Tattooing 2,400 Years Ago

400 BCE (AKA 2,400 Years Ago)

The Pazyryk Ice Maiden of Russia

Perhaps the most famous of early representational tattoos is to be found in Russia, near the border with China.

The Pazyryk people thrived in these steppes and mountains of the Altay region in the sixth through the second centuries B.C.E. They were horsemen whose passion was the hunt, shepherds ready to fight for better pastures, and artists who knew the natural world – a world which included snow leopards, eagles, reindeer – such that their artistic style became dominated by fantastic animal motifs.

Burial Location of "The Lady" (Red Dot)

Burial Location of “The Lady” (Red Dot)

At the end of the summer of 1993, Natalya Polosmak of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, Russia, and her team of excavators unearthed (or rather thawed out of the permafrost) what was the first major discovery of Pazyryk artifacts seen in 50 years. Stone cairns erected above burial mounds in this Southern Siberian region had kept the bodies and artifacts beneath them permanently frozen, preserving intact all organic materials: materials which included leather, wood, felt, and textiles. Here a 2,400 year old burial was discovered virtually intact. Quickly flooded by rain or melting snow and frozen while still new, the well-insulated grave remained icebound for over two millenia. This helped preserve the body along with an unusual cache of possessions. Items included silk and wool clothes, a hair-and-felt headdress, gilded ornaments, and a hand mirror with a deer carved on its wooden back. Tall for her time at five feet six, the woman with her headdress, needed a coffin nearly eight feet long. She was about 25 years old when she died.

Pazyryk Burial

Pazyryk Burial

But one of the most interesting aspects of this burial had nothing to do with the elaborate funerary items but was revealed in the skin of the woman herself. Pealing back a portion of her tunic, Polosmak found soft skin and “brilliant blue” tattoos – only the second case of tattoos known from this culture. On a shoulder, lines showed a mythical creature in a style similar to that of the Scythians, a powerful people from the Black Sea region.

Shoulder Tattoo

Shoulder Tattoo

Drawing of the Shoulder Tattoo

Drawing of the Shoulder Tattoo

Some observers have likened the position of these creatures, with their hind quarters bunched up behind them, as similar to animals of the hunt when they are brought down from a full gallop, perhaps shot or tripped up, with their bodies doubling up behind them as they hit the ground.

As with her Pazyryk male counterpart, we can only speculate as to the significance of her tattoos. Their sumptuous funerary treatment, however, seems to point to an elevated status in their society.

Tattooing 250 Years Ago


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