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Section: Archaeology
In the Infinity of Unrealized Senses

In the Infinity of Unrealized Senses

Working in the museum depositaries is often no less fascinating, though at the same time no more predictable than archaeological excavations.

Several years ago, working in the holdings of the Novosibirsk Regional Museum of Local Lore and History, one of the authors of the present contribution came across a box, which contained 20 small articles of grayish-green color, different in shape, rather like pebbles. By their whimsical but regular shapes they partially resembled some objects of modern art. It was this fanciful complicacy that made us doubt that this museum find was just a pebble subjected to treatment by water and wind. It is common knowledge that regular shapes are found in nature only at micro- and macro-levels, e.g., in molecular lattices and space orbits. Whereas everything that is evident to the naked eye is, as a rule, perceived as chaos; and it is presumed a mission of logos to order it...

The logos of a distant museum keeper who provided all the objects with labels informed us that these stones were ‘Kostyrma’. The museum received these objects as a present from a certain Lytkin; they were brought from the Karagas in 1928.

Some notes from prewar inventory books provided us with some additional information to supplement the scant knowledge on ‘kostyrma’. Originally, the museum obtained 36 such objects, and they were valued at 1 ruble each. They were then referred to as ‘concretions that had a religious predestination’.

This addition cleared the situation but little. In a traditional society some religious meaning could, if need be, be attributed to any object, since its image and function occupy some definite place in the world outlook, which is inseparable from religion.

Among the twenty specimens of ‘kostyrma’ that are in the holdings of the Novosibirsk Regional Museum of Local Lore and History you will not find a couple of similar ones. We shall try to describe them. They vary in size from 2 to 7 cm in length and from 1 to 3.5 cm in width. The figures can be divided into anthropomorphous, zoomorphous, figure-of-eight disc-shaped accretes, or more complex shapes, even bell-like. Some of the figures are rounded smooth on all sides, the rest are flat and plane-surfaced on one side. On some of the specimens, an edge along the whole perimeter can be discerned that reminds a sort of fin that could occur in molding. At first sight it seemed that ‘kostyrma’ owed these complex shapes to special treatment, i.e., that these objects were created artificially, by handiwork. However, the traceological analysis of the surface conducted at the Institute of Automation and Electrometry of the SB RAS detected no traces of artificial finishing (such as engraving, sawing, carving, grinding or polishing).

The geologists determined that the pebbles that the Tofalars call ‘kostyrma’ are Imatra-like concretions* that are found in the Quaternary lacustrine ribbon clays.

They were formed from high-calcite argillites, argillaceous-calcareous rock. These finely laminated sandwich specimens (with alternating stratification of rough-aleurite and sand materials) were made up of fine-band microsandstones and fine sandstones with argillaceous-carbonate (calcium) cement. The fact that some ‘kostyrma’ have flat and plane sides can be accounted for by longitudinal fractures that occur in the course of layering under the influence of external factors.

The process of formation of ‘kostyrma’ in nature has not been studied fully yet. There are several versions. According to one of the versions, ‘kostyrma’ is the result of the initial stage of the process of physical weathering of boulders that become exposed in the glacial deposits (including, among others, clay) and are formed of loose rock of sedimentary or metamorphic origin. The formation of ‘kostyrma’ is completed due to repeated washing in the coastal zone of rivers and lakes.

The current could not take the riverbed sediments far, otherwise there would inevitably occur some fractures in the fragile figures. For this reason it is probable that even after the stones have completely been collected from a certain site, the next year they appear again in that particular place but never anywhere downstream. The identity of the chemical composition of the stones and clays in which the former are found also testifies to it.

But what does the knowledge of the chemical composition of the object give for the understanding of its place in culture? Even if the object is something edible — very little. Some traces of contact with skin or cloth were found on some of the specimens of the ‘kostyrma’ kept in the Novosibirsk Museum of Local Lore and History, from which it may be concluded that they were once worn on clothes. But in what capacity — as an amulet or decoration — is a question. It is beyond any chemical analysis to determine this. Referring ‘kostyrma’ to the category of artifacts of religious nature merely led to questions concerning the place these objects occupy in the culture of the Tofalar people.

