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Siberia Ice Maiden Guards Her Secrets

For MTThe tattooed Siberian Ice Maiden lying in a display case in the Akademgorodok hall.
AKADEMGORODOK, Western Siberia -- She lies curled on her side in a glass case, her waxen skin -- scarce on the skull -- is partly covered by a white veil, her hands demurely crossed over her navel.

Nearly a decade ago, this mystery woman, known usually as the Siberian Ice Maiden, became one of the most exciting archeological discoveries in Russian history, shedding light on ancient peoples described in the fifth century B.C. by the Greek historian Herodotus.

Now the 2,500-year-old mummy -- threatened at one point by fungi from a refrigerator once used to store cheese -- lies in a small exhibit room in this quiet Siberian town, where a single day brings no more than 30 visitors, if that. Most of those who do come make arrangements with the local Institute of Archeology and Siberian Culture, which oversees the exhibit hall. But studies on the woman's body, found in 1993 in a tomb in the Altai mountains, continue to this day.

"No other body in the world has been so well preserved," Irina Kedrova, a caretaker at the exhibit hall, said proudly in an interview.

The woman's body is indeed almost perfectly intact, frozen in time by rainwater that seeped into the kurgan, or high earthen mound, where she was buried and formed a protective cocoon of ice. Her yellowish skin is smooth and shiny like leather; intricate indigo tattoos, depicting fantastical beasts with flowers growing from their horns, are clearly visible on her left arm and shoulder.

"She did not have to be wrapped up and treated like Egyptian mummies," Kedrova said. "The climate and land in the Altai preserved bodies and [her] people knew that. ... They were very intelligent," she said with a smile, pressing her forefinger to her temple for emphasis.

Archeologists found the woman, about 28 when she died, in a wooden chamber buried two meters underground and marked by a circle of stones. Six sacrificial horses stood frozen by her grave in the kurgan and a symbolic meal of sheep and horse meat, also well preserved, had been left behind, indicating that she was a person of some importance -- a noblewoman or shamaness, perhaps.

Natalya Polosmak, the archeologist who led the team behind the discovery, was drawn to the Ukok plateau where the Ice Maiden was found by tales of an ancient people called the Pazyryk, fierce nomads who roamed the Eurasian steppes.

Her search for the right tomb, located just meters away from the strip of no-man's land between Russia and China, finally bore fruit -- not only thanks to her passion for science but to a bit of luck as well.

"We had a visit one day from a border guard who helped us choose the burial mound," Polosmak said in an interview with the NOVA science program. "Their commander knew all the burial sites in the area. When I explained that I needed a large and beautiful mound, he told me he knew of one within their view. ... [It] turned out exactly as he described it. We liked it as much as he did."

Frozen tombs had been unearthed in this part of Siberia before, but not for decades. When Polosmak and her team opened the wooden chamber, they saw a solid, milky block of ice, which they meticulously melted away with cupfuls of hot water.

Virtually no skin remained on the woman's head when she was found, but police pathology techniques helped reconstruct her face. Her shaven skull was filled with pine marten fur and adorned with a meter-high ornamental head dress, a replica of which is exhibited together with the Ice Maiden. Her body was stuffed with peat and bark.

Among the most telling discoveries in the tomb were the silk shirt and red-and-white woolen skirt in which the woman was buried, which now hang in a display case near the mummy's, the fabric and colors miraculously unspoiled. Swiss textile experts who analyzed the silk have come to the conclusion that the Pazyryk had trade links with peoples as far as India.

After the woman was exhumed, she was brought to Akademgorodok, a small town dedicated to science near Novosibirsk. Through some error or oversight, her body was placed in a freezer that had been used to store cheese, and destructive fungi soon began growing on the preserved flesh, fading her tattoos. The Ice Maiden was rushed to Moscow, where embalmers and scientists worked for a year before returning her to Akademgorodok.

Even in death, the woman has caused controversy, stirring up an age-old debate about national identity. While some Russian experts pronounced her to be Caucasoid, i.e. an early European, their colleagues in Altai -- where the Ukok burial ground is still considered sacred -- insist she is Mongoloid. Now, the Academy of Sciences and Altai's regional administration are in drawn-out negotiations over where the body should be based, Kedrova said.

Although a model of the woman's face in the museum looks unmistakably European, Kedrova voiced what sounds like a compromise: "It is now thought she was Scythian," she said, explaining that this ancient tribe absorbed many different ethnic groups as it roamed the plains of Asia between China in the east and Greece in the west.

In addition to the famed mummy, the exhibit hall boasts a wealth of other archeological material, laid out in three ground-floor rooms of a small yellow house surrounded by pine trees. A glass case next to the woman contains the equally well-preserved body of a man, a shepherd from the same era, found in 1995 also in Altai. Display cabinets on the walls are filled with valuable artifacts -- from stone tools dating back 300,000 years to Neanderthals' teeth and animals found freeze-dried in the Gobi desert in Mongolia.

There is also a prehistoric painting on a slab of rock depicting a blood-red man with what look like antennae instead of ears.

"Star Wars Episode II," Kedrova says with a grin.

Siberia -- and the Altai region especially -- is a rich hunting ground for archeologists. Kedrova said more mummies like the Ice Maiden and the shepherd would have been dug up by now if the local authorities and Akademgorodok's archeological institute got along more constructively. Now the archeologists are running out of time, she said, because global warming is melting away the Altai tombs.

Nevertheless, Kedrova recognizes that the scientific teams have been fortunate to work in such an untouched part of the world. "Places like Altai are very important on an international level because now, when everything elsewhere has been excavated, it is hard to find archeological sites that have not been plundered," she said. "So our archeologists are very lucky."

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