Pazyryk is an intriguing archaeological site in the high Altai Mountains of Central Asia. It was used as a burial ground in the later 1st millennium BC by nomads related to the Scythians. The Pazyryk culture (so named for the first mortuary excavation) developed around 2,500 years ago in the Altai region of Siberia (which borders Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia) and came into conflict with the Persians during the reign of Darius (531-486 BC). These burials have been carbon-dated to around the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC (the early Iron Age), many of which are in kurgans (large pits covered in low cairns; roughly the steppe equivalent of Northern Europe’s round barrow graves). The men had been tattooed and their bodies embalmed. It is thought that these burials were reserved for the leaders of tribal groups and that they were very elaborate indeed, involving the burning of cannabis in ritual censers and animal sacrifice.

In 1929, Soviet archaeologists Sergei Rudenko and Mikhail Gryaznov excavated a tomb at an altitude of 1,600 metres (5,250 feet). The Pazyryk site yielded carpets, clothes, shoes, a chariot, mummified human bodies, musical instruments, various utensils and other artefacts of wood, leather, felt and wool. In some cases, four-wheeled wagons, bridles, horses, saddles and/or saddlecloths were included; for one burial, 10 horses were killed with a round, pointed dagger and deposited outside the funeral chamber. Of particular note is a wall hanging discovered in Barrow 5 at Pazyryk, which depicts a sphinx-like (part-human, part-lion, part-bird, part-stag creature) animal and an ornate phoenix and the figure of a carved wooden deer standing on a globe-shaped base (thought to have originally been part of a headdress).

Further excavations on the Ukok Peninsula (this time at an elevation of 2,200 metres (7,216 feet) in the 1990s by Natalia Polosmak uncovered more kurgans of the same culture. One of these belonged to the ‘Ice Maiden’ (also known as ‘Frozen Princess’, discovered in 1993), a 25-year-old tattooed woman who was buried in a log coffin along with fine clothing (often of silk), items made of leather and a tall wooden headdress. A second tomb was that of the ‘Warrior’ (or ‘Horseman’), a 25-30-year-old man who had two red braids and a tattoo of a deer on his shoulder. He was similarly buried, however it is obvious from a stomach wound that he died in battle; this level of veneration for those slain in combat is rather archetypal of nomadic steppe cultures. The Ukok Plateau find was undoubtedly of equal value to the original in terms of ethnographic information.

Some bodies have remained well-preserved as they have been frozen since deposition. This is due to the fact that there is no permafrost in the valleys of the Altai Mountains and the fact that the stone cairns prevented the ground from warming in summer (and intensified the cold in winter). Water infiltrated the tombs and froze the occupants. It is fortunate that they were so well preserved - the Pazyryk findings are being stored in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, while the Ukok findings are in the Museum of the Institute of Archaeology, Novosibirsk.

One feature which merits separate mention is the presence of interesting petroglyphs which are scattered seemingly haphazardly about the burial sites. The origin and purpose of these are debateable, but it is highly likely that these are a legacy of the culture’s shamanistic and animalistic religion (which may yet survive - in traces - to the modern day). Indeed, the religion and artistic identity of this particular culture is enduring and despite the wide range of territory these people occupied, they maintained the basic conventions of their art style and the purpose to which they put it for a substantial amount of time. At some point, though, the tribal identity became so diluted that it is now difficult to distinguish. This area now forms a part of the Altai Republic.


  • Archaeology: the Definitive Guide, various authors.
  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, Timothy Darvill.

  • Internet:
  • (Funeral practices and animal sacrifices in Mongolia at the Uigur period: archaeological and ethno-historical study of a kurgan in the Egyin Gol valley - Baikal region).
  • (Scythian Cannabis Verification Project).
  • (Scythian Steeds).
  • (The Altai Republic).
  • (NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art - The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmation Treasures from the Russian Steppes 12/10/2000).
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