One does not very often come across any written records on ‘kostyrma’ either in pre-Revolutionary or contemporary ethnographical literature. In the beginning of the 20th century ethnographer V. N. Vasiliev wrote about ‘kostyrma’ in his “Brief Essay on the Mode of Life of the Karagas”, whereas journalist B. Chudinov gave more detailed information on ‘kostyrma’, in the context of indigenous legends, in his book “Journey across Karagassia” published in 1931.

‘Kastarma’ (kostyrma) is translated from the Tofalar language as ‘press-work’, ‘oilcakes’ (according to one of the traditions, the figures were made by a spirit, by squeezing water from clay with clenched fist) or as a ‘tracery pattern’. That is why the Tofalars believed that the figures owed their name to the spirit that lived in a small lake in the upper reaches of the Kastarma River. “In the daytime he makes various stone figures, and by night throws them onto the bottom of the river flowing near the lake. When the Karagass roam past that place they collect the figures and decorate their clothes with them. Kastarma puts a new figure in place of each taken figure.”

The figures were attributed some magic properties: it was believed that a snake would never bite their owner, and that he would be fortunate in everything. ‘Kostyrma’ were sewn on children’s clothes as a charm, obereg, an object that could protect its owner; grooms gave their brides necklaces of magic stones as a wedding symbol. When selling something the aborigines gave a bag of ‘kostyrma’ into the bargain, to bind the bargain. Besides, it was believed that those stones helped the unfortunate young men who loved young girls without requital. An unfortunate lover would go to spend the night by the Kastarma River. If, in his dream, the place where his lucky stone was sitting opened to him, he would set off there and, they say, would find his amulet. After that his chosen one had no other choice but to fall in love with him. The Tofalars admitted that one could get other desires realized in that way, too.

B. Chudinov described one of the places in the Sayan mountainous taiga where ‘kostyrma’ were found as follows: “Around the lake there rose a morainal swell. Some old, dilapidated figures of ‘kostyrma’ were lying about on the clay and shingle outcrop. But the river bottom near the right bank was the most astonishing of all. Gray stone figures were everywhere. They were showing white on the bottom among other stones; some were growing on the stones. They seemed to be moving because of the movement of water. Some figures of animals, human beings, a lot of bows, watches, buttons, etc., were visibly discerned.” Chudinov points out that there were especially many figures in the outcrops of potter’s clay on the bottom, which, at being touched with a stick, gave out dense milky dregs. The figures seemed to be growing out of those dregs. Yet, there was nothing either in the clay on the riverbank or the water. It remained an enigma for the researcher whether those stones grew, as the Karagas claimed, or they were washed out of clay.

Ethnographical fieldwork is the basis of socio-anthropological research; fundamental collection of material is performed by means of fieldwork. But it is not enough to obtain the material; the material needs academic interpretation.

Anthropologists like to quote the definition of man given by Max Weber: “Man is an animal hanging on the web of meanings spun by himself.”

Clifford Geertz (the authority of the semiotic trend of socio-cultural anthropology) suggests that this ‘web of meanings and senses’ be considered as culture per se (C. Geertz, 2004, p. 11). Why not? But here arises the principal problem of socio-cultural anthropology, calling in question the very possibility of humanitarian knowledge to be objective, in other words, the problem of separation of the subject of research from its object.

The researcher working in the field creates a saturated description, some ethnographical base for the current project; his perception of meanings, implications, and purports is sharpened, and some archaic layers of perception suddenly awaken in his conscience obsessed with the desire to comprehend the studied culture. The researcher’s conscience turns into a ‘semiotic locator’ which either responds to some meaningful purports of the surrounding phenomena, or generates them itself. As one poet said, sense appears “where there have never been any flies, to say nothing of sense”, that is valid, of course, from the point of view of science, but what about the point of view of culture? Can culture allow the existence of realities without any purport whatsoever? At least, in traditional culture nothing happens accidentally.

