Face of Scythian warrior revealed

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw. Photograph: British Museum
The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw.
Photograph: British Museum

The real face concealed by a clay mask on the mummified head of a Scythian warrior has been revealed for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The head is on display in an exhibition opening at the British Museum along with the scan, made in a St Petersburg hospital, which reveals that he had fine teeth, a ginger moustache, a pierced ear, a hole in his skull where his brains had been removed, and a savage wound, beautifully stitched and healed, which originally ran from the corner of his eye socket to the point of his jaw.

Since the real head closely resembles the painted mask, the curator St John Simpson assumes that the faintly smiling mask of a young woman beside him, which has yet to be scanned, is also based on her appearance in life.

Her body was found lying beside his in a timber-lined tomb chamber, and she almost certainly did not die a natural death.

Dr Svetlana Pankova with the head as it is scanned in St Petersburg. Photograph: British Museum

The Greek historian Herodotus left vivid accounts of the nomadic Scythian horsemen and archers who terrorised their neighbours from an empire stretching for centuries from the Black Sea to the borders of China. His stories, often doubted, have been vindicated by recent archaeological finds, and he wrote that when a princely warrior died, a concubine was often chosen to accompany him to the grave, along with servants and horses.

“Herodotus says garrotting was used, so that would have been relatively quick and merciful,” Simpson said. “The horses we find in tombs were usually killed by a single blow between the eyes from a pointed battle axe – quite humane, like a captive bolt for a fallen race horse – so that could be another consideration.” He added hopefully: “We do also have to remember that people really do die of a broken heart.”

The man’s clay mask. Photograph: British Museum

The scans were completed and processed so recently that they were seen for the first time in London by the Russian curators who accompanied the spectacular loans from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, including some of the first superb golden belt buckles and dress ornaments collected in the 17th century by Peter the Great.

The exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, also has loans from the new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.

The nomads had no writing and built nothing permanent except their tombs, but fortunately buried everything from their world for the dead to use in the next. The displays include not just the superb golden ornaments and metal work including weapons and utensils, but, astonishingly preserved by the permafrost of Siberia, furs, textiles, wooden furniture and containers, tattooed human skin, horse harnesses and saddles, the oldest pair of chopsticks ever found outside China, and two lumps of cheese.

Their luxury imports from China included beautiful silks so precious that even scraps were carefully kept and re-used, including a piece used to trim a child’s quiver of arrows, found with the masked mummies in the Oklakhty burial ground in southern Siberia. There was also a tiny sheepskin coat, on which the man’s head was pillowed.

The same tomb held two even more eerie objects, which Simpson hoped to borrow for the exhibition: literally straw men, two life-size stuffed effigies, with clay masks similar to those on the real heads. They were too fragile to travel, and are still being studied – but the first x-rays suggest they contain cloth bags of cremated human remains, presumably carried on horseback across the plains until they could be added to the bodies lying in the family tomb.

A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear, part of the exhibition. Photograph: V Terebenin/The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

“When I saw them lying in a dimly lit room in St Petersburg, and one of the curators lifted the head – shedding bits of straw – to look at me, it was an image straight out of some Hollywood horror movie,” Simpson recalled. “I put the photograph on my office door as a way of saying ‘keep away from here’ in the last three weeks I was working flat out trying to get the catalogue finished – it was very effective.”



CLIMATE CHANGE – Sites in peril


Rising sea levels are eating away at coastal sites, increased rainfall is eroding mud-brick ruins, creeping desert sands are blasting the traces of ancient civilizations, and the melting of ice is causing millennia-old organic remains to rot. “With climate change, we’re feeling a sense of urgency,” says University of Northern Colorado anthropologist Michael Kimball, who organized a panel discussion on climate change and archaeology at the World Archaeology Congress in Dublin last year. “It definitely focuses the mind.”

For countless communities, archaeology can be a source of local identity, pride, and even income. “It may be intangible, but when a community loses its connection to history it loses something pretty important,” says Kimball.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of more than 1,000 experts on climate science convened by the United Nations, estimates that the world’s temperature has risen about two degrees in the past century, thanks in part to an increase in carbon dioxide that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The consequences have already been dramatic. The world’s oceans have risen four inches in that time. Weather patterns have also gotten less predictable and more extreme.

Over the next hundred years, the IPCC predicts that sea levels will rise at least another four inches. The worst-case scenario is truly frightening: a 10-degree rise in global temperatures, causing ice caps to melt and sea levels around the world to rise more than three feet.

Archaeologists can’t stop global warming, but they can make dealing with it a priority. That may mean documenting sites before they disappear; in some places, simple steps like putting roofs over melting or rain-threatened areas are ways to preserve them. Action, however, must be taken soon. “Our job is not so much to talk about how to get climate change to stop,” says Giovanni Boccardi, the chief of UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Unit. “While climate change is global, lots of solutions are local–and within our reach.” What follows is a look at some of the threats facing archaeological sites around the world.

