The Land of Ancestors. The Bone Man and Other Secrets of the Ancient Sanctuary
In 2009, in the course of excavations of the Ust'-Poluy sanctuary situated within the actual city border of Salekhard, the Yamal archaeological party discovered a unique three-dimensional bone sculpture representing a seated man with his knees lifted up to his stomach and his hands folded on his lap. The finding was even more surprising considering the fact that next to no anthropomorphous bone sculptures have been found so far in the northern part of Western Siberia.
The double outline of incredibly large eyes, too regular face oval, sharp lines running from the nose to the cheeks, square chin are in favor of the hypothesis that we are dealing not with a "strained face", but with a mask, may be with a funeral mask. As many anthropomorphous images imitate the position of dead bodies while their faces are treated as funeral masks, we can assume that these figurines are related to the cult of the dead. The Khanty called our bone man khyn' (the spirit of disease from the Kingdom of the Dead) and did not even want to look at it.
The body of the bone man still keeps traces of "feedings" with fat or blood: the Khanty still perform this type of rites with the images of the ancestors' spirits and of the patrons' spirits.
This finding turned out to be one more mystery of the ancient sanctuary that is considered by many an ancient spiritual symbol of the northern Ob basin
In 2009, in the course of excavations of the Ust’-Poluy sanctuary situated within the actual city border of Salekhard, the Yamal archaeological party discovered a unique three-dimensional bone sculpture representing a seated man with his knees lifted up to his stomach and his hands folded on his lap. The finding was even more surprising considering the fact that next to no anthropomorphous bone sculptures have been found so far in the northern part of Western Siberia. This finding turned out to be one more mystery of the ancient sanctuary that is considered by many an ancient spiritual symbol of the northern Ob basin
Understanding ancient pieces of art seems to be the most complicated aspect of archaeology. Works of archaic craftsmen are wrapped in a mysterious veil of antiquity, while their language of symbols is obscure to our contemporaries. Works of art are mainly unearthed on the sites of sanctuaries and sepultures. This is only natural, as sacral activities at all times required symbolic representations of complex ideas.
The remains of one of these sanctuaries form the archaeological monument Ust’-Poluy (1st century B. C.—first centuries A. D.) lying within the present city border of Salekhard.
Ust’-Poluy gives a concentrated idea of ancient spirituality. The number of pieces of art found there was so important that the first excavations of the 1930s caused an enthusiastic reaction of Professor V. I. Ravdonikas, one of the best-known Soviet scholars and author of a textbook in archaeology. This is what he wrote to his prominent Finnish colleague A. M. Tahlgrenn: “Some really striking objects were brought back by our young colleague V. Adrianov from last summer excavations on the Ob. About 7000 items, including 1500 made of bone and demonstrating exceptional artistic qualities. I am writing this to you being under a fresh impression, as I have just seen those objects. It is really a world-scale discovery.” Since then, the number of objects showing “exceptional artistic qualities” has increased many times. They were scrutinized by archaeologists, ethnologists and historians. They were topics of articles, books and exhibitions. They seemed unable to surprise researchers any more. Still, Ust’-Poluy continues to bewilder us with its puzzles.The 1st century B. C. “The global civilization” consists of a band of land stretching from the Mediterranean to the Huang Te basin, punctuated with mountains and deserts. Events occur in different parts of this area, sending echo from West to East and back. The Far East witnesses the revival of Celestial Empire after long years of turmoil; it is time of the Han dynasty, period of stability and successful development. The world is held together by the fast thread of the Great Silk Road.
The nomads of Eurasian steppes – both anonymous and mentioned by ancient historians and writers like Scythians, Sarmatians and Saka – form “the second circle” of the global civilization. They are dynamic, flexible and martial. The steppe from the Danube to Mongolia is their trodden path. They appropriate products of higher developed cultures in form of tribute or as war loot, and they communicate in an animal-style artistic language (its examples are surprisingly identical from Crimea to Ordos). The world is bound with “roads of nomads.”
The taiga tribes are dispersed in the woods, written evidence of their existence is vague and unreliable. We refer to them by names of archaeological cultures. A well-studied cultural and historical entity of Western Siberia is the Kulai culture stretching along the taiga-covered banks of the Ob and penetrating even into the tundra. In the 1st century B. C., the population of this culture actively began to participate in inter-tribal relations through war, trade and expansion. The typical “taiga pottery” can be found as far as the Upper Ob, while in archaeological complexes of the far-away northern settlements one can run across Sarmatian bronze mirrors and silver pendants depicting the Parthian King of Kings, as well as “Saka” helmets. These cultures form “the third circle” of the oecumene
In 2009 the Yamal archaeological party discovered a unique bone sculpture representing a seated man with his knees lifted up to his stomach and his hands folded on his lap. The finding is even more surprising considering the fact that next to no anthropomorphous bone sculptures have been found so far in the north of Western Siberia. Representations of human beings are quite frequent beginning with the early Iron Age and up to the turn of the 1st millennium A. D. They also appear in the Ust’-Poluy sanctuary, either cast in bronze or carved with a knife on flat bronze plates. The iconography of anthropomorphous figurines is surprisingly standard: the body or the head (face) are represented strictly en face and are topped with a head-gear resembling a helmet. The helmet often carries an image of a body / head of an animal or a bird, or a human face.
