Russian Artworks Painting Ancient Siberian Tattooed Mummies

Siberian Tattooed Mummies

In 2004, tattoos were found on mummies originating from the Khakassia and Altai regions of Russia and now kept at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. One of the mummies had been kept in its original clothes, while the skins of the others had blackened through contact with the air, hiding the markings from the eyes of curators. The images were revealed thanks to pure chance and infra-red photography, employed by the Hermitage Museum for the first time in the quest for ancient tattoos.

Written sources on the customs of many ancient tribes describe the practice of tattooing. The tradition exists all over the whole world, including Siberia. The actual discovery of a tattoo, however, is an extremely rare event. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the bodies of ancient people must be preserved, which does not happen all that often. And not every mummy is decorated with images. In Ancient Egypt, for example, there were virtually no tattoos.

The oldest known tattoo is believed to be the moustache drawn on the face of a man from modern-day Chile, who lived six thousand years ago. Several mummies with ineffaceable images have been found in Xinjiang in western China, though information on them is sketchy. The most famous are probably the three examples of tattoos from Siberia, discovered in the Altai Mountains in burial mounds dating between the fifth and third centuries BC.

The first tattoo was discovered in 1948, during excavations of the Large Pazyryk Kurgans – the barrow-like tombs of the Altai chieftains. Two more were discovered in the 1990s on the Ukok plateau, where archaeologists from Novosibirsk were examining similar, but smaller and less “distinguished” graves. The cold climate of the mountainous regions and the natural ice formed from water freezing beneath the burial mounds have preserved wooden, felt and leather objects, fabrics and carpets, and the mummified bodies of four people at Pazyryk (????) and two at Ukok (??).

The contents of the Pazyryk Kurgans, including the mummies, are now in the Hermitage Museum. The shoulders, arms and legs of one of the chieftains are covered with the tattooed figures of animals. As the three other mummies from Pazyryk had dark-brown skins, the curators did not hope to find any tattoos there. Even finding markings on one of the mummies was considered to be an amazing piece of luck.

In Ukok, tattoos covered the bodies of a priestess and warrior. After the mummies were removed from their graves, however, their skins darkened and the markings disappeared. Fortunately, copies of the tattoos had already been made, while a specially developed procedure managed to restore the original colour of the skin, bringing the images back into view.

Scientists believed that new tattoos could only be found following new excavations of mummies. But tattoos were discovered right in the Hermitage, on the body of a mummy discovered in Khakassia in 1970 (Oglakhty burial ground, 1st century AD). A tall and thick-set man was buried in a fur jacket and hat, leather trousers, mittens and leggings. He was preserved thanks to the dry and sandy soil and the bark framework of the tomb mound. This mummy led to a new discovery of tattoos, resulting in new surprises.

In 2003, the Khakassia mummy was sent for restoration. When the clothes were removed, faded blue images were discovered on the naked shoulders. But were they tattoos? As the markings were virtually invisible, experts from the Military Medical Academy suggested using infra-red rays to “develop” the images. Luckily, the Hermitage had the necessary equipment in its scientific-technical expertise laboratory, where infra-red photography was often used to bring out drawings and inscriptions erased or hidden beneath new layers of paintwork.

The main requirement was the presence of carbon (graphite or soot) in the specimen. Soot was employed by the native tribes of Siberia to create their ancient tattoos. Infra-red rays helped to distinguish between the tattooed and the clear sections of skin, which were equally dark to the human eye. Coming into contact with the surface of the mummy, the rays disappeared in the tattooed sections and were reflected by the patches of pure skin. On the infra-red photographs, the tattoos can be clearly seen in contrast.

Infra-red photography also helped to discover new tattoos, hidden from the naked eye. These were large spider-like figures on the shoulders and shoulder blades, a bow and arrow on the shoulder blade and insignia in the form of dots and commas on the chest and arms. It is difficult to say what these images mean, particularly as no other tattoos have been discovered in Khakassia.

After this unexpected discovery, the department of archaeology decided to try its luck with the Altai mummies. All the time they had been kept at the Hermitage Museum, they had often been examined by archaeologists and biologists and subjected to X-ray research. If there were tattoos, they ought to have been discovered long ago.

The mummies were photographed in sections, from head to foot. The first fragment was the face of the man from the Fifth Pazyryk Kurgan, which turned out to have no tattoos. The following section, however, covering the neck and shoulders, revealed a tiger’s head in profile. Tattoos had also been made on the arms, legs, back and even on the chieftain’s buttocks. Although only the arms of the women were tattooed, even their fingers had markings. The Pazyryk mummies were covered in the figures of fantastic animals, tigers, deer, elk, wild boar, cockerels and grouses. Static on wooden utensils and pieces of felt, these images came to life on the human body, set in motion by the slightest tension of the muscles.

The tattoos are very similar on all the Altai mummies. They are created in a common manner – the Altai version of the Scythian animal style – and depict the same characters. The main motifs are the figures of animals or predators falling on their prey.

Ethnographers claim that such images were part of a deliberate and strictly regulated system. Applied to the body as the result of a painful procedure, the ineffaceable images of animals were more than just decorations. They appear to have played an important symbolical role in ancient Altai society. The Pazyryk tribes clearly had a highly developed culture of tattooing, in which their masters demonstrated the highest skills. An excellent example is the scene of animals fighting on the arm of the women from the Fifth Pazyryk Kurgan.

Scientists have still not found the instruments used to make the tattoos – special needles or the thorns of plants. They have either not survived or were possibly buried in the graves of tattoo masters whose graves have not been found.

Tattoos were found on all surviving Altai mummies. The discovery of markings on the mummies from Khakassia suggests that tattooing was a widespread phenomenon in ancient Siberia.

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