Pilgrim’s Pages April 2006
UNESCO conference, Gorno-Altaisk, “The problem of preserving permafrost burials in the Altai”
Unesco have just held a conference at the Gorno-Altaisk (capital) state university on “The problem of preserving permafrost burials in the Altai”. Unesco want to include these burials into the World Heritage List because the effects of global warming, primarily the melting of the permafrost threaten the loss of the objects that may be preserved in such burials. Unesco are looking for a territory on which to finance a research project. Scientists and archaeologists from Belgium, China, Altai, Kazakhstan and Mongolia gave presentations over three days covering everything from DTM modelling, CORONA and ASTER satellite imagery, GPS survey techniques, climate change, geomagnetic pole change, cartography and the semantics of the imagery on finds from previous excavations. The reason permafrost burials are so valued in the archaeological world is because the permafrost preserves organic material such as wood, felt, silk and skin that would otherwise deteriorate very quickly. Previously excavated permafrost burials have proven to be no less than treasure troves.
A document of recommendations had to be drawn up and agreed and tensions ran a little high. One high ranking Russian archaeologist expressed his desire to change the point assuring that all archaeological work be conducted according to international, professional standards, to only allowing the highest ranking archaeologists to take part! (Russia has a ranking system for archaeological position and status). His request was to ensure that only his own group of archaeologists would be able to take part in any excavations. His comment was twice rejected by Unesco. During his presentation the same archaeologist also made the point that if Novosibirsk archaeologists had not been incriminated for the excavation of the Ice-Maiden and associated earthquakes she would long ago have been back on Altai soil suggesting that animosity rather than scientific requirement was the only reason for the non return of her remains to Altai! This academic clearly revealed his political position and I was relieved that his comments on both accounts were obviously unwelcome by the international community present.
The symposium of course was taking place within an unspoken political context. Many are opposed to further excavation on the Ukok plateau where the Ice-maiden was excavated. This has made work slightly more difficult for archaeologists. The UNESCO project seems to be offering them the opportunity to continue their work with the support of an international organisation which would enable them to squash objections from the indigenous community for good, providing them with funds, resources and international justification. The Ukok plateau is however not the only territory available for the proposed project as the Altai mountains run through the Russian territory into Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia.
The highlight of the symposium was the presentation “Frozen tombs/Cultural landscapes” given by Esther Jacobson-Tepfer from Oregon university. Her brilliant presentation, thorough, paced and dynamic went to make the point that archaeological landscapes are also cultural landscapes. The deliberate and specific positioning by man over time of objects within the natural landscape creates the cultural landscape. She also made the only truly relevant ethical point of the whole symposium, that not knowing what the truest meaning and function of these complexes is in relation to the natural landscape, does not give us the right to remove them. It was like a triangle being struck after the silence of an orchestra and cut through the room. Everyone heard it.
Obviously, with only academics and Unesco present most of the considerations raised were to do with tying up the wording of the document and scientific interests. However, there was also an article included in the document where it states that all work must be carried out with respect for the local, native population. That point was swiftly passed over for the next and curiously no representatives of the indigenous population were introduced or allowed to take part in the series of presentations. I would have liked to ask and given the complexity of the ethical and political background I am surprised that no other participant cared to define exactly what that means. It seemed to be passed over as a kind of diplomatic but uninteresting statement. Does respect mean having compassion for the values and beliefs of the local population, or does it mean actually allowing the sacred knowledge that native people carry with regard to these places that may take the form of folklore, legend or custom to have an authentic representation within the scientific and academic process?
Sacred knowledge was never debated or accessed exclusively intellectually. Its accessibility also depends on human integrity, morality, maturity, awareness and the ability to empathise. Equally, there may be areas under excavation where there is no ‘native population’ living within the immediate vicinity—this might be for various reasons. Unlike in Europe where we visit graves, the Altai people consider it best not visit graves or burials after a funeral and it is interesting that despite the strong link the Altai people feel with the Pazyryk mummy there have been no hordes of Altai visitors to the museum in Novosibirsk to visit her as there have been to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow for instance. If the female Pazyryk mummy were to be displayed in the Gorno-Altasik natural history museum, she would be the least visited exhibition piece.
What determines ‘local’ when burial ground may be chosen for its altitude and remote position? After the conference the guests then came to Ongudai and went on an excursion through the Karakol valley where the Bashadar kurgan complex lies. I wondered how UNESCO intended to assure respect for the local population without their official representation!! During the excursion there was an opportunity to speak with the Unesco representative who is himself an archaeologist. He made the point that under their instruction, if a burial plays a current role in the spiritual life of the local population then excavation does not take place and that there is a lot more to archaeology and preservation than excavation but that in the case of all the permafrost melting and the grave contents being lost forever then excavation would be considered reasonable and justifiable.
It struck me that as the indigenous people are not represented in the archaeological world, neither for their rights, their values, nor for their traditional knowledge, that some kind of commission could be set up as an objective party so that the position of the indigenous population and their knowledge can be fully acquainted with and the balance between all interests and benefits be overseen. It was made quite clear at the symposium that the Russian archaeological world at least, is no longer in a position to objectively embrace this UUESCO requirement in their work. More than anything else these past few weeks have illustrated to me just how difficult it is to find ways of sharing and representing traditional and sacred knowledge.
If the members of the academic world are incapable of the mental agility required to acknowledge information concerning the land, what hope is there? It is really so hard for us to think or believe anew, even when the prospect offers expansion of knowledge? No-where was this more evident than in the visitors’ response to the Park presentation. The presentation approached the problems of global warming and the preservation of Kurgans from the point of view of traditional knowledge. The main idea, was that Kurgans are constructed in such a way that they attract solar energy, not for their heat but for the information the light carries and that the human in the burial acts as a kind of conductor, refracting solar energy through the structure of the human body transforming it into a format that can be perceived by human consciousness, and out into the environment. The role and skill of the shaman was to perceive this information and make it accessible to others. The request was that this belief that indigenous people carry be researched, studying the high quartz content in the burial mound, measuring the intense electro-magnetic and radiation fields that surround the burials and acknowledging the information encoded in Altai oral culture about kurgans etc.
It was also suggested that the choice of position for the burial was intentional, the permafrost itself playing a part in the functioning of the kurgan. One particular slide showed the electro-magnetic field of an excavated kurgan and in contrast the similar fields of a kurgan that had been left untouched. The second kurgan (untouched) showed the magnetic field directly above the kurgan in the shape of a “torus” (a doughnut with a whole in the middle). In sacred geometry this shape is considered to be the primal shape of the earth’s magnetic energy fields. It is also the shape formed by the seven muscles of the human heart. Not surprisingly, the magnetic fields of the kurgan that had been excavated had a totally distorted magnetic field. This presentation helped me also to understand why the female Pazyryk mummy might have had such a powerful energy field around her body 2500 years after death. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if her burial chamber had been set up through sacred geometry and the use of powerful conductors to refract solar energies.
The point was also made, that even if this type of ritual constructin isn’t essential to man, it may benefit the earth. What to me seemed wonderful, interesting, even essential…was outwardly laughed at by the academics present. It made me feel physically sick that a group of intelligent adults could laugh at sacred knowledge. I felt sick at the imbalance of power, authority and resources. I realised for the first time why certain esoteric literature discusses the possibility of a back lash in the energetic systems of the planet. There really will come a limit to how much the Earth can take before she either pukes us up or changes herself irreconcilably to accommodate us. This possible process will have nothing to do with how much litter we drop. It will depend on our emotional and psychic condition