Earthquakes and Excavations

The information presented by archaeologists on the Pazyryk mummies is indeed extremely interesting and the work they have carried out highly professional within their field. However, several questions remain unanswered by the archaeological world. Firstly, how can one explain the magnitude of the energy surrounding her body after so many years? Secondly, why do so many people feel that her excavation in particular is a tragedy beyond words, and thirdly, what is it about her that so links her to the present time, Altai land and culture causing the Altai people to identify with her so strongly?

It seems every Altai person is aware of the excavation of this particular Pazyryk mummy. There is huge concern for the fact that she was excavated, fear and foreboding of the consequences and frustration at being ignored by the political and archaeological worlds regarding the question of her repatriation. Spiritual leaders from all over the Republic have held meetings and conferences to discuss how the consequences might be averted and how to go about returning her remains to the original burial ground. Whole regions have written letters to the former Russian president Putin asking for his support in the repatriation of her remains. It is generally believed that this particular woman should never have been touched. Twelve years after her original excavation she is still at times spoken of in hushed tones and there are those who won’t speak of her at all.

When the Earthquakes began in the Kosh-Agach region close to the Ukok plateau where the excavations had taken place and whole villages had to be rebuilt from scratch many people linked the earthquakes directly to the excavation. Now, the female Ukok Pazyryk mummy is indivisibly associated with the concept of natural disaster as a direct consequence of disturbing ancestral graves.

The position of the Altai people is generally negated by the academic world on the following accounts:

1. The current Altai people has no biological link with the ancient Pazyryk culture and so this mummy can be considered neither their heritage nor even ancestral remains.

2. Their claims to custodial rights are based on the desire to make money from the mummy and any other claims to association are pure sensationalism.

3. The excavation of graves is in no way linked with natural disasters and this idea demonstrates the primitive level of consciousness of the Altai people and their fear before the power of the forces of nature. Political figures within the republic are said to support this idea to detract from other social problems and demands for financing for recovery systems in earthquake areas.

4. No religion has the right to dictate over the interests of the scientific world.

Obviously, there is a lot more behind the indigenous relationship to the female Pazyryk mummy than sensationalism. That the response may be considered emotional in no way weakens the indigenous claim to rights over human remains. In the west we are equally emotional with regard to the treatment of human remains when that treatment runs contrary to our value system. It is not that the Altai people are more emotional than the Russians or the British. It is just that in the European world human remains from the distant past are objects of curiosity whereas for indigenous people the issue of the depth of time does not necessarily temper the intensity of the link.

The question of biological link is obviously being used in this situation as it has often been used in the past to divide and distance the Altai people from human remains found on their land. For an indigenous people however, who place the significance of responsibility to place over linear concepts of ‘time’, ancestral links can be established differently.

The graves and remains of the ancients on Altai sacred land have relevance to the Altai people now, firstly because the current population are the ‘guardians’ of this place and secondly because the oral culture that still lives through throat-singing knowledge keepers tells of the spirits of those buried here as the heroes, spiritual giants and warriors of the past.

The past is totally present in the Altai culture. One may gather around a fire somewhere at the foot of a mountain and listen to a ‘skazitel’, a throat-singing knowledge keeper who sings of the ancient heroes of the past whilst at the same time their graves are visible in the distance! And as the ‘skazitel’ begins his work he becomes a human resonator – the air begins to vibrate, the trees and animals listen in—the whole experience becomes electric and one suspects that the spirits of those who lie in the burial mounds find a voice and listen to today’s blessings to the land they shared.

The ancestors, that is, those who lived on and worshipped this land in the past are current day role models and symbolise a time when the culture was at its peak and the territory that is now called Altai was revered. It was a time symbolic of harmony, prosperity and peace.

In the epic literature of the oral culture there is a recurring motif that at a time when the Altai people need it most, the God-like heroes of the past including ‘Ochi-Balaa’ will rise from their kurgans and come to the aid of the people. Their is hope and expectation that the spirits buried there will arise and come to their assistance just as the Christian world awaits the return of the son of God. And so the suffering that is caused by disturbing burial grounds in Altai is not just associated with respect for the past. It also concerns the destruction of the physical representation of their hopes for the future. Therefore, the link is very much to do with identity. What may be identified as being merely ‘geographic’, simply to do with ‘place’ is rather a link of ‘landscape’ being at the same time physical, mythological and aspirational.

It is of course difficult to fully understand the psychological depth of this worldview but that does not mean that it is not valid. All of the problems and issues surrounding this mummy simply reflect the dominance of one value system over another. Nonetheless, acknowledgement of the validity of similar values was demonstrated in the return by Australian archaeologists of the 24 000—year –old Mungo woman’s remains in 1992, a case in which the question of biological link is totally irrelevant. There have been several examples in recent years in America, Egypt and Australia of human remains being returned to indigenous land. It is therefore surprising to discover that there are no attempts being made to establish respectful dialogue between the Russian scientific communities and the Altai indigenous people on the issue of burial grounds.

The Altai people are as much struggling to gain control over ancestral remains as they are struggling to defend their belief system, farming lands and sacred sites. In the light of their position the archaeological world could acknowledge the special authority attributed to the academic world and the inherent issue of responsibility which lies in the fact that ‘the behaviour of archaeologists in relation to the retention or return of remains has a huge impact on public perception of the legitimacy of all indigenous claims and aspirations.’ Archaeologists therefore cannot be innocent political bystanders.

So what of the earthquakes? Many Altai people believed the earthquake was a form of retribution for not protecting ancestral graves. In the west we live supposedly protected from the wilds of nature. Our time-tables, keys and systems prevent us from experiencing the immediate effect of our actions on the natural world until they reach the proportions of natural disaster. It may even seem ‘primitive’ to many to think that the natural world may become ‘disruptive’ in response to our own actions in relation to the world of ancestral spirit. Perhaps this is because we no longer acknowledge that the natural world is imbued with a consciousness that forms a powerful energetic field. And perhaps because we no longer perceive an interconnectedness between the worlds of ancestral spirit, the human mind and the intelligence within the natural world.

In contrast, the indigenous people of Altai continue to carefully preserve the links between these fields in the form of customs and rituals in order to act as a harmonising influence between the forces of man’s collective emotional, mental and psychic energies and the natural world. Places such as graves are points where bridges have been built through ritual between dense and gradually more subtle dimensions. To excavate such places without ritual is to negate all the principles of the hierarchy of the dimensions within our physical world.

It is believed that graves to this day continue to play a significant role together with other archaeological and natural monuments in the balancing of powerful but subtle forces in the ecological systems of Altai.

Much of this worldview represents forgotten knowledge. However, the scientific community is gradually piecing together the pieces of the puzzle that can bring this traditional knowledge into the intellectual arena.

The timing of the excavation of the ‘Lady’ coincides with the rejuvenation of the traditional culture that is currently taking place in Altai which only goes to intensify the sense of connection with her and therefore concerns for repatriation.

One thing is for sure. The depth of feeling and the debate connected to this mummy has given the momentum for the issue of burial grounds and human remains in Altai to be examined more closely. There is great need for some kind of working group to research these issues on the basis of which recommendations can be made for future negotitaion and collaboration between representatives of different cultures.

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