Thawing Scythian Tombs
Three thousand years ago, Scythian nomads ruled the Eurasian steppes from the edges of the Black Sea in the west to China in the east. The Greek historian Herodotus reported their exploits as warriors and their drug-fueled religious rituals. The Scythians buried their dead in huge grave mounds that have been rich resources for archaeologists studying how this nomadic culture spread, thrived, and ultimately faded away around 200 B.C.

Though the burial mounds–called kurgans–are found everywhere from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, few are as spectacularly preserved as those in the Altai Mountains on the edge of the vast Siberian permafrost region. Many of these graves have been on ice for millennia, sandwiched between a frozen layer of earth and the insulating grave mound above.

Beginning with Soviet excavations in the 1940s and ’50s, archaeologists have found amazingly well-preserved mummies in the tombs, often with their clothing, burial goods, horses, and even stomach contents intact. “Instead of archaeology, the material culture is so well preserved it’s almost a kind of ethnography,” says Hermann Parzinger, who discovered the tomb of a mummified Scythian warrior in Mongolia in 2006 and now directs the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin.

But scientists say the Altai Mountains aren’t as cold as they used to be. The glaciers that covered the slopes of the Altai are receding and even disappearing. And for the first time since their occupants were buried 3,000 years ago, the Scythian tombs are in danger of thawing out and rotting away. “These tombs are all in an area where the permafrost is just at an equilibrium,” says Jean Bourgeois, an archaeologist at Ghent University who works on sites in Russia and Kazakhstan. “Just a degree or two can be enough to [destroy] frozen contents.”

Mapping and listing all the region’s kurgans using old spy satellite photos and old-fashioned ground surveys is the first phase of an international effort to save the frozen tombs. Bourgeois says the first priority is identifying kurgans that may still have permafrost underneath.

Archaeologists are scrambling to figure out the next step: how to keep the grave mounds cool. Instead of emergency excavations, Bourgeois hopes to work with engineers to find low-cost solutions to preserve the kurgans intact for future researchers. Proposals range from reflecting sunlight away from the kurgans by painting them white to stabilizing the underground temperature by installing “thermo-pumps.” But after seeing the region’s climate change with his own eyes over the past decade, Bourgeois has come to realize that even in a best-case scenario, archaeologists cannot preserve all of them. “They will have to choose.”


Retreating Swiss Glaciers
The summer of 2003 was a scorcher in Europe, setting record temperatures across the continent and contributing to the deaths of more than 30,000 people. High in the Swiss Alps, the heat wave melted glaciers and snow, causing severe floods in the valleys below.

On September 17, a hiker named Ursula Leuenberger was crossing an iced-over pass near the Schnidejoch glacier when something odd caught her eye–a leather quiver that had been left high in the Alps by a Neolithic hunter around 2800 B.C.

The following summer, University of Bern archaeologist Albert Hafner organized a team of glaciologists and archaeologists to follow Leuenberger back up the mountain. There they found a five-foot-thick ice patch 260 feet long and 100 feet wide. In just one sunny week, the edges of the ice patch shrank 20 feet. Over the course of two summers, archaeologists found in it everything from prehistoric leather pants and shoes to nails from Roman sandals.

The finds revealed that people have climbed high in the Alps for millennia, despite its harsh conditions. (At Schnidejoch’s altitude, the ground is covered in snow nine months out of the year.) “This was just the quickest way from one valley to another,” says Hafner. His work also showed that 1,000-year gaps in the ages of the artifacts corresponded with cold periods when glacial ice would have blocked the pass. The fact that fragile organic materials were preserved near Schnidejoch for more than 5,000 years means the ice cover hasn’t been this small since the Stone Age. “I think in the next years if there is a hot summer, the ice will disappear completely,” says Hafner. “It’s obviously related to climate change.”

For archaeologists, the melting ice is both a crisis and an opportunity: the artifacts at Schnidejoch never would have been found without climate change, but as more and more alpine ice fields thaw and vanish, countless more artifacts may rot away and disappear forever, along with the icy glaciers and snowfields that define the Alps. Hafner says he has his eye on other sites that are on the verge of thawing. “I’m very happy to find the objects because they will give us new inputs, but I am not happy about the climate change,” he says. “I’m an archaeologist, but I’m also an alpinist.”

Peru’s Rainstorms
The civilizations that rose and fell in the bone-dry deserts of coastal Peru knew the signs well. When Spanish conquistadors arrived, they noticed its effects around Christmas, and named the phenomenon El Nino, or little boy, after the Christ child. Every seven to ten years, currents in the Pacific Ocean shift, changing weather patterns from Australia to California. In Peru, El Nino means warmer water, and heavy rainfall along the coast.

