Princess of Ukok
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Princess of Ukok

The Girl with the Deer Tattoo

Breast cancer, stage 4 - this is the diagnosis of a young girl with a deer tattoo who died 2,500 years ago. The disappointing verdict was announced by a group of scientists, paleopathologists, who studied the mummy of Princess of Ukok (also known as The Siberian Ice Maiden or Altai Princess, found in 1993 in Altai). But despite the fact that research has been going on for two decades, there is still not much information about this girl. So here, I collected all the facts that scientists have learned over the years.

Today, the mummy of the “Altai Princess” rests in a small dark mausoleum in the National Museum of A.V. Anokhin in Gorno-Altaysk. It is kept in a high-tech sarcophagus, in which a certain temperature and humidity are constantly maintained. Access to the mummy is limited for visitors - only a few days a year. There are many reasons for this - local Altaians are still demanding to bury “Altai Princess Ak-Kadyn”, because they believe that by disturbing her eternal peace, people are dooming themselves to catastrophes - earthquakes, floods and other disasters. They believe that the “White Lady” was the guardian of peace and the guardian of the doorway to the afterworld. And since she is not at her resting place - the Evil breaks loose outside.

Well, I was allowed to look at one of the most famous mummies in the world. Under a glass designed to look like an ice shroud, the girl lays in an embryo pose, with her legs slightly bent underneath her, she is naked and covered with a cloth with gold ornaments. Her clothes, utensils and other things which were found by archaeologists are stored in Novosibirsk. She was brought to the Museum of Gorno-Altaysk naked, because experts did not recommend to dress the mummy, so it will stay better preserved. 

The “Altai princess”, as journalists called her, was found in 1993, when archaeologist Natalya Polosmak took on researching the already plundered Pazyryk barrow (burial mound) on the Ukok plateau in the Ak-Alakh river valley. Her colleagues were rather skeptical about the choice of location, but almost immediately under the upper burial site, Natalya’s group discovered an older grave with an ice lens, in which the shape of a human body was clearly seen.
It was a fantastic scientific and a priceless find! Permafrost has perfectly preserved everything that time easily destroys: clothes, fabrics, and skin. Groundwater, probably from melted snow, penetrated into the grave and froze for centuries. I could compare this girl to a fairy princess laying in an ice coffin, but the body of the Altai Princess, before being buried, was embalmed, the internal cavities were cleaned, the brain and muscles were replaced with chopped herbs, and then the body was covered with a mercury mixture. The whole process probably took three months. Before the burial, the mummy was treated in an unusual way, the body was seated like a doll and moved around many times. The Pazyryks (ancient Siberian people) believed in afterlife.

Archaeologists gently melted the ice, quickly removed the mummy from the wooden sarcophagus made of larch and took it with a special purpose helicopter to the Novosibirsk Academic Centre. The mummy was returned to Gorno-Altaysk from the museum of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography (Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences) only in 2012. For more than twenty years, it has been studied by many scientists - genetics, paleopathologists, archaeologists, historians, dendrochronologists, and facial reconstruction specialists.

According to a DNA test, the girl belonged to the Finno-Ugric-type of Caucasian (Europid) peoples. It turned out, that the quality of DNA material was so good, that the Altai princess could be even cloned if needed. With the help of MRI screening paleopathologists found a tumor with metastases, so the diagnosis was certain and without any doubts. The "White Lady" had a severe illness that led to her death. It was proved that probably during the rituals the girl inhaled vapors of mercury and copper, that would hardly have led to death though, but she got great problems with health. To get rid of the pain, the girl probably inhaled cannabis vapors and  she suffered from  unconsciousness during the last few months. She could mumble something incoherent, and her tribesmen could take it for the voices of dead ancestors, Spirits or Gods.

Also, scientists assure, the Altai Princess suffered from osteomyelitis in here childhood. Cancer was killing the Siberian Ice Maiden slowly, she probably suffered from severe pain and fainting, a few months before her death, the girl probably fell off her horse and received three head injuries. After that, she could never get back up.

