1,300-year-old fortress-like structure on Siberian lake

1,300-year-old fortress-like structure on Siberian lake continues to mystify experts

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It is one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Russia – an ancient complex engulfing a small island in the center of a remote lake in the mountains of southern Siberia. At first glance, it appears to be an ancient fortress, its perimeter of high walls constructed to keep out enemies. However, others have proposed the 1,300-year-old structure may have been a summer palace, monastery, memorial complex, ritual center, or astronomical observatory. According to the Siberian Times , more than a century after its rediscovery, experts are no closer to understanding the secrets of these enigmatic ruins.

The archaeological site is known as Por Bajin (also spelt Por-Bazhyn), meaning ‘clay house’. It is located on an island in the middle of Tere-Khol Lake in Tuva, Siberia, just 20 miles (32 km) from the Mongolian border.  First explored in 1891, the site was not excavated until 1957-1963. However, it was not until 2007-2008 that the first large-scale research was undertaken, carried out by the Por Bajin Cultural Foundation.

What they discovered presented a conundrum – the structure is located in a very remote place on the outskirts of what was the Uighur nomad empire, built with Chinese features, but with no sign of permanent habitation, and abandoned after only a short period of use. 

Why was it built? How was it used? And why was it abandoned? These are the questions that have continued to both fascinate and frustrate experts ever since its discovery.

Inside the complex of Por Bajin

Inside the complex of Por Bajin. Credit: Por Bajin Cultural Foundation

The Construction of Por Bajin

Believed to have been constructed in 757 AD, the ancient complex has outer walls that still rise to 40 feet (12 meters) in height and inner walls of 3-5 feet (1 – 1.5 meters), some still covered with lime plaster painted with horizontal red stripes. A main gate was discovered, opening into two successive courtyards connected by another gate.

The walls enclose an area of about seven acres containing the remains of more than 30 buildings, but with a two-part central structure linked by a covered walkway, which once had a tiled roof and was supported by 36 wooden columns resting on stone bases.

Laser mapping of the site prior to the first major excavation in 2007 helped experts build a 3D model of what the complex might have looked like.

Por-Bajin reconstruction seen from the east

Por-Bajin reconstruction seen from the east. Credit: Por Bajin Cultural Foundation

Only a small number of artifacts were ever recovered from the site – if it had been permanently inhabited one would expect to find a much greater number of items.  There was also no evidence of any kind of heating system, which would have made it impossible to stay there, at 2,300 meters above sea level, in winter conditions.

The main finds include clay tablets of human feet, faded coloured drawings, fragments of burnt wood, roof tiles, an iron dagger, a stone chalice, one silver earring, and iron construction nails. None of the artifacts provide a definitive answer as to why the structure was built, and how it was used.

One of the tiles found at Por Bajin

One of the tiles found at Por Bajin. Credit: Por Bajin Cultural Foundation

The Origins and Purpose of Por Bajin

Since the end of the 19 th century, Por-Bajin has been linked to the Uighur Khagante nomadic empire (744 – 840 AD), composed of nomadic Turkic-speaking people held together by forces of warriors on horseback. The empire spanned Mongolia and southern Siberia, however, the location of Por Bajin was still well away from settlements and trade routes. Why would they build in such a remote location? Could it have been the site of a palace or a memorial for a ruler? The unique layout, more ornate than that of other Uighur fortresses of the period, has led some scholars to suggest that it might have had a ritual role.

Still, there are some other puzzling features. The architecture reflects a distinctive Chinese style, as evidenced by the use of Chinese building materials, such as certain types of roof tiles, and the use of Chinese construction methods. The layout, with its axial planning, dominant central building, and residential quarters is consistent with styles seen in other Buddhist monasteries. But Por-Bajin shows no evidence of religious practice.

Small yards (left) running along Por-Bajin's walls each had a building in the center

Small yards (left) running along Por-Bajin's walls each had a building in the center. A digital reconstruction (right) based on excavations shows that each building could have functioned as a dwelling, perhaps for monks if the site were a monastery . Credit: Por Bajin Cultural Foundation


*cough* Braziers *cough* Come on, it isn't rocket science ... people heated and cooked with braziers for thousands of years in that region. I swear, archeologists can be *blind* - if they don't immediately know what something was for it mysteriously becomes 'religious' item and a place becomes a 'religious facility'. Just because *we* wouldn't be comfortable staying there in brick and stone buildings with just braziers serving to heat the place doesn't mean that the people who originally built the place were not. Heck, I keep my house heated to 50 in the winter and during awake hours heat with a wood stove. The only reason we have to heat at night is to keep the pipes from freezing, It is called dressing warmly and sleeping under a heavy comforter. Back in my misspent youth we even camped in the winter in Western NY in the *snow* and everything.

