Finding remains of ancient people is rare enough – finding them well enough preserved to guess at their daily lifestyle is a revelation. In the Altai mountains of Siberia, in the Ukok plateau, archaeologists have been searching within burial mounds which are permanently frozen. So far, they have found bodies of several people, including two women. And because of the permafrost, these bodies – and their personal effects – are remarkably well preserved.
One of the women – called “Princess Ukok” by the press – was so well preserved within a block of ice that her tattoos were still visible. Here’s a diagram:
All the bodies found in the area have tattoos, and just like lots of us in the modern world, the Ukok people got their early ink on their shoulders and let later works move down and around the body. It’s even a shorthand way to tell a mummy’s age. The Princess was probably about 25 years old when she died, so she has relatively few tattoos. But what she has wouldn’t look out of place today – and the complex and beautiful mythological animal designs would have represented her tribal identity in this world and in the next.
She also probably wasn’t a princess – she was buried separately from the two men found near her, which probably means that she never married – a sign that she was different from most women. And she was buried within a configuration of six horses, all bridled and saddled, suggesting that she was a revered member of the tribe – perhaps a healer, holy woman, or storyteller.
The archaeologists also found a meal of sheep and horse meat, plus ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold.
And they also found her makeup bag. And her wig. Living in ancient times isn’t as uncomplicated as we’d like to think – the Pazyryk women shaved their heads and wore elaborate headdresses:
This was no ordinary wig – it had a felt base with two layers of human hair sandwiched around another base – it was a pretty solid object. And the riser on top? It was made from felt covered in wool, held up with a stick inside. And the whole thing had ornaments of birds and deer, made of wood, leather, and gold foil. There’s an even more detailed diagram here…
And the makeup bag? It contained a face brush made from horse hair, and a fragment of what archaeologists think is an eyeliner pencil – made from stacked iron rings containing vivianite, also known as blue ochre. The vivianite, which in historical painting tradition is mined from bogs around the Moscow area, was also found in powder form. And analyses of either the skin or the bag showed that the Pazyryks used complicated fat-based facial masks to protect their skin from the harsh Siberian cold.
What’s also amazing about this find is from how faraway some of the items the woman owned came from: much of her clothing was predictably made from wool felt or leather, but her shirts were made of silk, probably from Assam or India. And some of the dyes used can only be from the Mediterranean. This was hundreds of years before the “Silk Road” or Alexander the Great – a tribal fusion of international style.
Of course, we can’t know exactly what “Princess Ukok’s” life was like, but imagining it is easier with all this evidence. And she still has her admirers: the archaeologists, of course, and also the current residents of Altai, many of whom believe that she should never have been excavated. The controversy raged for over a decade as scientists studied the bodies they found, and the residents declared the region off-limits to further excavation, citing tremors caused by the angry spirits of their ancestors. Finally, in 2012, the the Princess has been brought home – her body was preserved by the same methods used to preserve Lenin – and a suitable climate-controlled museum is being built in Gorno-Altaisk to house her and her artifacts.
But some things never change – we wear our identity and status through personal ornamentation, at least some of the time – even if the “Princess” never knew that she’d be showing us her finery in the 21st century. We’re so not nomadic now, but if we were buried with object signifying our status, what would they be?