Nizhne-Udunsk. It is July… Heat, dust, lemonade, and flies… All of the members of our small expedition team of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of SB RAS stuffed into a minivan and got to the local airportto hire a ‘kukuruznik’ (a small cargo-type airplane) and fly to the capital of Tofalaria, settlement Alygdzher, and, hopefully, get there safely.

But, bearing in mind Brodskii’s edification that “traveling in Asia, inscribe a circle into a square”, we were not particularly hopeful for that, and entrusted our Providence with our supposed take-off and eagerly awaited landing. For ourselves we reserved a modest role of the interpreters of the symbols sent from above. And the symbol did not make us wait long…

Our minivan pulled over to the building of the airport, we got off and nearly stumbled on… a coffin. Funeral wreaths, at some distance — broken-hearted relatives, surrounded it. That was a beginning! If we were going in the same direction, we were likely to fly together, probably on the plane we had hired.

Actually, it was no problem. It was just, having assessed our prospect, all of us experienced mixed feelings. Our cultural basis of loyal humanists demanded that we help people and take the body on board, meanwhile our bodily basis strove to shelter our conscience against a discomfort of being involved in other people’s grief, especially taking into account the narrowness of the interior of a small plane. Our cultured basis won, though.

“Guys, can you help move the coffin in the shade?”

“Sure… It’s heavy.”

“Yeah, he was a strong, sturdy young fellow. During our Tofalar holidays, contests in the national wrestling are arranged. And he took part in it and struggled… He fell, knocked his head, and so awkwardly. He died in hospital. We are now flying home, to Gutara. And you?”

“We are heading for Alygdzher.”

“Well… We are not going your way.”

Those in the higher spheres, who allocate omens of fortune for the inhabitants of the lower sphere, are sometimes satisfied with the fact that the omens are read adequately by those to whom they are addressed. Then they change minuses for pluses.

We had to move the coffin several more times, following the movement of the sun, while the airline was looking for a helicopter to take the relations of the deceased to Gutara, and a plane to Alygdzher for us. The indigenous spirits were looking for other omens and other fellow travelers for us. And they managed to find — a pregnant Tofalar young woman in her fifth month of pregnancy, which we immediately interpreted as a more life-asserting candidature, than a Hercules killed in a ritual fight, and which was more semantically appropriate to the purposes of the expedition. Because one of our aims, among more global projects, was to pay a visit to the Kastarma River, look for ‘concretions’ containing a whole complex of notions connected with love magic, wedding ceremonial rites, fertility, and life in general. Incidentally, not only things but also names can serve as omens and codes of culture.

Mikhail Ivanovich Pugachev met us in Alygdzher. He was a kind-hearted and somewhat eccentric old man who had all his lifelong been searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan in the taiga, for artifacts of the Stone Age, or for shamans’ legends (and quite successfully!). For the inhabitants of the Eastern Sayan his name is a code that opens, to any of the aborigines (irrespective of their social stratum and the degree of their responsibility), not only the purpose of your visit, but almost your biography. Once you have pronounced the name, Pugachev, you will automatically take, in their conscience, the place of an eccentric fellow, of one of those who still come to the taiga ‘for the mist’, in search of some vague romanticism. As to Pugachev, they say, he took Okladnikov with Vainstein along the Tofalar paths. Now he was going to take us, greenhorns, too.

The taiga at that time of year proved to be benevolent to newcomers: at least there were no gnats. We providently brought with us special hats with mosquito nets, but, to our surprise, there were no gnats. Two weeks later, we passed the upper reaches of the Uda River to cave Sargosan, and then climbed Khangarok, crossed the watershed of plateau Shoitnak, and ultimately descended into the valley of the Kastarma River.

Pugachev showed us some sacral places:

“There used to be a sanctuary here, where the shaman offered prayers to Lord. His tent of skins (chum) stood on the opposite bank, just where the river curves abruptly, almost forming a peninsula. There is Lake Kastarma there, too. When the water is high, the lake and the river interflow. And those stones are not found everywhere; they are found only in special places where there are exposures of that special kind of clay. And, of course, on the shores of Lake Kastarma, too.”

