Reconstruction of the funeral ceremony.

Unravelling the Events Surrounding the Frozen Burial of a Pazyryk Noblewoman


Twenty years ago, on the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains, one of the greatest discoveries of the national archaeology of the late 20th century was made in Russia: an intact “frozen” burial of Pazyryk culture dated to 5th-3rd century B.C., which contained a mummy of a noble woman.

Tumulus 1 of Ak-Alakha 3 burial ground, built of stones, was 18 meters in diameter. Such kurgans are considered medium-size in the Pazyryk culture (small kurgans are approximately 5—12 meters and the large ones can be up to 60 meters). The kurgan stones had been used for modern construction works; therefore, the mound had been destroyed. Next to it was a kurgan of a smaller size, whose mound had also been damaged. Its investigation showed that it belonged to the Turkic time.

Excavation still. The cover has been removed; below is ice. The person taking pictures is Charles O’Rear.

Excavation still. The cover has been removed; below is ice. The person taking pictures is Charles O’Rear. Photo by V. Mylnikov. Courtesy of SCIENCE First Hand.

All the work of removing the remains of the mound and clearing the kurgan area was done by hand. In the less damaged eastern part, we managed to trace the structure of the mound: a compact layer of large stones was put in the foundation while smaller stones and pebbles formed the upper part of the burial construction. The edges of the mound were heavily grassed; once the grass was removed, a round wall made of large stones appeared. 

According to the Pazyryk funeral ceremony, a larch framework was built at the bottom of the burial pit, and the mummified dead lying on a block or on a wooden bed was placed on top of it. The mound erected over the grave consisted of stones, boulders and pebbles and was water-permeable. Summer and autumn rains flooded the larch sepulchral vaults; the water froze during the winter and often did not melt in the summer. The permafrost rocks, which occur in the Ukok region, are known to have existed there for ages; they are of intermittent and insular nature and spread over approximately 60—80% of the entire area. The permafrost soils are about three meters deep, and the depth of the burial pits is the same. It was impossible to dig a deeper pit—even modern iron spades rebound from the frozen ground.

Tumulus 1 of Ak-Alakha 3 site looked like a typical burial monument of Pazyryk culture. The only distinguishing feature was that it stood alone whereas, as a rule, the Pazyryk burial grounds feature a chain of kurgans stretching from the north to the south.

It was the first undamaged “frozen” sepulcher of an outstanding representative of the Pazyryk culture, discovered over the whole period of its study, which started in the mid-nineteenth century. The first thing that made an unforgettable impression was the fact that the burial-place had been untouched. A man accompanying the woman into the other world “got in the way” of the robbers, who penetrated into the sepulcher through a small hole in the center of the mound; they got satisfied with destroying the man’s tomb and did not notice the large larch vault under it.

a general view and layout of funeral construction inside the burial pit.

Kurgan 1 of Ak-Alakha 3 burial ground: a general view and layout of funeral construction inside the burial pit. Drawing by Ye. Shumakova. The burial chamber of the mound was filled with ice (above). After the ice melted, a larch block with a woman’s mummy was discovered at the southern wall (right). In the foreground, beyond the northern wall of the chamber, there were burials of horses. The walls of the block on which the dead woman was lying were decorated with leather appliqués (below). Photo by V. Mylnikov. Courtesy of SCIENCE First Hand.

The man’s burial-place located at the intersection of the main sepulcher is not at all typical of Pazyryk culture: it is truly exceptional. Taking into account the fact that the man was killed with a blow of a blunt object on the back of the skull, it can be claimed with a high degree of certainty that here we deal with a tradition of “simultaneous” death, when a person leaves this world not alone but in the company of people he or she needs in the other world. Together with the man, there was the body of a teenager, also discovered in the sepulcher, whose cause of death remained undetermined for lack of anthropological material; also, there were the bodies of three racing horses. This accompanying vault immediately shows how important this woman was for her fellow tribesmen.

Companions to the “other” world

Based upon what we know, this double burial was arranged immediately after the main burial of the mummified woman in the larch vault.

After the excavation of the tumulus, all the attention was obviously focused on the female mummy, while the robbed burial and people buried in it happened to be in her shadow. It was time for them to come out of it as they were part of the same story and had been tied (though it was not yet clear in what way) to that woman, whose rebirth generated so much interest.

Above the first human burial in Kurgan 1 of the burial ground Ak-Alakha 3 was the burial of horses.

Above the first human burial in Kurgan 1 of the burial ground Ak-Alakha 3 was the burial of horses. Sketch by Ye. Shumakova. On the ceiling of the vault with the mummy of a high-born woman there was another burial chamber with two dead people, made of blocks covered with slabs of stone (left). The back of the skull of one of the dead showed traces of a blow that must have caused his/her death (below). This grave had been violated by ancient robbers. Photo by V. Mylnikov. The photo of the skull by M. Vlasenko. Courtesy of SCIENCE First Hand.

Actually, judging by the diggings of the “tsar” burials of the Pazyryk burial ground, the graves often contained the bodies of two people—a man and a woman—and it was hardly the case of living a long and happy life together and dying on the same day. Undoubtedly, one of the two was killed to accompany the deceased.

Ultimately, the people buried on the ceiling of the Pazyryk vault had fulfilled their mission: they saved and preserved the incorruptible body of a respected woman. But what were they, inferior and dependable? And who was she? For now, there remain more questions to answer.

Featured image : Reconstruction of the funeral ceremony. The way it was. Drawn by William Bond. Courtesy of SCIENCE First Hand.

This article is an extract from: A Different Archaeology. Pazyryk culture: a snapshot, Ukok, 2015 . Science First Hand, 17 Dec 2015, The Epoch of Acceleration, volume 42, N3

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