Whoosh! Issue 61 - October 2001


By Edward P. Rich
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
4531 words

Archaeology and Myth (01-05)
Kurgans and Scythia (06-14)
Wild Steppe Action (15-25)
More Graves (26-27)
Possible Conclusions (28-32)
Racial Paradox? (33-35)
Political Woes (36-42)
All Is Not Lost (43-45)
Conclusion (46-47)


Archaeology and Myth

Looky here, Ren!  It says in my contract I get to kill you at least once a 
XENA doesn't take archeology too seriously but has fun with it.

[01] In his enlightening WHOOSH! contribution on postmodern mythology from a Marxist point of view ( http://whoosh.org/issue49/rebello1.html), Prof. Carlos Eduardo Rebello asserted that in Xena: Warrior Princess,

"We have a collection of tales in whose actual truth absolutely nobody has believed, telling about things and people that have never existed, types who were never born, and things that 'couldn't even manage beginning to exist' (in the expression of Lucan of Samostate). Nevertheless, these narratives were supposed to have a deep and profound meaning! How come?" (WHOOSH! Vol. 49, paragraph 40)

[02] To supply an answer to Prof. Rebello's rhetorical question, why such stories, either ancient or Xenite, are laden with deep and profound meaning, we must leave it to archaeolgy. All myths must have at base demonstrable visible fact.

[03] While addressing a college class in the 1930's on the rudiments of archeological discipline, Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989), told his students:

"Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it is truth you are interested in, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall. ... We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archeology is done in the library, research, reading. We cannot afford to take mythology at face value."

[04] For the remainder of the film, Indiana Jones and his father Prof. Henry Jones, seek and follow ancient maps where X does mark the site of the temple in which was found, then irretrievably lost, the Holy Grail. They took mythology at face value and considered the grail to be an actual archeological artifact that could be searched for and possibly found. Otto Rahn in reality pursued it for the Nazis in the mid-1930's.

[05] Therefore, mythology is taken at face value. Schliemann accepted the Iliad and the Odyssey as fact and it led to the discovery of Troy. Much of Herodotus was regarded as fiction but now is accepted as history by archeologists. In THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210) episode at a dig in Macedonia in 1940 Janice Covington proclaims to Melinda "Mel" Pappas that what she and her father before her were seeking was,

"The most important archeological find of the century. Something that will revolutionize the way we look at the ancient world. It has the power to turn myth into history, history into myth. The Xena Scrolls."

Kurgans and Scythia

[06] This emphatic claim is thought by many to be the premise for the entire Xena series. Then in 1947 far to the east a Russian archeologist, Sergei I. Rudenko, actually opened a Bronze Age tomb. These little woodcarvings are about two thousand four hundred fifty years old. He unearthed them in 1947 in the high Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. They were taken from burial mounds that concealed tombs of larch logs covered over by large cairns of boulders and stones. These mountains lie directly due south of the modern city of Novosibirsk. The site lies near the borders of China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. The name of the mounds has been imprecisely translated into English as "barrows". In Russian, they are called kurgans the term that is now gaining general acceptance and use.

[07] The kurgans exposed lie in the Ulagan district, on the bank of the east fork of the river Great Ulagan, nine miles from the settlement Ust'- Ulagan up a high flat and dry valley. Local people call it the Pazyryk Valley. It lies due southeast of Gorno-Altaysk, today capital of the Gorno-Altai Republic. Under the auspices of the Hermitage Museum and the Institute of the History of Material Culture of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the late Prof. Serge Ivanovich Rudenko and others excavated five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949.

[08] Rudenko was an anthropologist and in Siberia studying a nomadic culture, anthropology, and archaeolgy overlap. In deference to the work of Prof. Rudenko and his anthropological usage, what was found is now said to belong to the 'Pazyryk Culture'. It flourished between the 7th and 3rd Centuries BCE. Ancients as far back as Herodotus called these mountains Alta Yin Ula (Alta Yeen Oola) "golden mountain". They were the mountain fastness of a group of Scythians that may have called themselves Sacae. It was the seat of the larger of two related Scythian groups, the eastern or Golden Horde. Borias had been a minor chief from this eastern Horde and Xena when she lived with them.

[09] In the 19th Century, Lippincott's Gazetteer described the region and its people in this way:

"... the literal appropriateness of the name borne by a group of mountains is probably but accidental. The country in question was formerly the seat of the Mongolian tribe called the Golden Horde, and it is consonant with their usage's to suppose that they dignified with the title of golden the residence of their chief, or the locality in which he fixed his camp. The name Alta Yeenoola, or Golden Mountain which first denoted only the court, or royal residence, came at length to be applied to the whole territory of the tribe."

