Race Against Time and Tide To Rescue Trove of Treasures At Siberian Atlantis
By Svetlana Skarbo /The Siberian Times
Unique necropoli in the remote republic of Tuva, with more than a hundred undisturbed burials from the Bronze Age to the time of Genghis Khan, immerge eerily from under the water only once a year.
This precious archeological site is located at the bottom of the so-called Sayan Sea, an artificial reservoir created upstream of the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, Russia’s biggest power plant.
The precious archeological site is located at the bottom of the so-called Sayan Sea. Image: RGO
Scientists can only work here from mid-May to the end of June, with water daily destroying burials made at sea shores, and threatening graves hidden on the reservoir bed.
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Archaeologists race against time in the six week window when the water level is low. (Institute for the History of Material Culture, RGO, The Siberian Times)
Scientists can only work here from mid-May to the end of June, with water daily destroying burials made at sea shores, and threatening graves hidden on the reservoir bed. Images: Institute for the History of Material Culture, RGO, The Siberian Times
A wealth of grave sites from various eras have been uncovered at the site. (The Siberian Times)
Last year a 2,000-year-old mummified ‘sleeping beauty’ dressed in silk emerged from one of the stone graves.
In this case, the artificial sea - which one day will wipe away all traces of this ancient site altogether - has worked as a blessing, as it washed off several layers of soil and revealed a rectangle-shaped stone construction with the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ inside it.
Luckily for archeologists, the burial had been so well-sealed with a stone lid that first it enabled a process of natural body mummification, and then protected the mummy when the grave was submerged after construction of the dam, on which work started in 1963.
Rectangle-shaped stone construction in the burial 21 with the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ inside it. Image: Institute for the History of Material Culture
The young woman was laid to rest wearing a silk skirt held by a beaded belt with a precious jet gemstone buckle.
There was a rich funeral meal and a pouch of pine nuts prepared for her afterlife, and inside her most intricately-made stylish wooden bag was her Chinese mirror.
Among the young fashionista’s other treasures were turquoise beads used to decorate the belt, a set of much smaller purple beads, fragments of a belt’s ring made of copper alloy and a bone belt buckle with beautiful engraving.
There was also an iron knife with a ringed handle.
‘This site is a scientific sensation’, said Dr Marina Kilunovskaya from the St Petersburg Institute of Material History Culture, who leads the Tuva Archeological Expedition.
Wooden box-bag (with numerous leather pieces inside) found in the burial 21. Images: Institute for the History of Material Culture
Piece of leather with etched design. (Institute for the History of Material Culture)
Broken wooden comb, found in the burial 21. (Institute for the History of Material Culture)
‘We are incredibly lucky to have found these graves of rich Hun nomads that were not disturbed by robbers.
‘We discovered 110 burials at the Ala-Tey burial site, which is usually 15 meters underwater.
‘Another site which was made at what is now the Sayan Sea shore is getting quickly destroyed by crumbling soil.
‘It is called Terezin, and there we found 32 graves.’
Purple beads found in the burial 21. Images: Sankt-Peterburg TV
Treasures of a Priestess or tools of the trade?
Russian archeologists thought that the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ woman must have been a priestess based on how rich was her burial.
Extra studies of the finds led them to believe that in fact she was an ancient leather designer, buried with her work instruments - several pieces of leather and tendon threads tacked inside a little bag.
Not far from this prehistoric ‘leather designer’, scientists found the mummy of a Hun weaver, with a wooden spindle packed in a leather bag.
Preserved in her burial through thousands of years were sparkling glass beads, two stone pendants and two belt buckles made of bone, one with linear and another one with circular patterns, and a birch bark double cover with holes along its edges.
Engraved stone pendant. (Institute for the History of Material Culture)
Leather bag with wooden comb found in the burial 27. Images: Institute for the History of Material Culture
Bone belt buckle, found in the burial 27. Images: Sankt-Peterburg TV
‘Both mummies that were found with fragments of leather, threads and a spindle could have carried a special role in the Hun society’, said Dr Kilunovskaya.
‘Huns cherished women.
‘It wasn’t a matriarchy, yet women - mothers and skilled artisans - were treated with great respect.’
Symbols of Status
The scientists also explain the great attention that was paid to belts found inside the burials.
‘For nomads a belt was an extremely important part of their clothing, indicating wealth and society rank.
'They didn’t use pockets, so all key elements of day-to-day life had to be hung on belts - which in [the] case of Hun women were intricately decorated.’
Bronze mirrors (before and after the restoration) from the burials 21 and 27. Images: Institute for the History of Material Culture
Among the other finds were masterpieces of the infamous animal style with female belt buckles depicting scenes of tigers fighting dragons, and beautifully made bronze bulls, horses, camels and snakes.
Other treasures from the underwater necropoli came from China.
These were silk, mirrors and coins made during the Han dynasty time (206BC-220 AD) which is described as a golden age in Chinese history and culture.
Coal and bronze belt buckles found in Terezin (top) and Ala-Tei burial grounds. Images: Institute for the History of Material Culture
This summer the work at this Siberian Atlantis will be over by the end of June.
Tuva archeological rescue expedition in flooded areas is possible thanks to a grant from the Russian Geographical Society, and help from Society for the Exploration of EurAsia (Switzerland).
Top image: Skeleton uncovered at the necropolis under water at the site dubbed Siberian Atlantis. Source: Institute for the History of Material Culture
The article ‘Race against time and waves as Russian archaeologists rescue Siberia’s remarkable Atlantis’ originally appeared on The Siberian Times and has been republished with permission.