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Mysterious Siberian mummies plated in copper
April 16, 2014 6:25 PM   Subscribe

"Academics restart work to unlock secrets of mystery medieval civilization with links to Persia on edge of the Siberian Arctic. The 34 shallow graves excavated by archeologists at Zeleniy Yar throw up many more questions than answers. But one thing seems clear: this remote spot, 29 km shy of the Arctic Circle, was a trading crossroads of some importance around one millennium ago."
posted by ChuckRamone (20 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
My first thought was maybe they are connected somehow to the Tarim mummies that were found in the Chinese desert, peoples who seemed to have originated from farther West, but there are some pretty big differences in the burial characteristics, not least of which is that these Siberian mummies had their skulls and other bones crushed for some reason! That's pretty intense. Possibly a religious thing.
posted by ChuckRamone at 6:47 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Hopefully the attendant spores, seeds and related flora will reveal the climate then, certainly seems like it cannot have been that hostile there to locate a trading crossroads, which roads would cross? etc.
posted by Freedomboy at 7:01 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Those are some very impressive grave goods for such a remote location... if they were a locus of trade, who were they trading with? What were they trading?

(My money's on forbidden Persian texts from banished cults - the arctic ninjen were very keen on such things, well, before the shoggoths extirpated them all, but they could be a little... enthusiastic... when dealing with their fragile trade partners.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:02 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I remember a documentary on viking "Ulfbert" swords from Scandinavia that suggested a trade route from Scandinavia to Persia along the Volga river, that was shut down around the time the Kievan Rus rose to prominence. The argument was that the swords appeared to have been made of crucible steel, which was not available to the Scandinavians. If Scandinavia was one terminus of a metal for stuff trade route running along rivers draining into the Caspian, maybe this was another?
posted by Grimgrin at 7:16 PM on April 16 [4 favorites]


In Our Time: The Volga Vikings.
posted by shothotbot at 7:38 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Yamal Peninsula holds Russia's biggest natural gas reserves. In fact it is the worlds largest gas reserves and Russia's largest energy project in history. It will of course be totally transformed for the better. Places like this always are. Kind of ironic since the gas will go around the world, a trading crossroad revived.

My guess is the location itself was not a trading crossroad, rather the people were nomadic steppe tribes who traveled far afield south during the winter months campaigning and brought back booty for the summer. This has been happening in central Asia for thousands of years, with many different groups, such as the Huns in the early middle ages and Mongols in late middle ages.
posted by stbalbach at 7:42 PM on April 16


Last worked on in 2001(?), according to this 2004 NYT article. Which should make it easier to find copies of the original papers (if they exist/exist in English).

The Northeast Passage is crazy. I was just reading this article on the earliest attempts navigating along the north of Asia from Europe (here, for anyone who wants a map (second page) with Yamal clearly indicated.) Armstrong strongly believes that the Slavs and Norse couldn't have gotten past Novaya Zemlya at the absolute best, meaning Yamal at this date likely Pre-Russian, belonging to a people who

"...unquestionably were hunters of sea mammals, especially walrus. Archaelogical sites at the northern end of Yamal provide the evidence, and have been dated to about 1000 AD. (Chernetsov, 1935)..."

I'm sure they were shipping walrus south to get that copper as fast as they could. Deliberate burial site of the local elite? The idea of more information about this far-flung link in a medieval network of trade is exciting, and it's always interesting to see the ways in which details can accidentally survive the passage of time (Novgorodian birch-bark writing is another interesting example of that, from a North Russian point of view). The only thing that tempers my enthusiasm somewhat is the lengthy gap in research caused by tensions with the indigenous inhabitants-hopefully the issues at hand have been resolved.
posted by Earthtopus at 7:44 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


stbalbach, I would think a population so far north) through the forests north of the steppes and on to the barren land beyond) would be year-round inhabitants, perhaps moving location to follow the cycles of the marine calendar.

