Research into how ancient humans lived still has the power to intrigue us. After all, artifacts from the past may seem strange, but sometimes they’re also strangely familiar. Take the story of the Siberian Ice Maiden, for example. In some ways, she was more contemporary than she could have ever realized.
In 1993 archeologist Natalia Polosmak discovered the Siberian Ice Maiden while exploring the tombs of Siberia’s Pazyryk people. In fact, the Ice Maiden’s tomb was frozen in a block of ice, which meant that its contents had been preserved for thousands of years.
Plus, unlike most tombs scattered around Siberia’s Ukok region, this one was laden with an extraordinary number of gifts. For instance, someone had set two warriors and half a dozen horses beside the mummified body. Perhaps, then, these signified galloping into the afterlife.
Whatever the meaning, some dubbed the frozen woman the Siberian Ice Maiden, while others called her the Princess of Ukok. It’s thought that she died around the age of 25. But despite her tender age, she may in fact have occupied an honored place among her fellow Pazyryk people.
Indeed, the way her tomb had been adorned brought to mind the resting place of an Egyptian pharaoh. And while she was dubbed a princess, scientists think that she could have actually been some kind of shaman.
Besides the horses were other items that indicated status. Specifically, these included gold-covered wooden jewelry, a mirror in a wooden frame and, intriguingly, coriander seeds. And so scientists removed the body for further study.
It was then that they found a series of deep black markings on the princess’ person. In fact, these markings were exotic-looking tattoos featuring animals from mythology. For example, the tattoos included a deer with a bird’s beak and the signature shape of Capricorn’s antlers.
Strangely, the 2,500-year-old tattoos had been extremely well preserved. And the permafrost layer, which had built up as water seeped into the Ice Maiden’s tomb, is thought to be behind the preservation.
But why did ancient Siberians get tattoos? Well, for the same reasons people do today, according to Dr. Polosmak. “I think we have not moved far from Pazyryks in how the tattoos are made,” she explained to The Siberian Times. “It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible.”
Tattoos, Dr. Polosmak continued, were a way for people to “express some thoughts and to define one’s position both in society and in the world.” And it’s believed that tattoos also communicated someone’s social status and age.
Being tattooed may also have been a rite of passage for the Pazyryk people. Indeed, every mummy had at least one tattoo on their left shoulders. What’s more, the older the mummy, the more tattoos it had.
So the reason that the Siberian Ice Maiden had so many tattoos may be linked to what scientists suspect was her honored place within society. Certainly, the delicate and detailed tattoos show that she carried some kind of importance.
This is evidenced not only from the contents of her tomb, but also from information presented by her body. The frozen princess, it is understood, probably died from breast cancer. Yet, as revealed by her resting place, she had managed to undertake a winter migration.
If she had been a mere mortal suffering from an advanced stage of the disease, the Siberian Ice Maiden would have probably been left behind. After all, she wouldn’t have been able to mount a horse. However, the princess was deemed important enough to be taken to the winter camp.
Researchers also discovered cannabis inside her tomb. This gives some indication as to the type of pain relief that she was receiving. “Probably for this sick woman, sniffing cannabis was a forced necessity,” Dr. Polosmak told The Siberian Times.
In 2016 a team put the Siberian Ice Maiden’s body, which preceded Jesus by five centuries, on display at a museum in Gorno-Altaisk. She was draped in fur, which mimicked what she may have looked like while alive, and lain inside a large glass casket.
However, local ethnic groups have called for the Siberian Ice Maiden to be laid to rest at the site of her original tomb. “The dead cannot be disturbed,” activist Akai Kine told The Siberian Times. “And especially they cannot be held on public display and carried around the world.”
Kine added, “After she was dug out, we immediately saw earthquakes, floods and hail which were not known previously.” Could the Ice Maiden have been a “guard” to the underworld and now, without her, evil is free to escape?
Perhaps, though, she will one day be able to rest in peace. After all, in August 2014 there had been plans to rebury the Siberian Ice Maiden in line with Scythian customs. And back then, one local elder said the decision to do so was important in terms of showing “respect for our traditions.”
“Because the council of elders took the decision, the mummy of this respected women will finally be buried,” Kine told The Siberian Times at the time. “The next step will be the adoption of a local law, on the basis of which it will happen.”
So, despite the Siberian Ice Maiden going on public display, her reburial is likely to only be a matter of time. Until she returns to her original resting place, though, members of the public will be able to discover how little we’ve changed in 2,500 years. After all, we’re still decorating our bodies in the same places.