In the summer of 2018, a youngster called Pavel Yakovlev found what looked like nothing more than a piece of bone. The 11-year-old made the discovery near his village in the Sakha Republic, which is part of the Russian Federation. But when experts reviewed the boy’s find, it turned out to be much, much more than just an old bone fragment.
The Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, lies in Russia’s far eastern region, and it extends for about 1.2 million square miles. That’s not far off a third of the size of the entire U.S., which spreads out over some 3.8 million square miles in total.
This sprawling Russian region also has the distinction of containing one of the planet’s coldest permanently inhabited villages: Oymyakon. Remarkably, a public thermometer installed in an attempt to attract tourists to this chilly outpost shattered after recording a temperature of -79.6 °F in January 2018. How many tourists made it to the Siberian destination before the thermometer smashed to smithereens is unknown.
More specifically, though, Pavel Yakovlev actually found his bone-like fragment in late June in the village of Edey in the district of Namsky. Edey lies some 60 miles north of the Sakha Republic’s capital – Yakutsk. And while Oymyakon may lay claim to being the coldest village on Earth, Yakutsk is said to be the coldest city.
But what of the significance of young Yakovlev’s discovery? Well, the first thing that experts from the North-Eastern Federal University, based in Sakha, were able to tell the eagle-eyed boy is that his find was not actually made of bone. What Yakovlev had picked up was – and is – in fact a piece of ivory from the tusk of a woolly mammoth. The formidable beasts of this species were rendered extinct through most of their range some 10,000 years ago, although pockets of the population survived until as recently as 4,000 years ago.
The extinction of woolly mammoths was most likely caused by two factors: climate change and human hunting. Humans killed the enormous animals for their meat as well as for their tusks. And even after the mammoths had died out, their ivory was used as a raw material for jewelry and ornaments.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Yakovlev’s piece of ivory wasn’t just a random fragment either. The lozenge-shaped artifact features a series of intriguing runic characters. And the ivory relic also has a hole drilled neatly through it, indicating that it may well have been worn as a necklace or amulet.
In particular, though, the runic characters carved into the ivory make this a very rare piece indeed. As researcher Ninel Malysheva told The Siberian Times, “Runes rarely occur on such things as talismans and amulets. If it is confirmed that this bone [sic] found in Namsky district is genuine, it will be a great scientific discovery for the republic.”
In actual fact, the type of runes seen on this piece of ivory are more commonly found painted on to stone in Sakha. It’s thought, you see, that the inscription carved into the ivory fragment is written in Orkhon-Yenisei characters. And the Petrov inscription in Yakutia provides an important further example of this script.
The Petrov inscription consists of writing on a slab of stone, with ochre having been used as a pigment. What’s more, archaeologists believe this inscription may actually be a message from medieval times describing the location of treasure. The writing has been translated as reading “Pearls of the tribe Az.” And the artifact itself was found some 125 miles from Yakutsk.
Now the type of Turkic writing featured here dates back at least 1,000 years. It was in fact the Göktürk people who used the Orkhon-Yenisei script. Also known as the Blue Turks, Kok Turks or Celestial Turks, these people comprised a loose federation of nomadic Turkic tribes. And they lived in Inner Asia – including eastern Russia as well as western China and Mongolia.
As for more on the Orkhon-Yenisey form of writing, well it was used from the eighth to the tenth centuries to transcribe the Old Turkic tongue. The script was given its name after the Russian archaeologist and explorer Nikolai Yadrintsev found examples of it in 1889 in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley.
Siberian nationalism – a movement that was dedicated to freeing Siberia from the supposed shackles of Tsarist imperialism – at least partly motivated Yadrintsev’s outlook. Moreover, his views led to him receiving a sentence of exile and forced labor, with his banishment spanning 1868 to 1873.
In 1889 Yadrintsev then led an expedition to Mongolia and there found the site of Hara-Belgas – a city from the early medieval period. However, what the explorer discovered in the Kosho-Tsaidam gorge in the Orkhon River valley caused a sensation in the scientific circles of the day.
Specifically, Yadrintsev uncovered two stone monuments inscribed with runic characters – the writing that was to be named the Orkhon-Yenisey script. And that brings us back to Pavel Yakovlev’s ivory amulet, which was found to be inscribed with this precise script or something very similar. The inscription means, furthermore, that the piece the boy stumbled upon is at least 1,000 years old.
But what is the meaning of this writing? Well, it’s not a question that’s easily answered. Approximately 90 artifact finds featuring Turkic inscriptions have been uncovered around the city of Yakutia. Yet deciphering them is a tricky and at times controversial academic pursuit.
As researcher Ninel Malysheva told the Siberian Times, “A comprehensive study is now required involving paleontologists, archaeologists and Turkologists.” And academics at the North-Eastern Federal University’s Museum of Writing are working hard to unlock the mysteries of these runic writings on Yakovlev’s ancient piece of ivory.
However, the archaeologists and researchers face no easy task. Their work is complicated by the fact that there is a distinctly Siberian version of this type of script. Academics know about this from inscriptions that were made in the ninth century by the Yenisei Kirghiz people. Interestingly, these people combined a nomadic lifestyle, revolving around horses and cattle, with some settled agriculture, such as the growing of grain crops.
Meanwhile, matters are further complicated by other runic writings that are likely related to the Orkhon-Yenisey script. Writings have been discovered in Turkestan’s Talas Valley that may be related to the inscription on the mammoth ivory. And there are also possible links with the Old Hungarian alphabet, which dates back to the tenth century.
So, do we have any idea as to what the runic letters on Yakovlev’s incredible find might mean? Well, on the basis of their first tentative attempt at deciphering the enigmatic script, some researchers think the 1,000-year-old message on the talisman may simply be a heartwarming “good wishes.”