NOVA’s documentary, Ice Mummies: The Siberian Ice Maiden allows the non-scientific public to share in an important and controversial find. The characteristics and location of the long-dead young woman may suggest just how complex the diffusion of culture and the movement of peoples in ancient times must have been.
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Because of the political restrictions placed on these archeological sites, this documentary, albeit targeting a popular audience, significant contributes to public knowledge of this long-gone Pazyryk culture and the debate surrounding it.
The documentary records the finding of a burial site containing a remarkably well-preserved female body in elaborate costume. The Russian archeologist describes how she arrived at the burial mound with its remarkable contents.
The mound, or kurgan, was evidently well-known to the local border guards who patrol the no-man’s –land between China and Russia, and Natalia Polosmak used their help to locate an un-looted tomb. This anecdote highlights how the successful practice of archeology varies from setting to setting, both in terms of the geography and the local population.
In a different region, for example in Virginia, in the USA, in the absence of mounds or other above-ground structures marking area of pre-contact use and habitation, her procedure might have involved weeks or months of visual surveys, sweeping surfaces for artifacts, test pits, and possibly geo-sensing or satellite imagery analysis.
Although not elaborated on in the documentary, it is clear that practicing archeology in the Altai may involve more cooperation with local people than technology. This point might have been a useful addition to the film.
NOVA focuses on the archeologists as individuals and their responses of modern day investigators to the site. For example, the film describes their emotional reaction to the atmosphere in the Ukok region of the Altai. The American graduate student reported having experienced nightmares and feeling resistance from unseen forces. Including this sort of drama makes the archeologists sound a bit unprofessional, or at least, suggestible.
It recalls the newspaper hype about supposed curses surrounding the discovery of early Egyptian tombs. However, the presence of border guards in this contested area between two warlike nations might have made things a bit tense. On the other hand, this region and its mounds are still to this day respected as sacred by the local folk (when they are not being looted).
The film helpfully situates the burial and the Pazyryk people somewhat in context. For many westerners, the narration and images evoke for the Western viewer an unfamiliar lost world of large burial structures, highly decorative textiles and leather work, as well as the possible religious beliefs and social relationships in which these items were used.
NOVA also details Pazyryk embalming processes, which, in combination with the deep freeze conditions of the burial, combined to keep the Ice Maiden intact. The embalming process shares with Egyptian procedures the removal of internal organs to prevent decay, a waterproof coating, and stuffing of cavities with preservative plant and other items. The materials used seem to reflect locally available resources.
The confirmation of Herodotus’ assertions opens the possibility that his other hitherto discredited claims reflect accurate observation. This connection between classical writings and archeological findings is constructive and supports the continued study of the classics in the modern curriculum
The film reveals visually compelling details of ancient clothing and utensils which may be precursors of material culture and practices seen in historic times. For example modern nomads also use vessels that hang from a peg, or a saddle. Thus for nomads as in other modes of life, the forms of material culture follow the needs and demands of function.
The age estimation through study of skull bone fusion demonstrates important principles of growth and development. Determining her season and cause of death showcases the use of several forensic techniques, including the use of dendrochronology and insect life-cycles as well as testing the way skull bones fracture. All this attention evokes the forensic furor surrounding Pharaohnic death.
Her forensic facial reconstruction, showing Caucasian features rather than Mongolian ones, evoked Chinese official anger, apparently reflecting more politics than science. The art involved is trumped by DNA analysis of her tissue, which also reveals European genetic material as well as Mongolian.
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The film, in focusing more on the hints to the Ice Maiden’s daily life revealed by the burial, refers to other known nomadic peoples in less detail. The inference by archeologists of a nomadic lifestyle is supported by the importance of the horse in the burial, and the design of her implements for horseback use. Most striking is the apparent egalitarian nature of her society, inferable from the elaborateness of her costume and the solitary grandeur of her interment (suggesting that she was not merely a wife or consort).
Equal female status was attested to by Herodotus as well. This supports the notion that nomadic societies may sometimes permit greater gender parity in some areas of life than a more agrarian society. In an agrarian society, land inheritance pressures may lead to customs that constrain women’s behavior.
Ice Mummies: The Siberian Ice Maiden is a very useful recording of a find whose details may not be shared very widely in the future due to the government of China’s punitive and obstructive reaction to the find. Their response focused on politics, not science, and restricts further investigation. Whether the Ice Maiden was a Mongolian or a Caucasian should be less important than increased understanding of daily life in the ancient world. The film does reveal important archeological techniques.