We had to cross the river to get to the opposite bank. Looking for the ford, we stepped on one of the deposits of ‘concretions’. At first we saw nothing in particular: just mud like mud. But upon watching intently, we noticed something like clots in different places of its surface, that stood out against the amorphous mass, though not in color, but by their regular shape. Actually, they looked as if they were made out of that clay and left there. We tried picking up one of those stones: it gave in easily, but with some resistance, as though we plucked it, not collected. The stone resembled a flying saucer. Another one looked like a cat with a ball. And the other was like an Eskimos from an animated cartoon…

“God of Kastyrma has prepared a lot of stones for you,” smiled Pugachev, “It means that you have come here with good intentions. There is such a belief. I’ve been collecting them for many years, and each winter they grow anew. I have my own point of view as to their origin. I believe they appear in winter, when the water freezes and the ice forms them from that clay by its colossal pressure.”

“Really, it does not look like the result of ‘the process of weathering of boulders’.”

“Well, let us go to that bank.”

The water in the Kastyrma River was not very high; therefore it did not take us long to find the ford.

The place the shaman chose for his tent of skins was simply wonderful; it distinctly stood out against the general taiga monotony of not very wide Sayan hollows. But what made the place different? Was it different because of a sensation of vista? Its spaciousness? Space? Infinity? Eternity? The river blending the metaphors of time and space in one current, made a loop, and a narrow valley turned into a kind of ‘amphitheatre’, in the center of which there was a wooded hillock once crowned with the shaman’s tent of skins. Not a trace of it was left now, but in his youth Pugachev met people who remembered that shaman.

If some of the Tofs suddenly felt that ‘his life got cracked’, hunting was bad, wenches did not love him, the other guys mocked at him, there were problems with the parents, and as a result of these emotions his face got blotched (psychosomatics, you know!), he would saddle a reindeer and go to the Kastarma shaman. He would narrate his grievances to the shaman in as much detail as possible. The shaman would listen him out, probably make some comments. Then he would begin kamlanie, appealing to God of Kastarma, introduce the patient to him and ask for help.

Then night befell. The ‘client’ suffering from stress would stop over night in the shaman’s tent of skins, and the next morning the host would tell his client to walk along the river bank and choose, from among the Kastarma stones, the one he liked best of all, that one that appealed to him by its shape.

“If someone walks near the lake, Kostyrma will make his figure, and it will be found the next day,” Boris Chudinov wrote these words at the time a certain Carl Jung was only approaching the bases of the theory of unconscious at the other end of the world. Those who are familiar with that theory could guess that the spirit of the lake moulded not the patient’s sculptural portrait, rather he moulded from clay the unconscious ‘dark’ side of the patient’s personality which manifested itself in ousted complexes, subdued emotions. The ‘patient’ guided by his associations in which his complexes and phobias were visually objectified, the next morning would spot his own alternative side lying among other stones, would pick it up, and the integrity of his inner world would be restored. And the stone that had taken upon itself part of his cares would become his amulet.

Since the amulet was given by God of Kostyrma, personally, and not by a seller at a store of esoteric decorations, the psychotherapeutic effect was more evident.

That was psychoanalysis of the Tofalar kind and it had appeared, incidentally, several thousand years prior to the time when the great ‘shaman’ of the contemporary history, Sigmund Freud, began his ‘kamlanie’ in his Vienna ‘tent of skins’ on the Danube River.

The idea of a clot, concretion — a form isolated from total amorphousness — is creative in itself. The presentation of a cosmogonic system-forming cycle as some process of condensation, crystallization, structurization is characteristic of the archaic mythological layer of Asian nomads.

I. V. Oktyabrskaya and D. V. Cheremisin, in their studies on the domestic craft of the Altai, drew attention

to the unity of the principle of global creation in the material-practical and cosmological spheres of the traditional culture: “Speculating on the subject of technologies, traditional ideology with its integral approach to the world, which is characteristic of it, postulates the integrity of the creative origin in the Universe and principally ties the instrumental and cosmogonic spheres. In narratives of Central Asia the origin of the world is described as the process of churning, shaking, twisting, whipping” (2000, p. 113).

