Researchers recovered the mummy intact, along with his clothes, weapons, tools, and even the meal intended to sustain him in the afterlife. He shared his grave with two horses in full harness, slaughtered and arranged facing northeast. Mongolia’s president lent the team his personal helicopter to shuttle the finds to a lab in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The mummy’s body spent a year in Germany; his clothes and gear are at a lab in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Before Parzinger opened his grave, the warrior had lain for more than 2,000 years on an ice lens, a sheet of ice created by water seeping through the grave and freezing against the permafrost below. The mummy “had been dehydrated, or desiccated, by the ice in the grave,” Schultz says.
Scythian mummies show signs of primitive embalming: Internal organs were removed and replaced with grasses, for instance. The combination of ice and intentional preservation resulted in remarkably resilient specimens. When Schultz shows me the mummy, housed in the same lab as the skeleton of the wounded warrior, the temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees, and sunlight streams onto its leathery flesh.
The mummy’s facial features were destroyed. But in this instance—unlike the case of the wounded warrior skeleton—the destruction was inflicted by nature. When the ice lens formed under the burial chamber, it expanded upward. “The extent of the ice was so high, the body was pressed against the logs on the ceiling and smashed,” Schultz says. The skull shattered, making facial reconstruction impossible. His chest, too, was crushed. Still, a lot can be learned. “You can establish a kind of biography from the body,” Schultz says.
He notes that the mummy’s teeth are surrounded by pitted bone—evidence of painful gum disease, probably the result of a diet rich in meat and dairy but lacking in fruits and vegetables. Between 60 and 65 years old when he died, the man was slim and just about 5 feet 2 inches. At some point he had broken his left arm, perhaps in a fall. His vertebrae show signs of osteoarthritis from years of pounding in the saddle. Badly worn arm and shoulder joints testify to heavy use. “That kind of osteoarthritis and joint damage is very characteristic if you handle wild horses,” Schultz says.
The clues reinforce what Parzinger and others have suspected: He belonged to the Scythians, a seminomadic culture that once dominated the steppes of Siberia, central Asia, and eastern Europe. Beginning around 800 B.C., the Scythians thundered across the central Asian steppes, and within a few generations, their art and culture had spread far beyond the steppes of central Asia.
The Scythians’ exploits struck fear into the hearts of the ancient Greeks and Persians. Herodotus wrote about their violent burial customs, including human sacrifice (which the Arzhan 2 find tends to confirm) and drug-fueled rituals. He speculated that they came from mountains far to the east, in the “land of the gold-guarding griffins.”
Archaeologists say the Scythians’ Bronze Age ancestors were livestock breeders living in the highlands where modern-day Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan intersect. Then “something changed,” Parzinger says. Beginning around 1000 B.C., a wetter climate may have created grassy steppes that could support huge herds of horses, sheep, and goats. People took to horseback to follow the roaming herds. Around 800 B.C., all traces of settlements vanish from the archaeological record.
Archaeologists usually draw their clues from ordinary artifacts and human remains, so while the grave gold from the nomadic Scythians is sumptuous, the real prize is the ancient people themselves. A century of digging at lower altitudes and in the warm Ukrainian plains rarely yielded more than skeletons or jewelry.
In the late 1940s, Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko traveled to the Pazyryk region of the Altai Mountains and made some stunning finds. Richly appointed wooden chambers contained well-preserved mummies, their skin covered in elaborate, twisting animal tattoos. Their brains, intestines, and other organs had been removed and the corpses sewn up with horsehair. The dead had been dressed, armed, and laid to rest in chambers lined with felt blankets, wool carpets, and slaughtered horses.
In 1992 Russian archaeologists began a new search for ice lenses—and mummies. Natalya Polosmak, an archaeologist in Novosibirsk, discovered the coffin of an elaborately tattooed “ice princess” with clothes of Chinese silk at Ak-Alakha, another site in the Altai Mountains. Other finds in this area included a burial chamber with two coffins. One coffin contained a man, the other a woman armed with a dagger, war pick, bow, and arrow-filled quiver. She wore trousers instead of a skirt. The find lent credence to some scholars’ suggestions of a link between the Scythians and the legendary Amazons.
In the early 1990s, just a few miles from that site, Parzinger’s partner Vyacheslav Molodin uncovered the more modest mummy of a young, blond warrior. The burial style resembled that of Parzinger’s mummy, the one found at the Olon-Kurin-Gol River whose face was crushed by ice.
Parzinger fears global warming may soon put an end to the search for Scythians. Rudenko’s dig diaries contain reports of weather far colder than what modern archaeologists experience in the Altai. “When you read descriptions from the 1940s and compare them with the climate of today, you don’t need to be a scientist to see there’s been a change,” Parzinger says.
Geographer Frank Lehmkuhl from the University of Aachen in Germany has been studying lake levels in the Altai region for a decade. “According to our research, the glaciers are retreating and the lake levels are rising,” Lehmkuhl says. With no increase in the region’s rainfall, the change “can only come from melting permafrost and glaciers.”
As the permafrost thaws, the ice that has preserved the Scythian mummies for so many centuries will thaw too. In the Olon-Kurin-Gol grave, the ice that once crushed the mummy against the roof of the burial chamber had receded nine inches by the time the chamber was opened. Within a few decades, the ice lenses may be completely gone. “Right now we’re facing a rescue archaeology situation,” Parzinger says. “It’s hard to say how much longer these graves will be there.”