The arctic wind blows fierce and cold on the isolated Gydan Peninsula. On one particular occasion it blew hard enough to uncover a treasure hidden beneath the melting permafrost. At first, just a bronze fragment appeared, but it was enough to have archaeologists digging enthusiastically. What they unearthed there was both thrilling and surprising.
The Gydan Peninsula lies along the coast of the Kara Sea in what is known as the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region of Siberia. It is a remote area, so remote that part of its name, “Yamal,” literally means “the edge of the Earth” in the local Nenets language. The Yamalo-Nenets region covers 297,009 square miles. As of two years ago, it had a population of just 536,000.
Siberia is known for its cold climate. In the Yamalo-Nenets region, the winters can stretch for eight months of the year. During this time, temperatures can get down to -67 °F, although there is not too much snow. Perhaps surprisingly for such a harsh environment, Siberia has a long and rich history of human habitation. The first Siberians date back to 45,000 B.C.E.
In the Yamalo-Nenets region, the first records of the native Nenets and Khanty people date back to at least the 11th century. Some researchers believe the Khanty have been there since 500 A.D., hunting and herding reindeer. The Nenets people (also known as Samoyeds) have adapted well to life in this arctic climate. Even today they continue to hunt polar bears as they have done for centuries.
The Gydan Peninsula measures about 250 miles long and 220 wide. Ending at the Kara Sea, it is bordered on one side by the Yenisei Gulf and the Gulf of Ob on the other. There are many rivers and lakes on the peninsula. The cold here is merciless, and the mostly flat tundra landscape is covered in permafrost, although this may not be the case in the near future.
In Siberia, there has been permafrost for hundreds of thousands of years, but is now threatened by climate change. With this in mind, in August 2016 a team of Russian scientists set out to study the frozen soil of the Gydan Peninsula. This was the first such research done in 25 years. The team included archaeologists.
It was this scientific expedition that discovered a bowl marking the burial site, revealed by wind erosion and melting permafrost. “We were extremely lucky to find it,” Andrey Gusev, archaeologist at the Arctic Research Center, Salekhard, told The Siberian Times in July last year. “Of course, on one hand, it is a pity that the burial was partly destroyed by wind erosion. But it helped us to find it…”
The bronze bowl, or rather a large piece of a bowl, “was laid in the ground upside down,” said Gusev. “It is not clear yet if initially the bowl was intact or a fragment was placed to cover part of the head.” The head belonged to a child between six months and three years old, according to medical expert Evgenia Syatova of Yekaterinburg. “It confirms 100 percent that it was a burial,” Syatova told The Siberian Times.
The turquoise-colored bowl originated in faraway Persia, now Iran. It is thought to have been two centuries old already at the time it was buried. All that remains of a knife buried with the bowl are its bronze handle and sheath.The vessel and knife were used to date the burial to around the 10th to 12th centuries. Both are decorated with animal figures.
A temple ring, along with the remains of fur or animal skin clothing, was also found in the burial. “We can definitely say that this child was not ordinary,” Gusev told The Siberian Times. “He or she was from some wealthy family, judging by the things laid in the grave. The parents could afford quite expensive things.”
The Persian bowl may have been brought to the site by central Asian merchants, according to Dr. Arkady Baulo from the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. “They exported walrus tusks, hunting birds and fur from the north,” Dr. Baulo told The Siberian Times in August 2016. “Through the Kama region they had penetrated to the Ob region in the 7th and 8th centuries.”
“Artifacts from this era have been found in West Siberia before, but never so far in the northeast, let alone in the Arctic,” said Gusev. The Persian-made items would have served ritual uses for the local indigenous peoples. During festivals, they were used as vessels for food offerings to the gods. Persian archaeological finds have been made all over Russia.
Other intriguing burials have also been discovered recently in the Yamalo-Nenets region. Nine were found near rivers on the Tazovsky Peninsula. Of these, only two have so far been excavated. Both were the graves of children. What makes these burials so unusual is that they are not located within any burial grounds and are all at a distance from each other.
The most recently discovered grave was found last year. It belongs to a boy aged from three to seven years old. The grave is believed to date from the 15th or 16th centuries. “The burial was unusually rich for such a little child. In fact, we were rather taken aback,” Dr. Alexander Tkachev, head of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography of Tyumen State University told The Siberian Times in September 2017.
“The child was lying on an underlay of birch bark,” Dr. Tkachev said. “There were two iron knives in the area of the belt, an arrowhead and reindeer bones under the feet.” As well as being clothed in wool and fur, the child wore an elaborate headdress adorned with bronze decorations and rings. There was also roasted venison in the grave.
The year before, another boy, this one in his early teens, was found in the area. This child had white bronze inlays on his burial gown, in the shape of crosses. Both the children belong to the indigenous Sikhirtya people. The Sikhirtya are described by the Nenets as short and fair. They came to the region about 2,800 years ago. Archaeologists speculate the other graves might also be of children.
Yet another mysterious burial site was unearthed in Yamalo-Nenets, on the Yamal Peninsula. The bodies were all diseased, and had been buried in unique fetal positions during the 11th century, one of them burnt. “For sure there are no similar medieval burials,” Andrey Plekhanov, an archaeologist with the Arctic Research Centre of Yamalo-Nenets, told The Siberian Times in February 2017.
Archaeologists say it’s possible the three women and one man in the Yamal peninsula graves were ritual sacrifices. However, who they really were remains a mystery. What is known for sure is that they were malnourished and had hard lives. Buried with one of the women was a bronze-handled knife and other tools, a temporal ring, a bronze bracelet and an animal skin mask.
These are just a few of the archaeological discoveries found within Siberia. Others include the ruins of a strange city on a remote lake island, the possible origins of the ancient Scythian people and the new branch of humans found in a cave in Denisova. With a history spanning thousands of years, who knows what remains to be discovered in this large and mostly empty region?
As the climate changes and the world warms up, melting permafrost may uncover all kinds of hidden secrets. There are likely to be many more intriguing archaeological revelations to be made. However, there’s also the possibility that dangerous viruses may be released with the new exposure of long-dead people and animals. As the permafrost continues receding in the Arctic, we will soon find out.