[10] While they were not Mongolian or even a tribe, the description is otherwise accurate.

[11] Death was thought to be similar to life but in another place and form. It was like taking a trip to a distant place. All the things a person might use or need in this life were placed in the tomb for use in the next. Among rich or powerful, invariably their horses were put down and buried with them. With Pazyryks, that is people whose art and lifestyle were the same as those disinterred in the Pazyryk Valley, in these graves were only ordinary utensils. They were not the lavish offerings found in ancient burials from other cultures.

[12] Since he had no cultural comparison for what he found, Rudenko declined to ascribe anything to these grand burials other than being chiefs and potentates of the people described in the gazetteer description.

"All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altai, who have left behind them the large cairns, permits us to refer them to the Scythian period, and the Pazyryk group in particular to the fifth century BC. This is supported by radiocarbon dating."

[13] Of the five large kurgan he excavated, the second and fifth are more important. All these tombs had been plundered by ancient grave robbers. While this damaged much of what remained, it was alteration of the permafrost in them by breaking the seal of ice and stones, which caused mummification to fail and wooden artifacts to decay. In kurgan2 were found the two deer figures. In kurgan5 was found among other treasures the famous Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving wool pile oriental rug on earth.

[14] Political climate often controls the findings of archeologists. Since his excavations were done in the officially egalitarian Soviet Union, his refusal to ascribe a racial type to these people or stress the cultural similarities between them and Scythians from the Kuban and lower Dneiper Valley in European Russia is understandable. He closed his book by saying that the ancient culture he studied became the basis of nomadic tribes of today including modern Altaians, Kirgiz, and Kazakhs. This became a source of considerable pride for these peoples particularly the citizens of the Gorno- Altai Republic.

Wild Steppe Action

Afraid of retribution, the Amazons always let Xena win the horse races
The Ewok Amazons spent a lot of time on the Steppes.

[15] In 1993 there now occurred one of those cataclysmic events in archaeolgy that happen rarely, destroying comfortable assumptions about the nature and social structure of an ancient people. It has created fierce debate and two entirely different schools of thought about the people of the steppes, 'Pazyryks' as they are now called. Like Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings in 1923, the discoveries of Natalia Polosmak and her husband Prof. Vyacheslav I. Molodin on the Ukok Plateau compare, in what they have taught us about the ancient world.

[16] The Molodins are attached to the Archaeological Institute at Novosibirsk. They had heard reports that large kurgan were also to be found on the Ukok Plateau. At a considerable distance from the Pazyryk Valley, to the far south in the Altai chain it lies directly on the border with China. The valley of Ak-Alakha on the Ukok plateau was a migration route, a 'place of transhumance' to use archeologist's jargon, from prehistory onward. It was a good place for burials as it was always remote and protected from plundering.

[17] Having little money to conduct major digs themselves, they associated with a Belgian group that included two universities and the Royal Museums of Art and History of Brussels. Financing was provided by their Fund for Fundamental and Collective Research. A chain of events now took place that makes it all but impossible to gainsay what was discovered. In a country known for 'disinformation', a fortuitous element was the presence of an independent witness.

[18] Flying due south in a rented helicopter Polosmak searched the Ukok for her kurgan while her husband went looking for another. It is here that another element came into play: Polosmak's extraordinary charm and feminine allure. Totally unlike Janice Covington, she is soft-spoken and refined, slender, with deep brown eyes, long brown hair, but with a scholar's intellect, she was not only beautiful but also endowed with an exceptional ability to win friends and influence people. More than once frozen-faced former communist officials took exception to their rules, just to help her out.

[19] Her independent witness, an American archaeolgy student from the Midwest, Jeannie Smoot, accompanied her. Two young women out in the wilderness, hardly in distress but needing help. It was not long in coming. Enchanted young soldiers from a company of Russian border guards took them to meet their commander. He had an amateur's enthusiasm for archaeolgy and had drawn a map locating all the burial mounds in his area of responsibility. Not only would he help them select the mound for her dig, his men could also protect them.

[19] A not so small consideration in so remote an area, protecting archeological digs is always a consideration. Having an army to protect one is better than bringing your own Gatling Gun. He found the women a large kurgan that pleased them greatly. Standing within fifteen feet of the fence that marks the no man's land between Russia and China, it showed only slight signs of having ever been disturbed. When not on duty, young soldiers helped move stones, carry water from a nearby lake, and heat it to tepid with blowtorches to melt the ice that had filled the tomb. They photographed the finds and the entire dig.

