Archaeologists Piece Together Rich Past of Russia's Altai Region Stone Images Dating from the Bronze Age Shed Light on a Time of Nomadic Hunters and Ancient Rituals

By Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1996 | Go to article overview

Archaeologists Piece Together Rich Past of Russia's Altai Region Stone Images Dating from the Bronze Age Shed Light on a Time of Nomadic Hunters and Ancient Rituals


Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Russia's Altai region spans a remote corner of Siberia, hard by the high plateaux of outer Mongolia. It is a rocky and often colorless land, home to narrow valleys and limited pasture that encouraged a nomadic culture, one that endured for millenia.

But its barren landscape belies a rich history. Bronze-Age stone carvings and burial sites have captivated archaeologists with evidence of influences from ancient tribes of Europe as well as a longstanding practice of spirit worship that has carried forth into modern times.

"This is the richest archaeological zone in Russia" says Vladimir Kubarev, an archaeologist who has explored the region for the past 20 years. "Many periods here are still blank spots - not because nobody lived here then, but just because we have not yet found their traces."

The distant past has stayed alive, and come alive, in dramatic ways in the Altai. Three years ago, archaeologists uncovered the mummified corpse of a young woman that had been preserved for 2,500 years in the permafrost of the Ukok plateau, on the Chinese border.

They unearthed hunks of mutton and horsemeat in the grave, placed there to sustain the woman in the hereafter, as well as her woolen and silk burial robes and her six harnessed horses. They also found that the body had been intricately tatooed, a long-horned deer racing up her arm, suggesting that she herself had been a shaman.

"The Lady," as the archaeologists nicknamed their find, was from the Pazyryk culture, related to the famed Scythians whom the Greek historian Herodotus found on the coast of the Black Sea and mythologized as the archetypal barbarian nomads. Somewhere to the east, high in hardly accessible mountains, Herodotus recounted, griffins guarded legendary gold mines.

But the Scythians were not the first to leave their mark on these mountains, and for Mr. Kubarev, other tribes, of whom less is known, are perhaps even more interesting.

Kubarev has been scouring the mountains and valleys here since he was a young man, when he was sent to the farthest-flung outpost of the Soviet meteorological service to measure weather patterns on the Mongolian border. Fascinated by the kurgans, ancient graves piled with boulders, that he found all over the region, he changed his profession.

Throughout the Altai there are telltale signs of the kurgans, where men and women were buried in larch log cabins, surrounded by their possessions and their horses. Traces of ancient cultures here are often overlaid, one upon the other, as civilization after civilization used the same cemeteries so as not to fill up valuable land with graves. .

Often, especially in the more barren areas, the grave is obvious from the boulders piled above it. Elsewhere, complex patterns of small stones, embedded in the ground in concentric circles or squares, mark burial sites. And sometimes a clump of bushes or saplings in an otherwise empty field reveals that below the ground is a pit that has gathered water, allowing trees to grow.

The Scythians buried their dead like that, and so, a thousand or so years later, did the nomadic Turkic-speaking peoples from whom today's Altai inhabitants are descended. Similarly at Kolbaktash, where Kubarev found shamanic rock carvings, 5,000 pictographs etched into the rocks span several thousand years, stretching from Neolithic times to the 18th century.

Across the ages, in different styles, the carvings represent the same subjects, almost certainly interrelated: ritual ceremonies involving the spirit world, and the animals - especially deer - that man hunted.

An outcrop of rock at Kolbaktash overlooks the Chuya River at a point where the deers' traditional migration route crosses the river, making it an ideal spot for a hunter's ambush. And as they lay in wait, hunters down the ages carved into the rock the objects of their desire.

"The drawings started for very prosaic reasons," Kubarev suggests. …

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