The Siberian Ice Maiden and her tattoos

26 February, 2020

Why did I decide to write about a tattooed Siberian Ice Maiden?

I’ve been watching a lot of videos about tattoos lately. Maybe it is because I recently got my first piercing. It has been my first time coming in contact with the world of piercings and tattoos myself. What fascinates me the most is the meaning that these artworks can assume for some cultures. That’s why I thought to write an article that was related to this theme. I made some researches and that’s how I discovered how tattoos have a ritual function in many ancient Siberian cultures. But what caught my attention the most was the history of Pazyryk people.

Pazyryk lived during the Iron Age in the Altay Mountains, in the modern Republic of Altay. The first written descriptions of these ancient nomadic people were made by Greek historian Herodotus in the Fifth Century b.C. Almost all the remains found during excavations in the Ukok’s Plateau had complex ceremonial tattoos that were still visible on them. Although archeologists unveiled several mummies in this region, the most famous is probably the so-called Siberian Ice Maiden.

A Shaman resting in Ice for 2500 years

The mummy of the Siberian Ice Maiden (or Mummy of Altai) was found in 1993 during an archeological expedition led by archeologist Natalija Polosmak in the Ukok’s plateau.  The woman was probably aged 25 when she died. The Siberian permafrost preserved the status of her body for more than two Millenniums. She was dressed in Chinese silk, which indicated her high social status. This type of fabric was usually worn by wealthy people, as it was very expensive.

In the site where she was buried were also found six horses, a meal of meat and various ornaments to indicate her status. Not far from her, the remains of two warriors were also dug up during the expedition. All these clues led archeologists to the supposition that the remains were more likely to be considered those of a folk tale narrator or a shaman than those of a princess. With all probabilities, she owned some kind of special knowledge.

The Tattoos

It was assumed that the function of these tattoos was that of indicating a certain social status, not only in the living world but also in the afterworld. They were probably supposed to help the souls of people belonging to the same lineage recognize each other. The princess had her shoulders down to her hands tattooed. The tattoos covering her arms represented mythologic animals such as a deer with a griffon beak and Capricorn antlers, a panter with the legs of a sheep and a deer head. The two warriors who were buried with the Siberian Ice Maiden not only had more tattoos than her but theirs also matched the symbology of the drawings on her skin. Archeologists suppose that tattoos were created with a mixture made out of soot and fat, which was then injected into pierced skin.

Deer on the body of the Ice Maiden

According to Natalija Polosmak, it is possible to assume that the body part where the Pazyryk received its first ceremonial tattoo was the shoulder. Almost all Pazyryk mummies with only one tattoo had it on their left shoulder. Another assumption is that the number of tattoos on each mummy was linked to age. The older people were, the more tattoos they owned.

To this date, the tattoos on the remains of the Siberian Ice Maiden are among the most complex ever found on a body dating back to such a remote era.

Controversies

The remains of the Ukok’s Maiden were kept in Novosibirsk’s Institute of Archeology and Ethnography for many years after its discovery. Ever since archeologists discovered the burial, the people living in Ukok’s plateau had been protesting against the forced departure of the body from its motherland.

The removal of the body from the Siberian permafrost was seen by locals as a sacrilegious act. People in Altai believed her removal to be the cause of catastrophic events that took place in the region, like earthquakes and forest blazes. The Siberian Ice Maiden finally came back in 2012 to the Republic of Altai, where it is now kept in a Mausoleum at the Republican National Museum in Gorno-Altajsk.

In all likelihood, I won’t be able to visit the Republic of Altai since I only have one month left here in Russia. But it might be an interesting cue for future visits. Well, maybe I’ll visit this place when I will finally get a tattoo myself, instead of just watching videos of tattoos on youtube for no reason.

If you are hearing the call of Siberia and her vastity, you may appreciate some suggestions for your adventure. Here are some articles that might be interesting for you:

  1. Towards the East  – The Trans Siberian Railway 
  2. Travel Russia: Study Russian in Irkutsk, Siberia!
  3. The Seven Wonders: close-up of Russian Nature

For those of you who want to find out more about the Siberian Ice Maiden, you can read this accurate article of the Siberian Times.

Thank you for reading! I hope I have made you discover something you had never heard about yet. That is pretty much what happened to me while writing this article.

 

 

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Posted by Stefania Di Meglio

Stefania Di Meglio is Italian. She holds a bachelor degree in Language, Civilisation and the Science of Language. She is currently interning at Liden & Denz in Saint Petersburg.

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