BRONZE ANTHROPOMORPHOUS IMAGES OF THE NORTH OF THE OB BASINThere is a striking resemblance between this figurine and the Ust’-Poluy anthropomorphous images cast in bronze or engraved on plates. All the images have disproportionally large heads: this feature is typical of archaic anthropomorphous sculpture in general, and of the north of the Ob basin in particular, including traditional human-like idols found with the native peoples of Siberia as late as in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The body can be either absent (in this case archaeologists call the object just “a face”) or be very schematic. But all the faces have a set of common features: large almond eyes, often with a double outline, brows joining above the nose, a straight nose and deep-cut lines running from the nose to the cheeks. Both Ust’-Poluy figurines and the bone man have three-fingered limbs. Anthropomorphous figurines with tresses are common up to the 6th—8th centuries, although by that time they become so schematic that their hairdo resembles that of the bone figurine from Ust’-Poluy only to a small extent.
In the end of the 1930s and in the beginning of the 1940s, museums of Khanty-Mansiysk received several bronze mirrors decorated with anthropomorphous and zoomorphous images coming from destroyed pagan sanctuaries on the rivers Kazym, Lyapin and Nothern Sos’va. The anthropomorphous items tend to have the same set of typical features as the face of the Ust’-Poluy bone man.
In 1978, while mounting a drilling installation in the marshy interfluve of the Ob and the Pur, they found an unusual collection containing more than 180 items: bronze-cast anthropomorphous creatures and birds of prey, some having three heads; iron weapons, bronze plaques and plates, fragments of a bronze cauldron, and glass-paste beads. The researchers interpreted this collection as a “replacement sepulture”, i. e. a burial of the men who had not come back from war. They also found there two “faces” with accentuated lines running from the nose to the cheeks. But the most important thing is that two bronze-cast pieces from the Kholmogorsk collection (the collection has got its name after the oil-field where the drilling installation was being mounted) represent frontally standing human figures with plates running from under the head-gear. Both figurines have their arms folded at the bottom of their bellies. The collection dates back to the 3rd or 4th cc. B. C.
The Ust’-Poluy bone sculpture was discovered at the depth of about 80 cm under the present-day surface, in the dark-grey earth layer containing also some coals, fragments of burnt bones, plant organic matter, small pieces of burnt birch bark and layered pottery. There was no trace of buildings or any other artificial structures. The figurine of a seated man is carved of a deer antler with an iron knife. It is 7.3 cm high and up to 2.3 cm wide. The man is represented with a typical tressed hairstyle, en face, with his knees lifted and pressed to the stomach, his arms folded on his lap. All his limbs are three-fingered. He has a smooth head-gear, the tresses beginning at its edge and running down as low as his belly. The face is flat and wide, the slightly outstanding brows form one line with the straight nose. Large almond-shaped eyes have a double outline. Deep lines are running from the sides of his nose to his cheeks. His mouth is flat and wide, his chin is also wide and square. On the left side of the figurine, between a tress and the neck, a round hole is cut bearing traces of wear – apparently, left by a lace. There is a compound belt on his waist, made up of large rectangular plaques. When unearthed, the figurine was slightly spotted with soil. While cleaning it up, the restorer I. Karacharova noticed the remains of some greasy liquid, impossible to identify visually.
There is a striking resemblance between this figurine and the Ust’-Poluy anthropomorphous images cast in bronze or engraved on plates.
If in Ust’-Poluy they had found just a bone figurine with flat frontal representation of a standing man, having the above-mentioned set of typical features, nobody would have been surprised. The only strange thing would have been the material (bone instead of bronze). Originality of the Ust’-Poluy man has two aspects. First, it is a three-dimensional, rather realistic sculpture which is on the whole alien to the artistic manner of Western Siberian taiga artisans, both ancient and contemporary. Second, the position of the man – seated, with his knees risen to the stomach – cannot be found among the pieces of art of the early Iron Age.
There are two medieval bronze images of seated beings though. One of them, a fantastic creature with a human body and a bird’s head, was found in the Cherdynsk district in the foothills of the Urals. The second was found in a medieval sepulture in the south of Yamal peninsula. It represents a “pull-through” cast in white tin containing bronze (archaeologists call “pull-through” an object or rather an accessory with a frame in the form of a hollow pipe through which a leather lace is pulled). It is an image of a seated anthropomorphic being turning its profile to the spectator. The creature has a furry animal on its back and is holding another one in its hands. Its head is rather large, with a helmet on it; it has got almond-shaped eyes with a double outline and a twisted belt around its waist. Another twisted strip runs around its knees.
