to the Ethnographic Department of the Russian Museum. Rudenko and his colleagues planned further excavations in the Pazyryk valley, but politics interfered: in the early 1930s the Ethnographic Department was disbanded and many of its staff repressed. The Ethnographic Department’s collections were divided: the ethnographic portion thereof became the basis for the collection of the future Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR (now the Russian Museum of Ethnography), while the archeological part was given to the Hermitage. This was the best possible decision, since it was in the Hermitage that the most qualified restorers worked.
Excavations of the Pazyryk burial site could be resumed only in 1947. It was then that S.I. Rudenko returned to Altai after more than a decade of forced interruption. In 1947-49, the second, third, fourth and fifth Pazyryk kurgans were excavated, followed by the kurgans at the Tukta and Bashadar burials. These digs were directly supervised by S.I. Rudenko. Expeditions were organized by the Institute for the History of Material Culture and all the findings sent directly to the Hermitage. As a result, the Hermitage held almost all the artefacts of the Pazyryk culture available at this time (with the exception of those from the pre-revolutionary excavations of Vasily Radlov, which were stored in the State Historical Museum). Importantly, Rudenko soon (in his 1953 and 1960 monographs) described most of the findings. Later excavations of Pazyryk monuments were conducted by archeologists from scientific centers in Siberia and Mongolia; materials from this research can be found in various Siberian museums and in Ulaanbaatar. But even taking into account these bright new materials, the Hermitage collection remains unsurpassed in its scale and quality. This is fittingly represented in the museum’s displays: four halls of the Winter Palace (№26-29) are dedicated to Pazyryk culture.
The Pazyryk culture, which existed in the vast territory of the Altai Mountains from the 6th to 2nd centuries BC, is believed to be one of the various Scythian-era Central Asian cultures. What features connect Pazyryk with Central Asian culture?
Central Asia is a complex and polysemantic notion. The conventional geographical center of Asia is marked by a special monument in the city of Kyzyl, on the bank of the Yenisei River, in Tuva, neighboring the Altai Mountains. In the Russian geographical tradition, Central Asia essentially coincides with the Sayan-Altay highlands (South Siberia and Mongolia); in the European tradition (adopted by UNESCO) these regions are combined and some neighboring territories also added. These vast expanses have always been inhabited by many different peoples with distinct and vibrant—yet related—cultures. The Pazyryk culture of the Altai Mountains is among the “Scythian-Siberian type” cultures distributed throughout the Great Steppe (the mountain-steppe belt of Eurasia) from Transbaikal in the East to the Danube in the West. They are united by the so-called “Scythian triad”: similar weaponry, horse harness complexes, and animal-style art. Of course, these similar traditions were expressed by each local culture in its own way; specialists have identified, for example, the Scythian, Savromatian, Pazyryk, and other variants of the animal style, not to mention similar variations in the features of these cultures’ weapons and horse harnesses. The Pazyryk artifacts naturally show the greatest similarity with those from neighboring cultures—the Saka from Central Asia, for example—as well as with the cultures of unknown by written tradition nomads from the neighboring Siberian lands.
All ancient nomads interacted closely with neighboring agricultural peoples, and this was reflected in their cultures. Thus, in the Scythian culture of the Northern Black Sea region of the 5th-4th centuries BC there are many manifestations of strong Greek influence; the older Scythian monuments, left soon after the Scythian marches to the Near East, are saturated with works of Near Eastern (Assyrian, Urartian, Eastern Greek) masters. The Central Asian Saks and Altai Pazyryks lived in constant contact with Ancient Iran; the powerful influences of Achaemenid culture are reflected in the corresponding archaeological materials.
It is impossible to describe all the objects in this collection in one short article. Please tell us about the key ones: the felt and pile carpets, the warrior tattoo, and the funeral carriage.
The carpets, the carriage, and half of the tattoos come from the most recent excavation in the Pazyryk necropolis, the fifth kurgan, which differs from the others in many ways.
The carpets preserved in the accompanying horse burial belong to different cultural traditions. They were executed in different techniques, from different materials, and, most likely, at different times. Taken together, they represent the whole system of relations between nomadic and sedentary peoples.
People began to weave carpets in the Bronze Age. The most ancient material evidence of this is special carpet knives found in Southwestern Turkmenistan during the excavations of the Sumbar burial ground of the second millennium BC. (These may also be seen at the Hermitage exposition.) There are no such ancient findings of carpets. The carpet from the fifth Pazyryk kurgan, woven in the 4th-3rd centuries BC, is the oldest known pile carpet. It is made of double symmetric (so-called “Turkish”) knots, with a density of about 3,600 knots per square decimeter. It is estimated that a woman carpet weaver would take at least a year and a half to make such a carpet. The thread ends sticking out on the front side were neatly trimmed (hence the name “sheared carpet”) to form pile of about 2mm in height.
