Archaeologists Piece Together Rich Past of Russia's Altai Region
Stone images dating from the Bronze Age shed light on a time of nomadic hunters and ancient rituals
SEMINSKY PASS, ALTAI, RUSSIA — Russia's Altai region spans a remote corner of Siberia, hard by the high plateaux of outer Mongolia. It is a rocky and often colorless land, home to narrow valleys and limited pasture that encouraged a nomadic culture, one that endured for millenia.
But its barren landscape belies a rich history. Bronze-Age stone carvings and burial sites have captivated archaeologists with evidence of influences from ancient tribes of Europe as well as a longstanding practice of spirit worship that has carried forth into modern times.
"This is the richest archaeological zone in Russia" says Vladimir Kubarev, an archaeologist who has explored the region for the past 20 years. "Many periods here are still blank spots - not because nobody lived here then, but just because we have not yet found their traces."
The distant past has stayed alive, and come alive, in dramatic ways in the Altai. Three years ago, archaeologists uncovered the mummified corpse of a young woman that had been preserved for 2,500 years in the permafrost of the Ukok plateau, on the Chinese border.
They unearthed hunks of mutton and horsemeat in the grave, placed there to sustain the woman in the hereafter, as well as her woolen and silk burial robes and her six harnessed horses. They also found that the body had been intricately tatooed, a long-horned deer racing up her arm, suggesting that she herself had been a shaman.
"The Lady," as the archaeologists nicknamed their find, was from the Pazyryk culture, related to the famed Scythians whom the Greek historian Herodotus found on the coast of the Black Sea and mythologized as the archetypal barbarian nomads. Somewhere to the east, high in hardly accessible mountains, Herodotus recounted, griffins guarded legendary gold mines.
But the Scythians were not the first to leave their mark on these mountains, and for Mr. Kubarev, other tribes, of whom less is known, are perhaps even more interesting.
Kubarev has been scouring the mountains and valleys here since he was a young man, when he was sent to the farthest-flung outpost of the Soviet meteorological service to measure weather patterns on the Mongolian border. Fascinated by the kurgans, ancient graves piled with boulders, that he found all over the region, he changed his profession.
Throughout the Altai there are telltale signs of the kurgans, where men and women were buried in larch log cabins, surrounded by their possessions and their horses. Traces of ancient cultures here are often overlaid, one upon the other, as civilization after civilization used the same cemeteries so as not to fill up valuable land with graves. .
Often, especially in the more barren areas, the grave is obvious from the boulders piled above it. Elsewhere, complex patterns of small stones, embedded in the ground in concentric circles or squares, mark burial sites. And sometimes a clump of bushes or saplings in an otherwise empty field reveals that below the ground is a pit that has gathered water, allowing trees to grow.
The Scythians buried their dead like that, and so, a thousand or so years later, did the nomadic Turkic-speaking peoples from whom today's Altai inhabitants are descended. Similarly at Kolbaktash, where Kubarev found shamanic rock carvings, 5,000 pictographs etched into the rocks span several thousand years, stretching from Neolithic times to the 18th century.
Across the ages, in different styles, the carvings represent the same subjects, almost certainly interrelated: ritual ceremonies involving the spirit world, and the animals - especially deer - that man hunted.
An outcrop of rock at Kolbaktash overlooks the Chuya River at a point where the deers' traditional migration route crosses the river, making it an ideal spot for a hunter's ambush. And as they lay in wait, hunters down the ages carved into the rock the objects of their desire.
"The drawings started for very prosaic reasons," Kubarev suggests. "The idea was that you killed a deer, then you drew him to reproduce him, that if you drew an animal he would come alive.
"This was not art - it had no artistic purpose. It was a ritual, and when the ritual was over the drawing lost its purpose, so the next time they would make another drawing," he postulates.
Today's hunters rely more on their rifles than on aid from the spirits, but the deer still follow the same migration route as they always did, and hunters still lie in wait for them at this river crossing.
One of them, who put us up for the night, fed us a delicious cut of venison that he had poached and salted a few weeks earlier. And after our meal, he drew for Kubarev the shape of a gold-studded bone instrument he had found recently in the forest while hunting (and then handed over to a local museum). It is something that one of his Scythian predecessors must have dropped a couple of thousand years or so ago.