Tsurugi's picture

Yeah. People make fun of the idea of paleocontact, characterising it as "I don't know, therefore aliens."

Seems to me most mainstream archaeology can be summarized as "I don't know, therefore religion" or "I don't know, therefore tomb."

People leave trash behind, though, especially around dwellings. That there's no broken bits of stuff suggests it was either unoccupied, or only used by people with very minimal possessions.

As I noted elsewhere, it may have been built in response to a threat that ended about the time it was completed.

Would like further explanation of the perma frost explanation. Were strucrures weakened because of it?

In short yes as the permafrost containing ice would expand and contract. Look up frost heave as an example of how stones can be moved around due to thaw and freeze. Just a guess by the way.

But if that was the case the evidence would be undeniable, and there would be no debate about this places reasons for abandonment.

All the suggestions seem possible but I had to smile at Summer Palace. On an icey lake in Siberia. I had the image of a really ticked off queen shouting at the king "Why've you built it up here you idiot? It's FREEZING!"

rbflooringinstall's picture

Maybe it was something like an old storage complex.

Peace and Love,


if you remove the style of architecture from the pc rendering, you are still left with an amazing structure of symmetry. if its just 1300 years old there should be documentation somewhere.
i just hate it when archaeologists jump to conclusions, before all the facts are in.

ALL the facts are never in. And if they were, one would never know that there was no more to be found.

Roberto Peron's picture

Ya know if you think about it all of those ancient people in the ancient world must have REALLY been religious.  I mean with all the things archaeologists label as "religious icons" which is basically all the things they don't understand or don't fit their little theories.  I envision that 100,000 years from now some bright eyed archaeologist will discover a white porcelain bowl buried deep within the earth and be mystified as to what its purpose was.  So following in proper step he will conclude that it was some sort of religious item used during prayer to the gods!  LOL and, meanwhile, the thought will never occur to him that it was a latrine!!

These ruins in Siberia are just one of thousands that just don't fit our little idea of past history.  And guess what?  They WON'T fit our little idea of human history until we CHANGE our concept of human history and stop with all the wishful thinking already and follow he EVIDENCE where it leads!!



If by "religious" you mean spiritual - as in being aware of states other than physical - it seems clear that they were.

However you are correct that attempting to fit things into the context through which most humans currently view will not give an accurate picture.

DeAegean's picture

Spiritual Latrine! I believe that whoever build this is probably very upset that it was destroyed because of time and temp.

Perhaps it was flooded over Suddenly from a tsunami.? that would wipe out all present on it that day, evening. And those who witnessed felt placed then cursed and did not go back. that might explain the large circular round tile in with ruins all around it, it's altar just broken by the big wave.

Tsurugi's picture

Why do they believe it dates to 757 AD?

I'm just wondering because one possibility is that it was being constructed at a time when the climate there was vastly different than it is today.

One of the many mysteries surrounding the most recent Ice Age(the Last Glacial Maximum or LGM) is that Siberia shows no sign of having been beneath glacial ice, despite the fact that the immense Laurentide ice sheet covered most of North America. Siberia appears to have been a temperate area somehow...though that changed with unbelievable rapidity at some point during the cataclysmic melting period, evidenced by the remains of extinct ice age megafauna trapped in Siberian permafrost. The remains have undergone almost no decomposition, indicating they were frozen very quickly and have remained frozen for over 10,000 years.
This presents an interesting conundrum; because it appears as though a temperate Siberia somehow managed to become a frozen wasteland even while the rest of the world was warming rapidly.

Given how quickly this change took place, it could explain why Por Bajin was being constructed where it is, because Sibera appears to have been some kind of oasis of warmth during the LGM. It could also explain why it was abandoned just as it was nearing completion...if the construction had begun just before the drastic shift in the Siberian climate.

Of course, this would set the date of construction to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10k BC, which probably removes any possibility of serious consideration by mainstream archaeology.

I like this. Thank you.

It does roughly match with the beginning Medieval Warm Period.

It's also possible it was built against a threat that then went away--invading ruler died, etc. Scandinavia has hill forts that were in use for less than half a century.

You suggested that Siberia was somehow more temperate than North America since it had less ice. I don't think the amount of ice in an area establishes temperatures. Perhaps North America simply had more precipitation than Siberia. Or, and this is less likely, Siberia had summers that were warmer allowing more ice to melt.