In all probability, the cult of ‘kostyrma’ reproduces archetypical concepts of the cosmogonic status of objects and phenomena associating life with the principle of systematic order.

A semantic analogue for ‘kostyrma’ in the cults of the East-Asian region is magatama, ritual artifacts of the cult of embryos in the concept of the East-Asian creational archetype of S. V. Alkin (1998, p. 53–56).

Some meaningful creational parallels are traced in the conscience of peoples of different language families, as it follows from comparative linguistic and mythological reconstructions, and accentuate binary opposition ‘forms/amorphousness’ — the initial principle of the structure of the system. As an example, we may mention an analysis of a group of concepts that describe a wide range of creative actions, including conception, as working with clay in Afro-Asian languages (A. Yu. Militarev, 1986, p. 63 -79).

In Indo-European languages, a creative, generating action (including conception) is also semantically identical to tying knots, act of tying, twisting in general: w’az — vyazat’ (in the sense of fertilize), zavyaz’ (seed-bud), svyazyvat’; xvit –zhit’ (from Latin vita — zhizn’), povival’nyi (roditel’nyi — genitive), vit’, svivat’. This has also been preserved in the ceremonial rites of the cult of vital forces.

“In Troitse-Semitskaya ritualism (a pagan custom in Orthodox conception of Trinity), the very action of weaving, interturning of garlands from birch twigs on the birch itself, which is part of a wide semantic series of actions and concepts with root xvit-, initially was a magic act expected to give rise to new life (cf. zavyazat’ — tie). There is evidence given by informers testifying to the fact that women tied strips of cloth or ribbons on the branches with the purpose of conception. The fact that a garland is referred to as zhivot (stomach, belly) in songs quite agrees with that sphere of concepts” (I. M. Denisova, 1966, p. 71).

In contemporary Russian language, verb vyazat’ (to tie) retains the meaning of a creative action, that also is used to describe the reproduction of biological structures, e.g. vyazat’ sobak (to mate dogs), zavjaz’ ploda (fruit ovary), etc.

Japanese verb musubu (vyazat’, svyazyvat’, zavyazyvat’, oplodotvoryat’ — mate, tie up, knot, fertilize,) has a similar meaning. Because of its creative associations word musubu entered the sacral lexicon and even laid the foundation for the name of the whole class of Creator-Gods “Musubi-no-Kami”, that act in the Japanese mythology as some impersonified creative force (G. E. Svetlov, 1985, p. 19-20).

In the Ainu language, verb nau (twist, weave) is a semantic analogue of musubu. It is possible that it is connected with verb inau meaning one of the most popular ritual artifacts of Ainu, planed-off sticks, which, according to L. Ya. Sternberg and other scholars are anthropomorphous and come from the symbolic substitutes for human sacrifices, i.e., are the symbolic code of vital forces.

The factor of systematic order is the quintessence of the cosmogonic process. E. M. Meletinskii and V. N. Toporov, considering the problem of sociogenesis of conscience through the prism of mythology, conclude that the process of isolation of conscience “from the diffuse integrity of affective-motor medium” is characterized by the notions that occur as ‘the clots of thought’ interacting with each other and combining to make new structures.

Thus, the systematic order reproduced by myth and rite is an initial category of human conscience imprinted in quite material signs and symbols, ritual artifacts.

The archetypes of systematic order are projected in the individual conscience as systematic notions and are fixed in the world outlook by means of a set of associations and meaningful notions, thus converting the fundamental structures of conscience, etymons of the parent language, into some ritual protoplasts.

It is likely that the very idea of systematic order laid in the foundation of the shaman’s practice of treatment cures the soul of the ‘patient’ suffering from confusion or perturbation, and not simply the idea, but active involvement of the patient into an ordered system subject to some higher and absolute laws. The method of this involvement is determined by the whole social history, religious tradition and their reciprocal influence.