[20] What was found was beyond their wildest expectations. As the ice in the coffin slowly melted, there appeared before them the form of a young Pazyryk woman about their own age but dead for twenty-four centuries. She had been carefully mummified and laid with great affection in a pose of sleep into her oversize larch coffin. Her shoulder and an arm were intricately tattooed with a design that intermingled three mythological beasts. On her head had been placed a tall chignon or headdress, a construction made of felt almost a meter high. On it were mounted many small wooden birds and a griffin clip at the base. Her crown of status possibly, a totem it symbolized the Tree of Life, a religious concept among many Scythians. Near her face, a small deer carving like the ones shown was found. Polosmak dubbed her The Ice Maiden.

[21] Those pictured were found in kurgan2 at Pazyryk and are today in the Hermitage. Rudenko described them twice, here in English translation.

"The superb deer, upright on four legs, on the spherical stands from kurgan2 are works of high artistic quality."

[22] Elsewhere he described them:

"The figures of deer carved from single pieces of wood standing on a ball support are fine sculptural work; these beautiful realistic figures have been executed with quite exceptional skill. The proportions of the body are severely restrained, except the inserted leather ears and more particularly the branching antlers, which were deliberately exaggerated. ... Since each figure was carved separately, they all differ from one another in detail. In the sockets of the spherical bases were small iron rods showing that originally the figures had been hafted in some way. The figures as a whole, including stands, ears and antlers, were covered by gold leaf..."

Bullwinkle's harem

The deer carvings

[23] Rudenko said he found four of these deer carvings in kurgan2. For some reason, he believed there had been six. The inventory of the contents of this kurgan however showed only two. Although they differ slightly, they both strike the same pose. One had been damaged and skillfully repaired in ancient times. The deer carving found by Natalia Polosmak in the coffin of her Ice Maiden was the same in posture and configuration. The figure was still fixed to its long wand-like shaft. The spherical base was smooth rather than fluted. Not worn on the person as a modern decoration, it was carried in the right hand as a scepter.

[24] Probably shortly after interment the 'congelation', archeologist's jargon for frozen in ice, had failed in the coffin about the head. This allowed the facial tissues and other objects near the face to decay. Her hair disappeared, as did the gold leaf on the deer figure and other woodcarvings. Being made of leather, the antlers of her deer effigy did too. The skin on the rest of her body though was intact preserving her remarkably artistic tattoos. Smoot called them elegant. Although it was obvious to viewers of the NOVA video where this entire scenario is found, like the women who uncovered her, she was white. The narrator though, a well-known American actor, was not permitted to mention this in his script.

[25] Finishing the dig, the Ice Maiden and the artifacts buried with her were flown out to Novosibirsk. The usual ghost stories and tales of curses of disturbed dead seem to come true when the helicopter carrying her blew an engine and crashed. No one was hurt and the Ice Maiden and her possessions were undamaged. Nevertheless, it was a foreboding of what was to happen. At Novosibirsk the freezer in which she was placed was unable to maintain a freezing temperature. Mold began to grow on the body and the tattoos began to fade. Flown out by jet to Moscow she was preserved. Placed in the same tank used to keep the corpse of Lenin in good condition, it is a testament to the resourcefulness and diplomacy of both Molodins. The artifacts then went out to the best laboratories in Switzerland for thorough and cutting edge analysis.

More Graves

[26] Two years later in 1995, Prof. Molodin opened a grave of his own. It contained the mummified body of a young man. About twenty-four or five he was white and had long blond hair. While obvious to viewers, once again the narrator of the video was not permitted to mention it. Nevertheless, others did notice and to determine the race of The Ice Maiden, her skull was given to Tania Balueva, a Moscow forensic sculptor. Here the film's producers called her technique "controversial".

[27] Nevertheless, determination of race is an integral part of forensic identification. It is required in all civilized countries were modern criminology is practiced. Balueva does work for the Moscow Police and the KGB. Therefore, when she declared The Ice Maiden "a clear-cut representative of the Caucasian race with no typically Mongolian features" we can take it as fact that this is so. Balueva should be considered for decoration by the prestigious Vidocq Society for her steadfast refusal to change her opinion or the sculpture despite political pressure to do so.

