At the end of the summer of 1993, Natalya Polosmak of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, Russia, and her team of excavators unearthed (or rather thawed out of the permafrost) what was the first major discovery of Pazyryk artifacts seen in 50 years.
Stone cairns erected above burial mounds in this Southern Siberian region had kept the bodies and artifacts beneath them permanently frozen, preserving intact all organic materials: materials which included leather, wood, felt, and textiles.
Here a 2,400 year old burial was discovered virtually intact. Quickly flooded by rain or melting snow and frozen while still new, the well-insulated grave remained icebound for over two millennia.
Known as the Ice Maiden, it was ice that helped preserve the body along with an unusual cache of possessions. Items included silk and wool clothes, a tall hair-and-felt headdress, gilded ornaments, and a hand mirror with a deer carved on its wooden back.
Tall for her time at five feet six, the woman with her headdress needed a coffin nearly eight feet long. She was about 25 years old when she died.
But one of the most interesting aspects of this burial had nothing to do with the elaborate funerary items, but what was revealed in the skin of the woman herself. Pealing back a portion of her tunic, Polosmak found soft skin and “brilliant blue” tattoos–only the second case of tattoos known from this culture at the time. On her shoulder, lines showed a mythical creature in a style similar to that of the Scythians, a powerful people from the Black Sea region.
Some observers have likened the position of these creatures, with their hind quarters bunched up behind them, as similar to animals of the hunt when they are brought down from a full gallop–perhaps shot or tripped up–with their bodies doubling up behind them as they hit the ground.
As with her Pazyryk male counterpart, we can only speculate as to the significance of her tattoos. Their sumptuous funerary treatment, however, seems to point to an elevated status in their society.
But, as I’ve noted, the Ice Maiden was the second tattooed Pazyryk individual excavated. In 1947, the body of a fifth-century BCE Pazyryk man was excavated from a similar burial mound.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the practice of tattooing in this area was performed on high status individuals. The dead man’s shoulders, chest, back, and probably both of this legs were extensively tattooed with designs of fish and animals, including felines, beaked deer, and mountain rams.
The original monochrome tattoos were performed by pricking the skin to introduce a coloring agent such as lamp black. It’s interesting to note that there are small rows of dots along the lumbar region of the spine, echoing somewhat those of the Otzi, the Ice Man of the Alps.