The Pazyryk tribe lived in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, south of the modern city of Novosibirsk, Russia. They were horse riding nomads, traveling by horseback to trade goods with merchants in China, India, and Persia.
Much of their culture has been revealed by findings from the same tombs where the tattooed mummies were found. These findings include felt hangings, Chinese silk, pile carpet, wooden furniture and other household goods, a fur bag containing cannabis seeds, an incense burner filled with stones, and the frame of an inhalation tent. The mummies and artifacts were well-preserved due to water seeping into the tomb and freezing everything into a solid block of ice.
The most stunning find at this site was the discovery of the mummified bodies containing intricate tattoos. Two of the sets of remains are fairly well-known to this day. The first are the remains of an individual believed to be a Pazyryk chief. The man was believed to be about 50 years old at the time of his death, and was strongly built. The portions of the remains that had not decayed contained clearly visible tattoos. It is likely that the tattoos were created using fine needles, which the Pazyryk’s also used for embroidery.
Many of the designs on the chief’s body represented great beasts, including a donkey, a mountain ram, two deer with long antlers, an unidentified carnivore on the right arm, two beasts resembling griffins, three damaged images believed to be two deer and a mountain goat, a fish, a monster, and four rams. Many of the images are intertwined. The chief also had several small, circular tattoos near his spine, which may have been for therapeutic purposes.
The second set of remains that have demanded much discussion are the remains of the Ice Maiden. Otherwise known as the “Altai Maiden,” or Princess Ukok, the female remains have become famous.
She had been given a ceremonial burial in a wooden chamber with six horses. She was a younger woman, with her head shaven, but wearing a wig and a headdress. Tattoos similar to those on the chief cover the body of the Ice Maiden, including beasts and animals.
It is believed that the different animals and images were used to define an individual’s place in society. These represent some of the most complex ancient tattoos to date. In fact, so impressive are their designs, that many people today wear the tattoos of the ancient Pazyryk tribe.
There has been some controversy surrounding the discovery of the Ice Maiden’s remains and their subsequent use as a museum display. Some say that it is highly disrespectful to place the women’s nude remains on display for all to see, no matter how old. Many Siberian villagers want the remains to be reburied, as they blame recent natural disasters on the disturbance of the Ice Maiden’s spirit. They believe that her body was placed specifically to block the entrance of the chamber to the dead, and that recent flooding and earthquakes are a direct result of the removal of her body.
The Pazyryk culture gives us another tiny glimpse into a large part of ancient human civilization. With the sophisticated tools we have grown accustomed to today, it is hard to image how tattoos as intricate as those found on the Pazyryk chief and the Ice Maiden could have been created. While scientists can speculate as to how and why these tattoos were created, we may never know how accurate those speculations are. As beautifully visible as these tattoos are, the ancient secrets behind their purpose and creation may never be fully revealed.