Possible Conclusions

[28] The discovery of the three Scythian deer carvings and the similarities between that found in kurgan2 by Rudenko in the Pazyryk Valley and the grave goods uncovered on the Ukok Plateau by the Molodins, it can be said there are now two schools of thought on Pazyryk Culture. The first is Rudenko's anthropological one that the graves were those of local Altaians, that they were racially diverse, and that their art forms and culture were largely local phenomena influenced by nearby Hun, Mongol, and Chinese forms. One of those interred in kurgan5 at Pazyryk was a Chinese princess along with her four-wheel bridal carriage.

[29] The second opinion is that those interred in the many kurgan in the Altai were brought there for religious reasons from all over Siberia and as far away as what is now European Russia. Not everyone who died received a kurgan. It took a thousand years more or less for the collection in the Altai to be constructed and much labor by the mourners who built them. The Altai was only used as a cemetery and those buried there were not necessarily native to them.

[30] They all had a strong sense of pageantry, even caparisoning their horses to resemble deer, and held parades and ceremonies of state. Earlier in the century at Melitopol in the Dnieper district of the Ukraine a cast bronze pole-top or spontoon was found dating to the fifth century BCE and now in the Hermitage.

[31] Found in many Scythian graves are small polished metal mirrors on carved wood backings. A deer motif is often carved on them. Carefully protected in pouches of various kinds, they were used in pre-compass times to aid navigation. They gradually became a Kennzeichen, to use a German word, for clan members and given only to whites.

[32] American actor Julia Roberts recently spent a summer living with a group of nomads in Outer Mongolia. Friendly and hospitable, they were gregarious and outgoing. This may be sociologic. Loners cannot survive on the steppes. They depend on each other's assistance to help in struggling against the harsh climate.

Racial Paradox?

Getting the first singing group organised
XENA, to its credit, often played fast and loose when associating race with certain characters.

[33] There were white Scythians and those of other races. It was probable however those white Scythians were more self-motivated and cautious. White Scythians practiced what anthropologists call a "breeding contract" which permitted only white partners. They did not cohabit with non-whites. Scythians are also known for their warlike qualities and much fighting it now appears could have been racially motivated.

[34] The folk art found in kurgan2 at Pazyryk and in the Polosmak-Molodin Graves, as they now are called, show subtle differences in subject than that found in graves of non-whites. The folk art found in the white graves was either sparse or else de-emphasized human combat, animal struggles, or strong over weak motifs. Those where these small deer were found also strongly emphasized the Tree of Life concept.

[35] These little deer figures meet the criteria of an order. Polosmak feels the deer imagery had spiritual significance to Pazyryks. From use of the deer as a symbol on kinship mirrors, selected persons of high state and belonging carried these carved effigies. No others have been found. From their special headdress, the rank or position of the dead is shown. The little deer figures were something in addition, an award or honor perhaps, perhaps a scepter of belonging.

Political Woes

[36] The person spearheading the clamor in favor of the older anthropological claims is Rima Eriknova, a native Altaian and director of the Altai Regional Museum in Gorno-Altaisk. When interviewed for the film she waxed indignant that the site had been excavated and the material removed without consultation or permission of the local authorities.

"They finished excavating and then took the artifacts away with them without telling us, as if it were a matter that didn't concern us, as if this were not our country."

[37] She was visibly livid in the film when she said of the forensic reconstruction,

"they made the Ice Maiden completely European. But in fact she has also Mongolian features. They said, she does not belong to our culture."

[38] She went on to insist,

"She has to return to the Altai -- to her motherland. She belongs to our culture."

[39] With the political changes in the region, Ms. Eriknova's superiors were now able to demand return of the Ice Maiden and her belongings. Once complied with, however, Ms. Eriknova still had complaint. The hope is that she would be reburied and forgotten, especially as she was Caucasian.

"Many Altai people couldn't look at her. It is not our custom to mix with the dead. Once you have been buried no one should disturb you. Yet, as Director of the museum, I am obliged to keep her here, to display her. But nevertheless, I believe she should be reburied, returned to where she came from."

[40] Polosmak was visibly hurt in her final interview of the film. As a punishment for not obtaining permission beforehand, a ban has been put in effect. In practice it applies only to them. The Ukok Plateau that was the gravesite is now off limits to Russian archeologists.

"Since our arrival, the Ukok returned to life and started revealing its secrets. We have begun to tell its story. So we were really upset when they introduced this ban. It meant curtailing the historic step forward. That is a shame."

