A team from Ghent University (Jean Bourgeois and Wouter Gheyle, Dep. of Archaeology; Rudi Goossens and Alain D. Wulf, Dep. of Geography) investigated frozen tombs (kurgans) in the Altai Mountains, in collaboration with Sergei Marchenko (University of Alaska, Fairbanks).

Hundreds of such tombs lie scattered across an area straddling Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. These tombs, a major archaeological find dating back to the 1920s, belong to the lost Scythian civilization, which flourished 2500 years ago. Inside the tombs in the frozen ground lie well preserved bodies, often with the tattoos on their skin intact. For thousands of years, the Altai Mountains were an important passage between the Mongolian and Kazakh steppes. The area is a rich source of archaeological information on commercial routes and other exchanges between populations. On the nearby Silk Road and, buried in the graves of the Scythians, one can find Chinese vases, Persian carpets, Indian silks, etc. As the Scythian populations inhabited the entire Eurasian Steppe stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia, the frozen tombs are a unique source of information about one of the most intriguing cultures of their time.

The kurgans are literally embedded in ice. After burial, each tomb was covered with stones, formed as a permeable mound. Rainfall could penetrate into the tomb where it froze. Over time, this process created an ice block, which preserved the tomb and its contents. Grave robbers and fortune hunters have been the tombs’ traditional enemies but, today, a new threat is added. Climatic change is causing the permafrost in this part of Siberia to thaw. With the permafrost that preserves the kurgans now gradually thawing, the frozen tombs and their contents risk to disappear. Measurements from meteorological stations, borehole monitoring and research on glaciers all indicate significant climatic changes in the Altai. Permafrost could disappear completely in some areas of the Altai by the middle of this century. After 2500 years of perfect preservation, the remaining frozen kurgans can now be lost. UNESCO and the University of Ghent are helping teams in Russia and Kazakhstan to pinpoint locations of the remaining tombs.

Ghent University and Gorno-Altaisk State University have conducted joint research in the Altai Mountains since 1995. Their research has focused both on excavating burial mounds and on thorough surveys of other archaeological heritage in the mountains. Satellite images are used to create a cartographical archaeological inventory that fuses traditional field work, satellite image interpretation and GPS. In 2003 and 2004, the research team studied the organization of ritual and funerary sites in the Altai landscape through time, and recorded over 3000 archaeological monuments, in an area of about 600 km². In 2005- 2006, a project put together by Ghent University with the support of UNESCO and a generous contribution from the Flemish Community of Belgium is continuing this survey, assessing climatic change in the Altai to analyse the threats which climatic change poses to the frozen tombs. Recent images compared to historic imagery from the 60’ies are expected to indirectly provide insights into climatic change, and the rate at which frozen ground is thawing.

In 2006, the University of Ghent surveyed the Yustyd Valley (Russia) and the valleys of Kara-Kaba and Bukhtarma (east Kazakhstan), in collaboration with the Gorno-Altaisk State University and the Margulan Institute of Archaeology of Almaty. Sergei Marchenko assisted the team with the permafrost investigations. Thermistors with data loggers were installed in several places in the valley, at different depths. After one year, temperature measurements will provide insights on the maximum depth of thawing during the short summer in different parts of the valley. Based on this information, local conservationists will be able to establish priorities for preserving each of the tombs. They will be able to determine which tombs lie in the areas where permafrost is thawing fastest. Modern approaches to archaeology seek to avoid excavating tombs, and to study ways of preserving the tombs creating a system of ‘air conditioning’ that would keep the tombs frozen.

An International Conference was held in Ghent December 4-6, 2006, on the problems of the frozen tombs and on Scythian archaeology. An exhibition will present the frozen tombs and the Altai Mountains to a larger public, first in Ghent, then in Paris (March 2007) and in Gorno-Altaisk (May 2007). Further information at www.archaeology.ugent.be/altai.

Wouter Gheyle and Jean Bourgeois, Irénée Heyse (irenee.heyse@ugent.be)