The purpose of the rug is unclear. Judging by its size (1.83 × 2.00m), it could have been used, for example, to decorate the interior of a carriage.
The central ornamental field of the rug is filled with 24 squares with a pattern of cross-shaped figures interpreted as stylized lotus rosettes. This central field is framed by five friezes with images of people, animals, and ornamental figures. On the narrow inner and outer friezes are figures of eagle-headed griffins. On the wide second one (counting from the inside), there are deer walking in a line. The third, again narrow, consists of radiant rosettes. On the widest frieze are alternating riders and foot horseback riders in colorful robes.
The rhythm of this composition is created by the alternation of narrow and wide friezes, as well as the directions of movement of the horseback riders and the deer; the griffins in the outer and inner friezes also look in different directions.
Neither the scenes with riders nor the ornamental motifs on the rug have local Altai prototypes; almost all of these are borrowed from the art of ancient Iran and the Middle East.
Neither the scenes with riders nor the ornamental motifs on the rug have local Altai prototypes; almost all of these are borrowed from the art of ancient Iran and the Middle East. Other images from the rug—walking animals and wrapped griffins—are ubiquitous in the mountain-steppe belt of Eurasia and are not specific to any culture. Spotted deer (chubar deer, Cervus dama) were widespread in ancient times; they could be found in the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and Western Asia. Together with the technological circumstances, these facts indicate that the pile carpet does not belong to the Pazyryk cultural tradition; it is a foreign cultural monument, most likely a diplomatic gift.
One of the most expressive analogues of this carpet is the famous Persepolis relief. The nomad leading a horse in this relief is, in his posture (i.e., the way he handles the horse) and his headwear, virtually identical to the “horse owners” shown on the pile carpet. Thus, the carpet depicts nomads and it was most likely made for nomads, but the carpet-weavers were guided not by the steppe, but by the Iranian pictorial tradition.
The large felt rug was neatly rolled up with long thin poles inside. The base of the rug (a cloth of thin white felt, 3mm thick and about 30 sq.m. in area) was covered with colored felt appliqués. The figures, painted with vegetable dyes, are sewn to the rug with twisted sinewy thread.
In two wide friezes, the same scene is repeated many times: a female character in luxurious attire sits on a throne, holding a branch of a mythical plant; a mounted warrior—also in decorated attire, with a compound bow in a harness suspended from his belt—approaches her. In all the scenes the figures are similar, but not identical, demonstrating that they were not made from a single template.
This plot has a pre-Asiatic origin; judging by analogical artifacts, it was also known to the Black Sea Scythians and Sarmatians. It is usually interpreted as an investiture scene where a certain goddess “hands over” power to a leader.
Fragments of a second, not preserved rug with images of two mythical creatures were sewn on the side of a large rug in ancient times. One was a hind-footed creature with a lion’s body, wings, and a human head with stylized horns (a sphinx). The tail and wing feathers, as well as the clawed feet with spurs, are preserved from the other character. The original composition of the second rug can be read by correlating the fragments sewn into the large rug with the scraps of drapery that survived in the burial chamber; only the sphinx has been fully restored. The second character is a bird with a large hooked beak (conventionally called a phoenix).
The phoenix clutches at the head of the sphinx, which in turn grabs his opponent by the beak. This composition, like the “investiture scene” from the large rug, has early analogues in Western Asia and the Middle East, and was repeated exactly the same way many times. Indeed, the image on the fragmented rug probably originally had the same frieze composition as the large one.
Apparently, the large rug was stretched over the poles that were found wrapped in it, creating a funeral “tent” where the body of the deceased may have been displayed for some farewell ceremonies. It is also possible that the “tent” was placed over the burial chamber and served as a temporary ground structure until the mound was erected over the burial. The fact that the rug had to be repaired and remade using fragments of the second rug proves that these rugs were not made specifically for the funeral but earlier. It follows that the subjects of the images on them should not be interpreted as necessarily related to the burial.
It is interesting to compare the riders depicted on the pile rug with the mounted warrior on the repeated scene of the felt rug.
The carpet-makers of Trans-Asia depicted riders on the felt carpet who were not yet using saddles (on the backs of their horses were archaic large saddlecloth with breastplates), while the saddles depicted on the felt carpet are specially made objects that look similar to those among the Pazyryk finds. The nomads were always somewhat ahead of their sedentary neighbors in terms of horseback riding (and often also weaponry) but borrowed from them for luxury items. For example, in the fifth kurgan were found five cheprak (saddlecloths), two of which are decorated with imported fabrics. Nomads typically did not use cheprak; their presence here is most likely evidence of a temporary strengthening of Pazyryk relations with the Iranian world in the mid-third century BC. Decorating techniques were also borrowed: this is clearly visible from the frieze composition of felt carpets (and the Scythian-Siberian animal style in general), which is clearly adopted from imported samples rather than specific to Pazyryk culture.