When a person thinks that the world is breaking apart, it is very important for his healer — be it a shaman or psychoanalyst — to persuade the patient that it is not the world that is going to pieces, but merely his image of the world. And that it is doubtful whether the patient’s image of the world is true. Actually, the world has not disappeared, its constructive laws are still functioning, and, moreover, the patient is not deprived of them, either. If that were not the case, would God of Kostarma have spent the whole night making an amulet for someone unworthy?

And here it is, embodied in wonderful and curious stones, a creational, system-forming principle of the universe. And it is always before the eyes, on clothes, harness, on the belt. Wear it where you like! Who knows, it is quite probable that the rate of suicides among the young people could be lower if such a shaman lived in Tofalaria now and people could come to him. Some time ago, when the taiga was perceived as a live, animate organism, and men considered themselves to be its part, they naturally valued their own lives much higher.

As far back as one hundred years ago, the sacral value of the Kastarma stones made them a universal equivalent in barter trade with Tofalar’s neighbors. It is common knowledge that Buryats accepted ‘kostyrma’ in exchange for riding and cargo-carrying reindeer saddles decorated with white metal; for horses, for thick felt, metal decorations, and other valuables not manufactured by Tofalars but used by them in their economy. The symbol of abstract vital force was turned into an almost monetary equivalent for concrete economic bases of life-support system.

However, new times have come and brought the people other values and other equivalents, and with them new problems. The ‘magic’ stones have gradually lost all their meanings, including magic. For a certain time they continued to serve as decorations worn on belts, tobacco-pouches; they were worn instead of buttons, they were given to children as toys. As far back as in 1910, V. N. Vasiliev, ethnographer from the capital, having written a few words about ‘kostyrma’, mentioned condescendingly: “I am not going to dwell on children’s toys…” And now grown-up Tofalars who were children at that time can hardly remember those toys.

“The Kastarma stones? Yeah, I know about them. In childhood we played with them,” recalls Margarita, daughter of Spartak Dmitrievich Hangaraev, “Father used to bring them, and we would lay them out and try to make out what each stone resembled. One looked like an alarm clock, another like a TV-set… nowadays our children do not play with them any more: there are lots of other toys, factory-made.”

Contemporary Tofalars do not see anything magic in these curious stones. Probably only one person in the whole Tofalaria, Pugachev, interested in local lore, believes in the force of ‘kostyrma’ and realizes that these figures are part of ancient, meaningful culture. He is its keeper. And the culture of the krai pays him in kind: protects him, judging by some enlightened wisdom, sober-mindedness, eloquence and the energy of a ‘young elk’ with which seventy-four-year-old Mikhail Ivanovich urged us, Novosibirsk archaeologists, on through the mountainous taiga.

* Concretion (from Latin ‘concretio’ meaning coalescence, thickening) is a mineral formation of a round shape in sedimentary rocks that appears in diagenesis and distinguishes itself from the enclosing rock in composition and shape. (Russian Encyclopedic Dictionary, Moscow, 2001, Book 1, p. 725).


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Bannikov K.L. Archaic Mythoritual Systems in the Formation and Chudinov B.I. Journey Across Karagassia. Moscow: Molodaya Gvardia Publishing House, 1931.

Development of the Traditional Japanese Culture. Moscow, 1999.

Vassiliev V.N. A Brief Essay on the Way of Life of the Karagass. In: Ethnographic Study. Moscow, 1910. Vol. 84-85, No. 1-2.

Denisova I.M. The Ritualism of the Troitskii Birch-Tree: The Search for the Semantic Roots of Image. In: Animals and Plants in Mythoritual Systems. 1996.

Mel’nikova L.V. The Tofs. Historical and Ethnographic Essay. Irkutsk, 1994.

Militarev A. Yu. The Origin of Roots of Denotation ‘create, make’ in Afro-Asian Languages. In: Written Monuments and Problems of the History of Culture of Oriental Peoples. XIX Annual Scientific Session of LD of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences (Reports and Contributions). Moscow, 1986. P. III.

Photos by K. Bannikov

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