[41] The case for the opposition can be briefly stated. It has never been the custom for the Russian Army in any era to ask permission of local authorities before doing things and Russian soldiers and their officers have had a long tradition of helpfulness to beautiful young women. In addition, the artifacts and the remains were given scrutiny in well-equipped laboratories by experts vastly better trained than any found in the Altai.

[42] Causing through pressure for political or liberal reasons, experts to tailor their findings to be politically correct is academically dishonest. This has also been done in the past in America. Church supported universities financed archeological digs that would "prove" biblical accounts. That which supported them was given wide prominence. What did not was allowed to languish in museum basements. The excavation campaign in the Altai was done in cooperation with three foreign institutions that provided the funding. This ban now causes inability to share with these donors some of the artifacts, also a custom in archaeolgy of long standing. Therefore, it is best not to talk too much about what is customary.

All Is Not Lost

No, I'm fine, it's just my career that's dead
Who knows what may be lurking in as yet undiscovered tombs out there?

[43] However, all is not lost. Excavations did continue in the Altai. Now the local Agency for Cultural and Historical Heritage of Gorno-Altai are collaborators with the Belgians. Their choice of sites however was inexpert. What they found unimportant. The first kurgan was not a burial site at all but a ritual setting with a central stone cistern which was empty. The second contained badly embalmed remains and two other burials of much later Sarmatian date. Burial goods were only some sheep bones, a carved ceramic vessel, and an iron knife. As Rudenko wrote long before, "ceramics are hardly consistent with a nomadic way of life."

[44] Not about to permit his young wife's wonderful discovery to be treated in so parochial and unprofessional a manner, her husband is doubtless pursuing other avenues. Prof. Molodin is a man of vast experience and reputation. A petty ban is unlikely to keep him out of archaeolgy for long. One suggestion is that the Russian Army under existing mutual defense treaties declare the Ukok Plateau a military defense zone. To prevent damage to these Material Culture sites in the event of attack, curious locals could be kept out while all kurgan in the zone are excavated.

[45] The Molodins are the most photogenic and influential couple in archaeolgy today. They are really stars. Without them needed foreign funding may be hard to find. Ms. Eriknova's superiors will come to realize that without archaeology there may be fewer tourists and tourists bring money.


[46] Not wishing to make this dissertation over long, a couple more things should be said. The Ice Maiden was a shamaness, a contemporary of and from the same region as Alti. Life expectancy being much shorter then, she may not have been a maiden but mother of at least two children. In a society without a written history, her grave and her remains reveal the story of the Scythians.

[47] For a few Xenites, she is an example of how what seemed at first legendary, suddenly becomes visible fact. Their fan fiction has her interacting with Xena and Gabrielle. Despite every disclaimer, a few believe that Xena herself is based on some as yet unidentified actual historical personage. Turning myth into history, even history into myth is not as fanciful as it seems.


Klingender, Francis. Animals in art and thought to the end of the Middle Ages. Edited by Evelyn Antal and John Harthan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1971)

Nova/WGBH Co-production. #2517: "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden" Boston: PBS Airdate: Nov. 24, 1998. VHS WG2517. Video.
Those unable to view this video may download a transcript of the narration by accessing

Rudenko, Sergei Ivanovich. Frozen tombs of Siberia. The Pazyryk burials of Iron Age horsemen. Translated and with a preface by M.W. Thompson. London: J.M. Dent (1970)

C. Massart, J. Bourgeois, S. Mathieu, C. Schuermans. Scythian Archeology. First campaign of a joint Belgian-Gorno Altaisk Republic Archaeological excavation. (1999)


Edward P. Rich, "Xena As Heiress Of Anacharsis: Her Route To Immortality" WHOOSH 56 (May, 2001)


Edward P. Rich Edward P. Rich

Edward P. Rich is a retired dentist and former librarian for rare books at the United States Military Academy, West Point and the Library of the Health Science, University of Illinois at the Medical Center Chicago.
Favorite episode: Other than the one with Janice Covington, I also am fond of SUCCESSION, Mavican with her overblown sense of personal destiny.
Favorite line: Mavican to Gabrielle: "Why do you think Gods are as they are? They're immortal because we make them that way." SUCCESSION; Janice: "... something that will revolutionize the way we look at the ancient world. It has the power to turn myth into history, history into myth." THE XENA SCROLLS
First episode seen: Do not remember. Christie D. a Xenite from Winnipeg MB put me on the wonders of Xena after reading (and enjoying) my alternative Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman novel

Return to 
Top Return to Index