The Huns and Mongols both started out in steppe country itself, or right on the borders of it, at least.
posted by Earthtopus at 7:45 PM on April 16


Hopefully the attendant spores, seeds and related flora will reveal the climate then, certainly seems like it cannot have been that hostile there to locate a trading crossroads, which roads would cross? etc.

It's a lot easier to travel on frozen ground and rivers in most northern locations so not necessarily.
posted by fshgrl at 9:43 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


The red hair suggests a pre-Viking Nordic or Northern European connection. The city of Stockholm was founded in 1252 as a trading post and there is evidence of settlements here long before that. People have been living near the Arctic circle for a very long time so this is not remarkable, but IT IS very cool.

And look at the teeth. Wow. A real Hollywood smile on that first photo.
posted by three blind mice at 1:54 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


The site's in the Ukraine. Here's hoping it's not another great piece of archaeology lost in the chaos of war...
posted by Devonian at 4:46 AM on April 17


The site's in the Ukraine. Here's hoping it's not another great piece of archaeology lost in the chaos of war...

One of the comments on the article says that, but it's definitely not correct. No part of Ukraine is "29 km from the Arctic Circle (map).
posted by Jahaza at 5:09 AM on April 17 [3 favorites]


Not in Ukraine (that's pretty far from the Arctic...), Yamal --

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yamal_Peninsula

(Part of Russia, but if you want a somewhat interesting Wikipedia rabbit hole start figuring out the regions, republics, states etc. that make up the Russian Federation. Its pretty interesting result of politics and history, and provides some insight into why some people in the pro-Russian groups in Donetsk etc. seem to be saying a mix of "independence" and "be part of Russia"... end derail)

Also, Google turned up this longer article too though I don't know anything about the site, its home page is missing: http://www.yamalarchaeology.ru/index.php?module=subjects&func=printpage&pageid=216&scope=all
posted by thefool at 5:27 AM on April 17


Zeleniy Yar means something like Green Valley, so it's probably not an uncommon general place name in Russia but the actual Google-searchable city would be named something more city-like?
posted by thefool at 5:31 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


The red hair suggests a pre-Viking Nordic or Northern European connection

Not necessarily. Hair lightening or reddening in mummied remains is fairly well known and is a factor of differential rates of decay between eumelanin (black-brown) and pheomelanin (reddish).
posted by Panjandrum at 8:17 AM on April 17 [3 favorites]


Last worked on in 2001(?), according to this 2004 NYT article. Which should make it easier to find copies of the original papers (if they exist/exist in English).

It's crazy how much of a rehash these new reports are of the NYT article you linked. It's almost plagiarism! The newest info. is mostly that they started excavating again and the pictures, assuming those are even new images.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:11 PM on April 17


I know. It was also frustrating that I couldn't find much in the way of primary sources, with all the most-recent-buzz articles just sort of linking to each other.

thefool's link above is a pretty solid "state of the art" wrap-up as of 2006, stating their conclusions that the dating of the site and the burial practices seem more closely associated with early Ugric and Samoyed peoples up the Ob valley (where the Proto-Hungarians/Mansi/Nenets/Khanty people were separating). Hopefully the genetic data will allow this hypothesis to be tested compared to the Viking hypotheses above.

The homepage _is_ accessible from here, but all of the search functions and most of the content seem to be in Russian. Thanks to thefool for finding it, though.
posted by Earthtopus at 3:31 PM on April 17


Here is a short paper on climate change in Yamal that discussed archaeological work farther north than the Zeleniy Yar site which indicates human presence and at least some domestication of reindeer as far back as 600AD, and cites the author (N. Fedorova) who appears in both the yamalarcheology.ru site and in the mainstream articles. A pity her 1998 monograph is not really publicly accessible, but the copper makes it clear that at some point they had something worth trading with their neighbors to the west or (more likely) south.
posted by Earthtopus at 3:47 PM on April 17


Cool.
posted by homunculus at 2:23 AM on April 19


The article talks about the orientation of the bodies being of possible religious significance because they are all aligned the same way. Is it common for historic sites like this to have the bodies buried willy nilly such that regular orientation would be significant?
posted by Mitheral at 11:09 PM on April 19


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