Face or mask?
Looking for parallels to the object in question among other archaeological findings, especially when dealing with ancient or medieval pieces of art, we can give a more or less precise answer to the following questions: When was the object created? To what cultural milieu does it belong? To understand its function, to analyze the image semantics and to make some assumptions about the ethnical origin of its creators and users, we will need to undertake comparative analysis attracting additional facts from other regions and epochs.
Let us turn to ethnological data and look for parallels in religious practice and in mythology of contemporary peoples of the north of Western Siberia, which are separated from the object in question by two millennia and by numerous events that have influenced their culture.
Another question came unexpectedly from the anthropologist who had long worked with Western-Siberian material: is it a face or a mask? The double outline of incredibly large eyes, too regular face oval, sharp lines running from the nose to the cheeks, square chin are in favor of the hypothesis that we are dealing not with a “strained face” as the figurine was characterized by some of our colleagues at first sight, but with a mask. We can prove this hypothesis by studying the iconography of cast and engraved faces from the Ust’-Poluy collection and from other collections of the same or later period, of funeral masks from the medieval sepultures in the Kama basin.
Envoy from the Kingdom of the Dead?
There is much evidence that masks were used in funeral rites. They were discovered in the sepultures of the Ob Ugrians, in the medieval burials in the north of Western Siberia, including the famous sepulture No 27 of Zelyony Yar burial ground that contained a warrior’s mummy. Beginning with the 1st millennium A. D., face-covering masks are considered to be a characteristic feature of Ugrians’ pagan culture on the western side of the Ural mountain range. According to E. P. Kazakov, expert in this culture, this element of funeral rites could have been borrowed by Ugrians from the peoples of Sayan-Altai region and of North-Western China. One cannot discard similarity between the Ust’-Poluy bone man and the bronze-cast anthropomorphous figurines of the northern Ob basin in the way their faces are presented: an oval or almost rectangular mouth, almond-shaped eyes, an outstanding nose merged with eyebrows, an oval general outline.
Are there any other data allowing to juxtapose the Ust’-Poluy man’s figurine with the funeral rites of the ancient or medieval population of North-Western Siberia? Most of the medieval bronze anthropomorphous figurines known to us were found either in the funeral inventory of burial grounds or in the sepultures of posthumous effigies of the dead – the so-called ittarma. The position of an ittarma imitates the real position of a dead man, as was discovered while analyzing the funeral rite of the burial ground near Zelyony Yar settlement. In the same burial ground one can see dead bodies tied with strips around their shoulders, chest, knees and ankles. This reminds us of the anthropomorphous “pull-through” from the sepulture in the south of Yamal depicting a twisted stripe round the knees of the figurine.
In 1995, while excavating the Ust’-Poluy sanctuary, archaeologists unearthed the sepulture of a woman whose position was unusual for the region: crooked on one side, with her knees risen up to her stomach and with her hands folded at the same level.
As many anthropomorphous images imitate the position of dead bodies while their faces are treated as funeral masks, we can assume that these figurines are related to the cult of the dead. The Khanty called our bone man khyn’ (the spirit of disease from the Kingdom of the Dead) and did not even want to look at it (“We mustn’t”).
It is believed that the function of a mask is to separate the dead one from the world of the alive. If this was true, it would be logical to have his eyes and his mouth closed. All the discovered funeral masks and anthropomorphous images, on the contrary, have their eyes and mouths wide open.
It was pointed out many times that the armor and the arms of the bronze anthropomorphous figurines coincided precisely with their real life prototypes and that they evolved simultaneously. Changes in the forms of head-gear, in the length and structure of the armor, in the form of cold weapons blades were immediately reflected by the bronze figurines. Presence of these figurines in a sepulture may have been intended to compensate for incomplete set of arms placed in the grave. However, helmets were never found among funeral inventory, though they certainly existed in real life. As masks were part of military head-gear, only their copies made of thin foil or of copper plates were put into sepultures. From this viewpoint, large openings in place of the mouth and eyes are quite understandable and justified. As time passed by, the significance of many military attributes changed from purely practical to sacral: wooden and birch masks are used by the Ob Ugrians even now for important religious rites and festivals.
If we accept the above-mentioned hypotheses, we will be able to conclude that the Ust’-Poluy man and, more generally, bronze figurines and faces of the northern Ob basin are related to the cult of the dead, maybe that of ancestor warriors. We should not forget that the body of the bone man still keeps traces of “feedings” with fat or blood: the Khanty still perform this type of rites with the images of the ancestors’ spirits and of the patrons’ spirits. Consequently, the ancestor-revering rites were among the most important at the ancient inter-tribal sanctuary of Ust’-Poluy. They were necessary for self-identification of the people in the early stage of a deer-breeding nomad culture formation.Lesto od doloreet vel eugiat amet alismod olobor iliquat.
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The author and SCIENCE First Hand thank N. B. Krylasova for providing illustrations and A. V. Gusev for his help with preparation of the article