The difference between a normal and a bad El Nino year can be tremendous. Peru’s deserts typically get just over an inch of rain per year. In 1998, the last severe El Nino season, the region was doused with 120 inches, which caused serious flooding. Water takes a heavy toll on exposed archaeological sites, many of which are located along rivers or on easily eroded slopes.

Ironically, archaeologists have made the problem worse. “If we don’t mess with the sites, water runs off without doing too much damage,” says University of Maine archaeologist Dan Sandweiss. “But if you excavate, that’s the end of them, basically.” Holes made by looters also channel and trap moisture, doing more damage.

Take Chan Chan, an elaborately planned city eight miles square that dates back 1,000 years. Made of unfired mud brick, Chan Chan’s pyramids and palaces were put on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 1986 because they were threatened by erosion. Over the past two decades, the site has deteriorated steadily. Researchers are investigating whether global warming could make El Nino occur more frequently. “There’s the potential for greater destruction if the pace of El Nino events increases,” says Sandweiss.

So far, climatologists can’t say for sure what climate change will do to the powerful weather phenomenon. “The models are all over the place,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climatologist David Enfield. “We’re up against a huge uncertainty at present.” As climate experts work to refine their predictions, archaeologists anxiously await the arrival of the next El Nino.


Sudan Desertification
Local nomads call the ruins Musawwarat es-Sufra, or “Yellow Pictures.” More than 2,000 years ago, the kings of the Meroites–a desert kingdom closely linked to ancient Egypt–built a temple complex 20 miles east of the Nile Valley, in what is today Sudan. Built of soft yellow sandstone, the walls and columns of the complex were decorated with hieroglyphs and elaborate reliefs, covered in mortar and colorfully painted. “It was probably the most important pilgrimage site of the Meroitic kingdom,” says Claudia Naeser, an archaeologist at Humboldt University in Berlin who is excavating the site’s reservoirs and temples.

Musawwarat’s centerpiece was the 50-foot-long Temple of the Lion God, carved inside and out with reliefs dedicated to the Meroitic god of fertility, Apedemak. The lion god’s temple was once in the middle of a grassland. But warming temperatures and overuse have killed off the area’s vegetation, and the Sahara’s sands are creeping ever closer. In the 1960s, an earlier Humboldt University mission uncovered and reconstructed the temple’s collapsed walls–in retrospect, a mistake. “The reliefs suffer heavily from wind erosion,” Naeser says. “The sandstone is relatively soft, and it just abrades.”

Musawwarat is far from alone. Desertification is an often-overlooked problem because shifting dunes and blowing sand cover archaeological remains–leading to a misperception that the ruins are being shielded from further damage. “There’s this belief that sand is protective. It’s not,” says Henri-Paul Francfort, a director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research. “Sand can quickly destroy remains, both because of the weight of dunes and because of terrible winds that erase everything.”

The scale of the problem is overwhelming, and solutions–from hardening stone with special chemicals to erecting protective walls or planting trees as windbreaks–are either prohibitively expensive or impossible because of a lack of water. UNESCO is now considering an application to have Musawwarat listed as a World Heritage Site. Soon, however, there may be no more “yellow pictures” to be seen.


Greenland’s Melting Sea Ice
In a normal summer, Greenland’s northern and eastern coasts should be ringed by an ice belt 30 to 40 miles wide. The drifting ice acts like a shock absorber, dampening the strength of the North Atlantic. “It takes a lot of wave energy to move the ice, and normally water along the coast is very calm,” says Danish archaeologist Bjarne Gronnow, of the National Museum in Copenhagen.

But in the past five years, the sea ice has all but disappeared. Without its floating frozen shield, Greenland’s coast is being pummeled by storm surges originating hundreds of miles away. When Gronnow visited the region last summer, his team was barely able to land their Zodiac rafts on the beaches because of waves almost 10 feet high.

The effect on the island’s heritage has been catastrophic. Hardest hit have been sites associated with the Thule culture, people closely related to the Inuit of northern Canada who first migrated to Greenland around 2,000 years ago. The Thule were formidable hunters and whalers, and their villages were built close to the shore. Today, Thule houses–made of stone and turf with whale-bone rafters–are disappearing quickly, along with buried tools and artifacts. “A meter per season will be tumbled down to the beach and washed away,” Gronnow says. “It’s not a slow process.”

Older sites along the coast are also in danger. As the Arctic warms up, archaeologists fear the frozen turf that covers Qeqertasussuk, a 4,500-year-old settlement where evidence for the earliest settlement of Greenland was found, may be melting. Gronnow–who excavated the remote site for the first time in the 1980s–is headed back this summer, and he is not optimistic. “I’ve been working in Greenland for 30 years now,” he says. “I can see with my own eyes how it has changed.”