14 June 2013

Dreaming the Siberian Ice Maiden

Last night Dave and I watched this BBC documentary from the '90s about the Siberian Ice Maiden, a mummy excavated from a tomb of the Pazyryk, an ancient people of the region who traveled widely and used horses.

There are a lot of interesting things about the Pazyryk, but the draw for anthropologists is that their region has a large degree of permafrost. Some of their tombs filled with water and then froze, preserving the contents to an amazing degree. The Siberian Ice Maiden, a woman buried in the 5th century BCE according to the wiki on her, was unusual in that she was not a warrior - which some Pazyryk women were - nor a warrior's wife - these were buried with their husbands. Evidence of the tomb suggests she had a high status in her culture: there were many animal carvings buried with her, covered in gold leaf. Her coffin was unusually long - originally the team who excavated it thought there were two people in it. The length, however, was there to accommodate her three-foot-high headdress. Her tomb was accompanied by six horses, sacrificed in order that they could be buried with her.

The body itself was very well preserved. While the skin of the skull was gone, the arms and hands remained. Whoever she was in life, the Ice Maiden had received a number of incredibly gorgeous tattoos. Like all Pazyryk art - well represented in rock art and in the wooden carvings in Pazyryk tombs - they include fantastic stylized animals, particularly this red deer:


According to paleoanthropologist John Hawks, the Ice Maiden tattoo is "the earliest known evidence of tattooing anywhere in the world." A quick look at other pieces of Pazyryk art gives a great window into the ways in which plants, animals, and people flow into each other. To my way of seeing, this is evidence of a culture, like many other native cultures worldwide, with a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all the natural world.




In the BBC documentary, the lead archaeologist on the dig talks about how the Ice Maiden was probably a "storyteller," although the wiki and all the evidence I could see suggested that she was a holy person - a shaman or priestess.

What had my ears twitching as we watched the show were the little details that the people working on the excavation reported. According to Jeanne Smoot, an American who was on the dig, many people had terrible dreams as the excavation continued. It's an uncanny thing, to dig up a dead body, but taking the body of someone so powerful has got to give you the wiggins.

Sadly, I didn't have an Ice Maiden dream last night, but Dave did. I asked him if he got any particular message but he said it was just the same thing he always felt when looking at the untombed dead: put me back. Apparently the Ice Maiden's been saying that kind of thing for a while, through the only means she could: in dreams, and through the failure of an engine of the helicopter that first took her away from her home. (Whether she caused that particular near-accident is up for debate, although in my experience the dead are capable of more than you'd think).

The people I really wonder about, though, are the people who have copied the Ice Maiden's tattoo design - and the design of other prominent mummies from Pazyryk tombs.

See lovely examples here:

And here:


I wouldn't mind doing a followup with these women to find out the impact these tattoos have had on them. (In my experience, there's always some consequence to getting inked, usually positive.) To mark your skin with such a powerful image is amazing, to say the least. I imagine you'd catch the odd whisper from the Ice Maiden herself. I wonder if it's changed their dreams.

The complete documentary is here, if you want to watch it.


Andrew Leon said...

Cool stuff. I wish I had time to watch it, right now, but I don't. Hopefully, I will remember later.

Mina Lobo said...

Wow, the preservation of the Ice Maiden's amazing! She musta been a super important gal to her peeps, to warrant a six-horse sacrifice! Interesting that she's perceived by some as a storyteller...I feel there are those who would easily equate storytellers with shaman/religious leaders. :-) (Hey, that sorta makes us some kinda clergy, don't it, Elizabeth???) ;-)

I'm digging that deer tat, as well as your idea that the living who've copied it have jacked into the Ice Maiden's Matrix, as it were. If you haven't already written anything based on that very premise, it seems to be a story begging to be written.
Some Dark Romantic

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Mina: I'm already practically clergy, so why not?

In the documentary it was the Russian anthropologist who referred to the Ice Maiden as a "storyteller." I wondered if avoiding the religion issue wasn't a political move.

You guessed it...I'm brainstorming here. Nothing like taking your research and making it do double duty as a blog post.

Deborah Walker said...

I'm fascinated by prehistoric culture, there's so much of it! And apart from these tantalising glimpses, it's all up for grabs (story wise).

Have you written anything in the prehistoric era, Elizabeth?

Nikki Hardin said...

Wow thank you. I saw an American documentary on this years ago and it has never left my mind. I searched for it periodically with no luck. So glad to have found this!

Suzanne Dargie said...

Hi! I'm the one in the second photo! I'm quite a bit older now.....but I've always had very vivid dreams all my life, so I'm not sure if I can credit the Ice Maiden.....but I love my tattoo and I have never gotten another tattoo since. I've never found another image powerful enough that spoke to me like that one did.

Unknown said...

Suzanne Dargie, I was really glad to find your post here! I have been researching this tattoo for quite some time now. I haven't had a tattoo yet and this one is the only one that seems to keep jumping out at me! I think I'll join the Ice Maiden Tribe! Cheers!

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Suzanne Dargie! I never thanked you for this comment, mea culpa! I am SO glad you stopped by and I'm equally glad you didn't mind me blogging about your photo. I'd like to think your vivid dreams led you to getting that tattoo. It's so beautiful!

@Laurie Leigh, thank you for stopping by! I am seriously considering joining the Ice Maiden Tribe too! I did write a story about that tattoo, but I am not sure I was happy with it. Maybe time for a re-write!

Unknown said...

Wow. This is really cool. I am so excited to have come across this. I also have one of the ice maiden's tattoos. It was my first tattoo that I got as soon as I turned 18. I saw an image of her tattoos in a National Geographic magazine. I ripped out the pic and carried it with me until I was old enough to get the tattoo. I am 35 now. I do not have the large deer tattoo. I have what I think is a smaller deer, probably a doe. I have tried to copy & paste a pic but it doesn't seem to be working. But here is a link to an article that talks about the tattoos.

The one I have is from the last tattoo picture. It was on her wrist.

When I have dreams they are very vivid. I really can't remember if that has always been or if that started after the tattoo.

sclamaneen said...

If (God forbid) I outlive my wife, I may get a tat (absolutely not an option while she is around though.) This would be a kind of gesture of solidarity with the Dead, whose realm creeps closer year by year. And it would definitely be one of the Ice Maiden's designs (if men can join the Tribe.) BTW, Ötzi's tats are older, but hardly impressive...just a few dots and dashes.