Every year for the last 2-1/2 millennia, the migrating deer have not only cantered by natural landmarks, but also enigmatic monoliths, standing stones erected on sacred sites.
Some are simply blocks of granite cut from a nearby rock face. Others have been carved into human representations. A few miles south of Kolbaktash, at the head of a valley, where the silence is broken only by the wind in the crags, stands a solitary stone warrior, a dagger at his waist and a quiver at his back, staring sternly into the distance from his roughly carved, deep-set eyes like an eternal sentinel.
His stare is timeless. So is the sanctity of the spot he stands on. For the Scythians who erected this warrior around the 5th century BC did not do so by chance. A hundred yards away, the mountainside is a veritable gallery of rock carvings dating from the Bronze Age, a thousand years earlier.
Though the Scythians cannot have known what was sacred about this site for earlier peoples of whom they had never heard, they clearly saw something in the place. "They may have come and seen that something had been done, and that this was a holy place, even though their purpose was completely different" in erecting their warrior, says Kubarev.
A clue as to just how far back the custom of spirit worship goes here can be found on a rocky outcrop above the Chuya River, less than a hundred miles north of the Seminsky Pass..
There, carved into the stone by Bronze Age people 3,000 years ago, are pictographs of shamans brandishing their staffs, bull tails waving from their waists, knees bent in a dance designed to summon the spirits. These simple but dynamic stick men - believed to placate the spirits, intercede with them, and interpret their will - are evidence that men have been paying their respects to spirits in the Altai almost as long as they have been living here.
Today, Kubarev often finds that local people have placed ancient objects that they have come across - a silver spoon, a hand-beaten iron nail dating from the last century - at the foot of the standing stones. "People don't know what they are, but they still revere these stones," he says.
Not so long ago, local shamans still used some of the monoliths in their rituals. On the high, barren plateau by the Mongolian border, as an unexpected snowstorm suddenly descended from the June sky, we found a gray slate standing stone that bears witness to the astonishing continuity of tradition.
The stone was probably first erected by the Scythians 2,500 years ago, but it also bears runic inscriptions in a Turkic language that was in use around the 10th-century AD. Toward the base of the stone, etched in the early years of this century, are shamanic carvings - seven female figures holding hands in what appears to be a ritual dance. And the women are portrayed in the same legs-akimbo position, symbolic of childbirth, that Bronze Age people in the Altai used in their representations of womanhood 3,000 years ago.
And there are other signs of the endurance of spirit worship. Near the Seminsky Pass, amid a heavy mist, thousands upon thousands of strips of white cloth hang from a tree, travelers' offerings to the local spirits they believe reside there. Into this copse, their footsteps muffled by the blanket of snow, ventured a family of Altai villagers, impassive Mongolian features set firm.
As they squatted in a circle beneath a cedar, one man, his crimson baseball cap jarringly visible in a landscape drained of color, reached up and knotted another strip of material among the many that festooned the lowest branch. Then he sat back on his haunches, head bowed, and appeared to share some food with his fellow worshipers.
After a short while, the group returned to their rattletrap van. The head of the family, Nikolai, was reluctant to talk about the enigmatic and private ceremony other than to explain that "you hang ribbons here when you have a special request" of the spirits. "It's like other people go to church. Nature is our temple so we come here."
Nikolai said he didn't know when this custom started. "But not in this millennium anyway," he said as he climbed back into his van.
In the village of Kokariya, Marat Badanov, a local teacher who offered us shelter from a snowstorm and some lunch as well, explained that despite Soviet efforts to wipe out shamanism, the tradition still persists.
"I was on the local council and I was meant to ban shamans, but I didn't," he recalls. "People understood in their hearts that we should let it be."
He walked over to a cupboard, and took out a pre-revolutionary Russian silver coin that his grandfather had given him, emblazoned with the imperial double headed eagle. Then he took from his pocket a new, post-Soviet Russian coin, with the same emblem, and put the two side by side in the palm of his hand.
"You see?" he asked. "Now the coat of arms is the same again. History goes in a spiral. And not everything from the past is lost."