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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

Why was it abandoned?

Not only has Por Bajin presented a mystery regarding its purpose, but archaeological evidence suggests it was abandoned after only a short period of use. 

No evidence has been found to suggest the complex came under attack from an opposing force. Political changes in the region may offer one possible explanation, although nothing concrete has been presented to support this theory.  According to Dmitriy Subetto, from the Department of Physical Geography RGPU, the structure may have been abandoned prior to completion due to the builders' lack of familiarity with the permafrost.

For now, Por Bajin remains one of Russia’s enduring mysteries.

Featured image: Aerial view of Lake Tere-Khol and Por-Bajin island. Credit: Por Bajin Cultural Foundation

Sources

Who built this Siberian summer palace… and why? By Derek Lambie. Siberian Times .

Por Bajin: An Enigmatic Site of the Uighurs in Southern Siberia (2011) – Arzhanstseva et al. The European Archaeologist, 35.

Letter from Siberia: Fortress of Solitude by Heinrich Harke. Archaeology magazine , Vol 63 (6).

By April Holloway

Comments

thanks this is where Iran old king (jam-shid, avestan: yama mean twin) flee after lose his kingdom to enemy (persian: zahhak / av. azhi dahaka mean dragon / snake), he left to island in middle of Chinese lake!
it wasn't permament and destory years after build, when soldiers of azhi dahake find yama
now, we now our history more.
thank you

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.

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.

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.

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..

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