The four-wheeled carriage, about 3m high and more than 6m long (including the drawbar), is made mainly of birch. It was probably made following an imported model, but by local craftsmen. It was placed in the grave in a disassembled form, along with four harnessed horses. The carriage had no turning mechanism, such that it could only be turned either by lifting it up by hand or in an arc with a large radius; most likely, it was ceremonial and not suitable for daily use in the mountains. That being said, the surface of the carriage is heavily polished and there are signs of repeated minor repairs, which means that the carriage was still used quite a lot.
In the burials of different epochs, the remains of carriages are found quite often. There are many such findings from the Scythian time in the west of the steppes. Thus, the uniqueness of the Pazyryk carriage is primarily in its preservation, and, secondarily, in the fact that no such findings have been made in other kurgans of the Pazyryk culture. The excavated materials do not contain direct indications of for whom the carriage was intended. We can only assume that if the horses belonged to the chief, the carriage must have served as an afterlife vehicle for the woman buried with him.
How do the funerary complex and the artifacts found in them reflect the system of values, religion, and occupation of ancient Pazyryk society?
The religion of the Pazyryk people is unknown. It is only clear that an important place in it was occupied by the cult of ancestors—this is evidenced by the fact that the deceased were embalmed for long farewell ceremonies before their funerals. The higher the status of the deceased, the longer these ceremonies lasted and the better the embalming. In addition, the prevalence of the animal style indicates the predominance of primitive magic representations, while the absence of numerous narrative images with anthropomorphic characters can be considered an indirect indication that there were no personified deities in the Pazyryk worldview.
Speaking about the system of values, everyday life, and everyday occupations, we can be guided by what is known from the Greek sources about the Black Sea Scythians. It is most likely that the Altai nomads were less influenced by the agricultural civilizations. However, there is very little basis for an independent study of these issues in the Pazyryk materials themselves.
In 1993, during the excavations on the Ukok Plateau, the mummy known as the “Altai princess” was discovered. What discoveries have scientists managed to make thanks to this mummy? And how does its discovery add to the overall picture of Pazyryk?
The materials excavated from the Pazyryk burial ground represent the culture of the ancient Altai people very unevenly. The burials have been almost completely ruined by robbers, such that the surviving items of clothing, utensils, and weapons are scattered and mixed up; the best preserved horse harness. Reconstructions of the costume (as well as many other artifacts of Pazyryk culture) are based largely on the materials of common kurgans (numbering more than 160!) excavated in 1968-84 by Novosibirsk archaeologist V.D. Kubarev and the burials of the “middle class,” studied by V.I. Molodin and N.V. Polosmak on the Ukok Plateau in 1990-96. The most important result of these studies is that Pazyryk ceased to be a culture of “royal” graves and a full-fledged archaeological cross-section of the Pazyryk society appeared.
As for the Ak-Alakha burial of the woman incorrectly called the “Ukok princess,” tattoos were found on her—this was the second case after the second Pazyryk kurgan. This finding (together with the tattoo on the body of a young warrior from the Verkh-Kaljin burial ground, also on the Ukok) showed that tattoos were a universal (not exceptional, as many researchers had previously thought) phenomenon in Pazyryk society.
Further findings of tattoos made in the Hermitage while photographing mummies from the fifth Pazyryk kurgan in infrared rays made it possible to move from studying individual images to exploring the complex system of traditions associated with tattoos. It turns out that there were specific male and female tattoo compositions. Apparently, tattoos were applied sequentially over the years as the person took part in certain events or rituals requiring “immemorialization” on the body.
Finally, the research on the Ukok was spurred by the natural scientific research of Pazyryk materials, well reflected in numerous publications by our Novosibirsk colleagues.
Re-investigations of the Pazyryk kurgans were planned for 2017-2020. Were they carried out? If so, what were the results thereof? Are there plans to conduct investigations in the near future?
These studies were conducted jointly by Gorno-Altaysk State University and the Hermitage. For now, the fifth Pazyryk kurgan with adjoining structures is being studied again. Many things are being clarified with regard to its construction and layout. An external log cabin that S.I. Rudenko left in the trench in 1949 has been retrieved (and delivered to the museum in Gorno-Altaysk). These works continue and should lead to full museumification of the Pazyryk necropolis.
All photos provided by Pavel Azbelev