Dropped off by helicopter on a remote plateau in the Altai Mountains, the archaeologists were ready to spend the next month cut off from the outside world, to cook their own simple food and to engage in weeks of backbreaking physical labor. But this would be no routine dig for the team of researchers.
It was 1990, and the team was investigating the remnants of Pazyryk culture, an ancient society that had left huge burial mounds in the Ukok Plateau, a mountainous region about 2 1/2 kilometers above sea level. Most of the burial mounds, however, had been pillaged by grave robbers long ago. So when the team discovered an untouched site, the stage was set for a series of astonishing discoveries. In 1993, archaeologist Natalya Polosmak made an exceptionally lucky choice of a burial mound for excavation. Not only had it been left untouched by grave robbers, but it had escaped the forces of time itself. There, preserved in permafrost, lay the mummified, tattooed body of a woman who had lived approximately 2,500 years ago and had been given a lavish funeral. Two years later, another team -- led by Vyacheslav Molodin, Polosmak's husband and a fellow archaeologist -- found the frozen body of a man. Both mummies were found in a sparsely populated part of the Altai Republic, close to Russia's borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Last month, these decade-old discoveries were brought back into the spotlight when President Vladimir Putin gave the two archaeologists the State Prize in Science and Technology for their research.
Molodin and Polosmak, who are both professors at the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, were not the first experts to study Pazyryk culture. Pazyryk burial mounds, or kurgans, were discovered in the 1920s by the Soviet archaeologists Sergei Rudenko and Mikhail Gryaznov. The Pazyryks were contemporaries of the ancient Scythians, a nomadic people whose traces have been found from Mongolia to the Black Sea, and experts believe that the two cultures were related. Unusually for a cattle-breeding, migratory culture, the Pazyryks borrowed the use of textiles from their settled contemporaries, importing silks and dyes that couldn't be produced in the Altai region. In fact, textile evidence from the female mummy suggests that the Pazyryks had trade links with societies as far away as India.
In a set of recent telephone interviews, Molodin and Polosmak explained how their finds had helped scholars understand Pazyryk culture. The permafrost had preserved objects that archaeologists can't usually study, including "articles made of wood and cloth, and the biological objects themselves, the mummies," Molodin said.
Once unearthed from the frozen gravesite, these unique objects had to be treated immediately with chemicals. "Imagine wood that's 2,000 years old," Polosmak said. "When it's exposed to air and dryness, it might immediately crumble. It needs to be placed into the right environment. We didn't lose a single object."
The artifacts provided boundless opportunities for a variety of researchers, ranging from chemists and physicists to ethnographers and anthropologists. "Our geneticists have conducted gene analysis, and as a result we can discuss the ethnogenesis of the Pazyryk population," Molodin said. "Or, for example, through the hair of these people we can study their nutrition using chemical and physical methods."
There was even useful information in the fact that the first burial site to be discovered had escaped robbery. The kurgan containing the female mummy had actually housed two graves, one older and one newer, with the newer grave situated at the entrance to the main burial chamber. The robbers who had pillaged the grave "found the later burial, robbed it and decided that was it. That saved the main burial, which was below," Polosmak said.
The fact that the grave robbers were near-contemporaries of the deceased suggests a turbulent set of relationships between the nomadic peoples who once populated the area. Ancient tomb raiders violated graves not just for the sake of the spoils, Polosmak said, but also to demonstrate their victory. "It was an act that showed that a certain people had been defeated," she explained. Sometimes, looters were moved by their beliefs in the supernatural. "In their eyes, an object that had been in a grave possessed some kind of magic power," she said.
The tattoos on the mummies' bodies -- a unique discovery in the history of archaeology -- portrayed animals and fabulous creatures, providing insight into the arts and beliefs of the Pazyryk people. "Tattoos are a semiotic system, and there is the most profound meaning in the themes represented by the tattoos," Molodin said. "The analysis of the themes can say a lot about the mythology, about the art, because we also find these themes in Scythian-Siberian mythological art."
Although the Ukok Plateau remains a promising destination for archaeologists, digs there were discontinued in 1996. The government of the Altai Republic stopped the digs after local residents began objecting to the uncovering of the ancient graves. Opponents of the digs accused the archaeologists of various crimes, from stealing the republic's treasures to unleashing primordial curses. Regional authorities have received petitions demanding the return of the mummies to the burial site.
Molodin and Polosmak said that negative community reactions are something archaeologists have to be ready for. The rallying around the "Ukok Princess," as the Russian media dubbed the female mummy, was fuelled by myths, they said. The archaeologists pointed out that the so-called "Princess" wasn't really a princess; in fact, the furnishings of her burial mound peg her at a medium social level. And nothing points to her having been a progenitor of the modern Altaian population, as some profess her to be.
"This is modern myth-making," Molodin said, adding testily that archaeologists were often blamed for political events or natural catastrophes. "Archaeologists are to blame for all the troubles."
Polosmak said that the reaction might have doomed whatever clues about Pazyryk culture remained on the plateau after their excavations. "When we were digging, we saw no one the whole summer," she said. "People didn't know about this place. It had no attraction either for tourists locals. Now it's a pilgrimage destination."
Following the discoveries, tourists, shamans and would-be grave robbers poured to the site of the digs, which had only been used as winter pastureland for thousands of years, Polosmak said. "We were scouting there in 1996 and saw one kurgan near where our camp used to be that we didn't dig. It's simply torn up -- everything's been dug up and tossed about," she complained.
Ironically, the looters digging up Pazyryk graves will walk away with nothing, since the graves contain no treasure in the literal sense of the word. All the artifacts that are kept intact by permafrost must be processed immediately to save them from destruction, and amateurs simply do not have the skills or the equipment. "If they only knew what hard labor it was to obtain these objects," Polosmak said.
In fact, exhausting physical labor was involved at every step of the way. Polosmak underscored that an archaeologist's work is far from the romantic, Indiana Jones-inspired image that many people have. Archaeology students who had been with her during the original Ukok trip took a month to dismantle the huge mound of rocks by hand, eating camp food and weathering the heat, cold and wind typical of a high-altitude plateau. When they had finally uncovered the burial, their month of practical training was over. Polosmak had invited them to stay on another month, but by then "they were so tired that they were no longer interested in what happened next," she said.
Discoveries such as the Pazyryk mummies come rarely in archaeology, but Polosmak said that they make the entire enterprise worth it. "Imagine a crypt that's completely untouched," she said. "It opens up and you see things that were put there about 2,000 years ago, that were not seen by anyone but the people who put them there."
Polosmak believes that the best archaeology happens when researchers can relate to their finds on a human level. Then, she said, "archaeology becomes what it should be -- not the study of artifacts, but the study of people who are gone."