Ice Maiden triggers mother of all disputes in Siberia

High in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia, where Shamans still practise their ancient rites and most people are descended from Asiatic nomads, there is a whiff of revolt in the air.

Local officials, urged on by the increasingly militant electorate, are collecting signatures, writing petitions and demanding audiences with regional political leaders.

Their demands are simple and have nothing to do with the inept rule, poverty, corruption and ecological disasters dogging the region.

They want a 2,500-year-old mummy, found by Russian archaeologists 11 years ago and being studied in the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk, to be reinterred without delay.

Egged on by powerful shamans who local people believe act as go-betweens with the heavenly spirits, they say only the mummy’s reburial will put an end to a rash of earthquakes and other problems assailing the region.

The mummy in question is an archaeological jewel. When her ornately tattooed body was found entombed in ice in an ancient burial chamber, the find was acclaimed as one of the most important in Russia’s recent history.

The Ice Maiden, as she was dubbed, had survived almost intact in the permafrost of the southern Siberian mountains, surrounded by a burial sacrifice of six horses in gilt harnesses.

Now the battle lines over her future are being drawn up. The fight pits modern Russian science against the ancient beliefs of the Altai people who lived in the region for centuries before Russian colonisers arrived 300 years ago.

It is also at the heart of strained relations between Moscow, often seen as high-handed and out of touch, and the many indigenous peoples of Russia, growing in self-confidence and demanding ever-greater autonomy even as President Vladimir Putin seeks to rein them in.

The campaign to rebury the Ice Maiden began soon after a strong earthquake hit the region last September, destroying many buildings.
Aulkhan Djatkambayev, the head of the Kosh-Agach administration in the Southern Altai region, is a leading proponent of the cause.

“People say the failure to rebury the mummy has brought a string of misfortunes and I respect their opinions,” he said. “It is not only a question of earthquakes, but there is a rising incidence of suicide and sickness.

“I respect science but we are nomads not scientists and every people has the right to its own level of understanding. Only by reburying the mummy can we lay the spirits to rest and calm people’s fears.”

The Russian scientists studying the mummy in Novosibirsk, some 400 miles north, scorn such talk.

Vyacheslav Molodin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose wife discovered the Ice Maiden, said that during the 1990s when funding was scarce, scientists at the research centre even gave some of their pay for expensive conservation materials.

He said: “Burying the mummy would make us a laughing stock of the world scientific community. As for the earthquakes, the Altai has always been a high-risk zone and earthquakes are nothing unusual there.”

The discovery of the Ice Maiden was of great scientific importance. By studying her, archaeologists have been able to piece together much about a little-known people called the Pazyryks, fierce nomadic fighters and skilled horsemen who lived in the first millennium before Christ.

Previously historians had been forced to rely almost exclusively on the writings of Herodotus, who was fascinated by these warrior-nomads who grazed their herds at the ancient historical gateway known locally as the Pastures of Heaven. Today it is the point where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan meet.

Herodotus wrote of virgin warriors, some of whom cut off a breast to make them better archers. He wrote: “No maiden may marry until she has killed a man of the enemy. Some die old women, unmarried, because they cannot fulfil the law.”

The Ice Maiden, who died when she was about 25, was certainly an important member of society, though probably not a warrior or a princess, as local people claim, but a story-teller, a highly revered position in nomadic culture.

She was buried in a long coffin made of larch and a table was set out with horse-meat and mutton to accompany her into the afterlife. She worea tall wooden headdress and coriander seeds were sprinkled around her.

There were many such burial sites but most were ruined by grave-robbers during the Dark Ages. The Ice Maiden survived only because looters did not search further after finding another body buried on top of her coffin. She was preserved because her body had been stuffed with peat and bark and ice seeped into the grave.

Even the most sceptical admitted that during the work to excavate her there were suspicions of strange forces at work. Jeanne Smoot, an American archaeologist at the dig, told of a sense of foreboding that plagued the team, and frequent nightmares.

When they took the mummy to Novosibirsk, their helicopter’s engine failed and it crash-landed. On arrival, the body was almost ruined when it was placed in a freezer that had been used to store cheese and began to develop fungi. The Ice Maiden was saved only when she was rushed to Moscow for treatment by the embalmers who worked on Lenin’s body.

In Gorno-Altaisk, the shabby, Soviet-built capital of the stunningly beautiful Altai region, talk of ill fortune shadowing the Ice Maiden comes as no surprise.

At the local market, traders said that until she was laid to rest bad luck would continue.

Tatyana Kazantseva, 48, said: “Our princess must be reburied immediately, everybody here agrees. Having her in a laboratory might be good for the scientists but it has brought only bad for us.”

The director of the ethnographic museum, Rima Yerkinova, said: “Personally I am torn. As the director of the museum, I feel she must be returned to us to be put on display for our people to see. But something inside me says she should be reburied. It is the belief of our people.”
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