When the facial reconstruction specialists recreated her face, it turned out that the girl with the deer tattoo was not very beautiful, her facial features were pretty massive and her jaw stuck out far from her face. By the standards of our time, she was rather ugly, but the scientists call it «the phenomenon of ugliness». Ancient people with anthropological deviations were often considered «the chosen ones» by Gods or Spirits. The girl was quite tall - about 170 cm high. The restored appearance is only 75% real. For a more accurate reconstruction, there were not enough bone fragments - the ice deformed the girl’s skull, and one of the nasal bones was also lost.
She really was not a princess, nothing shows her having a noble birth. The barrow in which she was buried was quite modest, in comparison to the burials of the Pazyryk nobility. In addition, her grave was far from the tribal burial site, which could mean that she was a woman who vowed celibacy. However, she was dressed quite expensively - in a shirt made of white Indian silk with a belt made of wool threads. She wore wool skirt of wine color, warm socks made of felt, and she was covered with a marmot coat. Near her arm, which was entwined with, archaeologists found a silver mirror with a picture of a deer and a scattering of pearl beads. Her neck was decorated with a torc with figures of gilded leopards. On the White Lady’s bald head, she wore a wig with a complicated hairstyle, almost 90 cm high, made from the hair of a horse’s tail. It was decorated with lots of wooden decorations covered with a gold foil and a bronze hairpin shaped as a deer. Nobody knows if the women had to shave their hair in those times, or if it was just a funeral ritual.

The large amount of gold jewelry made anthropologists think, that the Pazyryks were «sun worshipers» and gold was a symbol of the Sun. The girl with the deer tattoo obviously had a high status in the Pazyryk society, most likely she was a member of an ancient cult, «the chosen one by Spirit» or a shaman.

On the girl’s belt there were marble prayer beads with a tassel, in the folds of a skirt - archeologists found a censer with coriander seeds. All these attributes show that she performed some religious acts, possibly Zoroastrian.

And the most important thing. Four tattoos can clearly be seen on the mummy: sacred Altai Ibexes and rams, a snow leopard, they were made with a needle and soot on both hands from the shoulders to the fingertips. The largest of them on the left hand is the deer with the predatory beak of a griffin and the horns of a Altai Ibex, the skin of the right hand was probably also tattooed, but not preserved. The tattoo on the girl’s shoulder is a symbol of belonging to a particular tribe, maybe a kind of personal identification, maybe it was a part of the initiation rituals and had a mythological and sacred meaning.

Right next to the “Altai Princess” they found the remains of six saddles and horses decorated for a trip to the afterworld, and a lot of household items - clay vessels and argali horns (Mongolian wild sheep), weapons, jewelry. She was guarded by a man buried above her grave. The warrior "escorting" the princess to the afterlife was killed by a blunt object hitting the back of his head. He was also tattooed from head to toe; his long red hair was braided. It is unknown if he was the Princess’ tribesman, but similar tattoos make us think that. Absolutely clear, they both belonged to one era - the end of the 4th century BC.

  • Orange fact
    The tattoo of the Altai Princess was reproduced at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The hall of the museum where the Altai Princess found her temporary home was designed as if the visitors are participating in the funeral procession. But the visitors don’t have heavy feelings there. They feel curiosity and want to get answers to a lot of questions. At least one: who was the Girl with the Deer Tattoo?

  • Orange fact
    The mummy of the Altai Princess is treated once a month with the same balms that are used for embalming Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. The process takes about 40 minutes.

The schedule of visits to the mummy in the museum is here:

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society
A visit to the National Museum of A.V. Anokhin in Gorno-Altaysk is recommended by the Russian geographical society.
To see the beauty of Altai, to learn about local traditions and have a real adventure will help the host tour operator in Altai - LB Tour.

You can see the photo report about Altai Krai and Gorny Altai here.

Also read about Altai:
The most beautiful places in Altai
The most beautiful places of the Altai Mountains
A female Blacksmith: The Mother-anvil
Karakol Valley: Protected by Spirits
Looking for a snow leopard

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

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