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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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MACHU PICCHU – rare tombs discovered

Eighty skeletons and stockpiles of textiles found in caves near the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu may shed light on the role that the so-called lost city of the Inca played as a regional center of trade and power, scientists say.

Researchers found the artifacts and remains at two sites within the Machu Picchu Archaeological Park in southeastern Peru, said Fernando Astete, head of the park.

The remains, most of which were found in May 2008 at a site called Salapunku, probably date to 500 to 550 years ago, said Francisco Huarcaya, the site’s lead researcher.

Due to extensive looting, however, as much as 75 percent of the fabrics found wrapped around the remains are in “bad shape,” Huarcaya said.

So far only the heads and shoulders of most of the bodies have been uncovered, Astete added.

“The head and shoulder bones are seen first, because the Inca buried their dead [sitting] in the fetal position,” he explained.

Formal excavations will soon begin at both sites. Huarcaya plans to exhume the remains of five people at Salapunku later this month.

The modest funerary wrappings, made of vegetable fiber, and the simple grave objects, including unadorned ceramics, suggest that the dead unearthed at Salapunku were peasant farmers, Huarcaya said. Weavers have been found accompanied by their weaving baskets, balls of thread, looms, and textiles, according to Guillermo Cock, an expert on Andean cultures.

Textiles found at the second site, called Qhanabamba, discovered in August 2008, may also provide clues to the social rank of the dead.

Peasants were more likely to have been buried with textiles made from llama wool, while wool of the vicuña-a relative of the llama-was reserved for nobility, said Astete, the park’s director.

“Finding organic material in the mountains is significant because it’s so scarce,” he said. “The humidity from rain decomposes individuals and textiles.”

Analysis of the bones should also reveal age at death, sex, cause of death, diet, and perhaps even the dead’s occupations, Astete added.

“We should be able to tell whether these people carried large burdens to help construct terraces, for example. Their bones will be bent, not straight. They will have deformities,” he explained.

“Bones will also tell us about their diets and diseases. A fracture would reveal an accident.”

The burial of human remains held special significance for the Inca, added Huarcaya, the lead researcher.

“The remains in tombs are like the guardians of the population in Andean ideology,” he said. “For [ancient Andeans], death does not exist.”

Machu Picchu

Built around 1460, the city of Machu Picchu seems to have been abandoned after the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, though it was never found by the conquerors.

Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham brought Machu Picchu to worldwide attention after local Indians led him to the site in 1911.

The new discoveries promise to shed light on the mystery of the ancient city and its role within the Inca Empire, Cock said.

“We know Machu Picchu, but we don’t know its surrounding areas,” he said.

“I think new material will be found that will help us understand the Inca’s relationship with the region.”

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