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Nr. 80, 12.04.2014  voriger  Übersicht  weiter  REIHEN  SUCHE 

Talking tattoos

The South Siberian Pazyryk people of the 1st millennium BCE are regarded as a preliterate culture. However, the imagery they left behind is a kind of language telling much about their life in close touch with nature.

Multi-figured fighting scene: Predators attacking their prey. Foto: Magazine »Barkova & Pankova«, 2005

Imagine you were a member of an Iron Age culture without letters, nevertheless wanting to express your religious be­liefs or your affiliation to a social group or class – this might have been the initial dilemma for the nomadic horse-riders living in the Altai Mountains in the 5th to 3rd century BCE.

“It might have been a kind of communication network connecting the various nomadic groups that roamed the thousands of square kilometers of steppe”

One can imagine what they might have done to overcome this obstacle: Use pictures! At least, this is one possible explanation for the extensive image legacy of the Pazyryk culture. From horses’ harnesses to household items, these nomads decorated and ornamented many of their belong­ings with images. They did not even stop when it came to utilizing their own bodies as canvas.

“Most of these images show animal scenes, which is why they are classified as Animal Style”, explains archaeologist Karina Iwe. “This specific art style dominated the Eurasian steppe belt for several hundred years.” As the motifs are similar and frequently repeated, Iwe interprets them as a visualized type of language with zoomorphic elements.

“It might have been a kind of communication network connecting the various nomadic groups that roamed the thousands of square kilometers of steppe”, Karina Iwe says. She is writing her PhD thesis in the Graduate School ‘Human Development in Landscapes’ about the Scythian horse-riders’ Animal Style.

One very impressive example of the widespread use of such images is the fact that all six Pazyryk mummies found so far bear tattoos. “As the interior of their graves reflected differences, they probably belonged to different social classes. So it is likely that all members of the Pazyryk culture were tattooed, and that tattoos were not exclusively reserved for certain groups such as warriors or rulers”, Karina Iwe emphasizes.

In their details, however, they probably provided information about their bearer: “Slight differences in the tattoos, like their location on the body and their extent, can be associated with the status and social rank of the mummies.” For example, it is noticeable that males had tattoos on their back, legs and feet, while females were likely to have them around their wrists. Several mummies identified as warriors were tattooed with similar signs, suggesting this to be some kind of fighter’s label. Like the other images left behind by the Pazyryk people, most of the tattoos show animals and, to a lesser degree, other symbolic icons, such as floral motifs. Among the animals depicted, hoofed, birds, cats of prey, fish and fantasy creatures prevail.

“Close observation of the environment was necessary to create such images”, archaeologist Iwe is convinced. “In my opinion, this mirrors the close relation of the nomadic Pazyryk people to nature, thus telling us a lot about their way of life. They depended on livestock as an important source of food – which was steadily endangered by predators. This is one of the most favoured motifs: a predator attacking a hoofed animal.” Besides the presumed role of tattoos as indicators of social rank, some might have had other functions: One of the male mummies shows two rows of tiny circles on his back, running parallel to the spine – an area of the body where acupuncture points are placed. This might suggest a therapeutic intention. A much debated question is whether the tattoos might have had a symbolic or magical meaning.

Jirka Niklas Menke
Mummies on ice
The mummies mentioned above were found in several grave mounds, so-called kurgans, in the Ulagan River valley and on the more southwesterly located Ukok Plateau in the Siberian Altai Mountains near the Russian borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The Pazyryk culture derives its name from a village on the banks of the Ulagan River. The mummies and their tattoos, as well as other burial objects such as leather, fur and felt, were partly well-preserved thanks to favourable climatic and environmental conditions: The tombs inside the kurgans were surroun-ded by ice lenses that never melt due to the permafrost conditions of the soil. (jnm)
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