Tsurugi's picture

"I don't think the amount of ice in an area establishes temperatures."

I think it does, when the difference is ice 2 miles thick vs no ice at all.
Even so, it isn't just geological data(lack of glacial scarring) that indicates Siberia was somehow temperate. Mammoths and other ice age mammals have been found frozen in Siberian tundra with many different species of flowering plants in their stomachs--flowering plants that do not grow in arctic conditions.

Siberia had a temperate climate during the period the writer mentioned. No permanent ice at that time, and no permafrost. According to a number of recent studies, it appears the change to "todays" conditions was quite sudden.

How about a summer time annual conference center located in neutral territory for all of the nomadic tribe leaders?

All the theories are possible but the builders lack of familiarity with the permafrost seems  a bit off.

From how far away  the builders must have come then to be unfamiliar with permafrost. 

Sunny Young

Human feet are a Buddhist symbol. They are supposed to be the primary image of the Buddha that predate making statues of him. It may be possible the human feet tablets relate to this.
For some visuals, google Buddha's feet and look under images. Note that these are stylized and most contain other Buddhist symbols within them.

I find it striking, age, location, et all. What really jumped at me though was the layout. It looks, to my wandering untrained eye, like a scaled down version of The Forbidden City.

I doubt very much the Russians want to say, "Hey China, we're good buddies, so you don't see 'dragon' settlements or Xia era ruins as any kind of ligitament ancient land claim, right?"

The Forbidden City was what first came to mind for me as well.

This site was built by the Uyghur Khaganate which lasted from 744ce to 840ce, they built that site during the middle potion of their small empire, and it was no longer used after the Empire fell apart. Not all that mysterious.

As for location, it's on the southern edge of what was their lands, and the design looks very similar to a military fortress/barracks.

If you look here ( http://www.longrangeweather.com/750ad.htm ) you will see from 770-790 the work was in an above normal temperature climb then fall, then climb and fall again over 20 years which could possibly explain why the complex was used shortly then abandoned, because the cold weather returned.

They were Iranians, they were ARYANS, they were from my COUNTRY IRAN. YES, they were my people, because they were white, because I am white.

So many great comments! I love it!! I'm so glad to see legitimate thoughts showing themselves. I hold that most of what we know is, very little. There is a lot of digging left out there. And that much of what we 'know' is wrong, for any number of reasons, not the least of which, is that people are content to stop thinking once they think they have an answer. Our world is small, but we are smaller, and while some of what we find seems less so, we are only in the last few decades really allowing the proper questions to be asked, and putting in the effort to answer them to the best of our abilities while allowing further information to change our answers and inquiries. Please, protect the past, it's truth, even if those truths may be frustrating. It is the past and cannot be changed, it HAS happened, to state otherwise is to fail those who allowed us to be here. The great kings who led us up, the tyrants who ground us down, are all part of how we are here. To know better what we have lost, will help us remember what we have to do, to be. Be better, go go forward! And try to remember there is one thing we all truly owe a debt to, regardless our faiths, our beliefs, our creations, our existences, without THIS world, we would not be. Without this world in the future...

That big round tile in pic looks strikingly resembles the device in star trek episode, "Dagger of the mind'.
Hmmm but was this one electrical ? Hope archeologists could laser map the pieces and reconstruct them, see what that um, device was.. Perhaps a cool looking alter..

An archaeological site free of typical items of everyday life or ritualistic activities is usually associated with looting, but that's probably not the case here. In fact, even swift abandonment would likely leave evidence in terms of things left behind. This leads me to think that this place was deliberately maintain in a clean, minimal circumstance: after periodic use—whether for religious ceremonies or political meetings—everything portable to make the establishment habitable, comfortable, and functional was taken away on the same boats that brought it for whatever purpose. That would make the compound worthless to looters or even squatters since it would require quite a bit of ambition by the occasional intruders to get there.

Um actually archaeologists used carbon dating to know when it was built. They were also able to identify that it was built most likely as a monastery around the time that the emperor converted to the Chinese religion. It was actually abandoned as a result of an earthquake and a severe fire.

I looked around wondering what would be attractive about this area and came up with this. At 50.557084 98.014940, 20 kilometers east of Kungurtug appears to be an eroded pyramid surrounded by a watercourse. What appears to be a natural circular formation starts to look like an eroded 4 sided pyramid as you come in closer. It reminds of the ones in China. It looks roughly to be 400 x 400 meters. There is a village almost half way between Kungurtug and the suspicious mound. Also Por Bajin sits on the northeast corner of a quite remarkable looking mountain range. Probably host to monasteries and such.

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