In 1993, Russian archaeologist Natalya Polosmak and her team discovered an ancient tomb at the Ukok Plateau, in the Altai Mountains region of Russia near the border with China.
The contents of the tomb were embedded in ice. As the archaeologists carefully melted the ice, they saw a burial of some very important person – six horses in full harnesses were sacrificed and buried near a wooden coffin made of a solid larch wood tree trunk. Inside the coffin, a body of a young woman was interred, in an astonishing state of preservation – even the tattoos on her skin could be clearly seen.
The archaeologists transported the body to Novosibirsk to carry out the necessary research. But it caused an outrage among the Altai people. They still believe the ‘Princess of Ukok Plateau,’ or, as she was called in English-language press, ‘The Siberian Ice Maiden,’ is the mystical keeper of Altai and the guardian against the evil powers. The locals claimed that the ‘Princess’ was the progenitor of Altai people and must be returned to her place of burial.
Was she really a princess?
A reconstruction of the Siberian Maiden burialThe woman’s body, carefully embalmed using peat and bark, was laid on its side as if she were asleep. She was young and her hair was shaved, but she wore a wig and a tall hat. She was 167cm tall. Some tribal animal-style tattoos remained on her pale skin: creatures with horns that evolved into floral shapes. Her coffin was made large enough to accommodate the 90cm felt headdress she wore. She was also wearing a long wool skirt with red and white stripes and white felt stockings.
The ‘Maiden’ belonged to the Pazyryk culture. The Pazyryk people, a congregation of Scythian nomadic tribes, lived in the Altai mountains in the 6th to 3rd centuries B.C. But how could she be preserved so well?
The Ice Maiden’s tattoos are one of her most distinguishing features. She has tattoos on both arms, from her shoulders to her hands, but only the left arm was well enough preserved to study. The tattoo depicts a mythical creature, an antlered deer with a vulture’s beak, as well as other mythical clashes between vultures and hoofed animals.
Many people in Altai believe that the Siberian Ice Maiden’s remains belonged to a legendary ancestor, and that her tomb was placed there to keep a gate to the underworld closed. They contend that the absence of the guardian has resulted in natural disasters in Altai, such as the 2003 earthquake and this year’s record floods.
The Ice Maiden has been extensively studied at the Museum of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography since her discovery, including facial reconstruction, DNA tests, and other research projects on the Maiden. She was then flown back to Altai in September 2012 to be displayed in the Anokhin National Museum, where visitors can view her through a glass box.