Natalia Victorovna Polosmak (Russian: Наталья Викторовна Полосьмак; born 12 September 1956) is a Russian archaeologist specialising in the Eurasian nomads, especially those known as the Pazyryk, an ancient people who lived in the Altay Mountains in Siberian Russia. She is best known for her finding of the Ice Maiden mummy which now is at the center of an ethnic political debate between Russian scientists and the local Altay people.
In 1993, Polosmak was searching over the barren land of the Ukok Plateau when she discovered a spectacular archaeological find, a mummy frozen in the plateau's permafrost which she associated with the Pazyryk on the basis of intact clothing remaining on the mummy. The Pazyryk were an ancient people who lived in the Altay Mountains on the Ukok Plateau. Many ancient Bronze Age tomb mounds have been found in the area and have been associated with the Pazyryk culture, a culture that closely resembled that of the legendary Scythian people to the west. The term kurgan is in general usage to describe the barrow burials found in the area. Excavations of this site yielded fascinating archaeological artifacts.
This famous finding by Polosmak is known as the Ice Maiden. She discovered the mummy in an ancient, and previously undisturbed, burial mound. The mummy was unusual in that it was a woman buried with full ceremonial honors, a rare honor for a Pazyryk woman at that time. The mummy was intricately tattooed and estimated to date back to 5th century BCE. She was beautifully dressed with a black felt headdress which was found intact and decorated with figures that showed her social status. She wore a necklace of wooden camels and high boots of leather. Her dress was of woven camel hair and sheep's wool with braided tassels and colored red with insect dye. More tattooed mummies (c. 300 BC) were also extracted from the permafrost at the site.
While Polosmak and her team were excavating the site and defrosting the artifacts with water from a nearby lake heated with blow torches, rumors circulated among the local people that disturbing the dead would cause bad things to happen. The engine of the helicopter that Polosmak used to fly the remains of the maiden to Russia failed, resulting in an emergency landing and some deterioration to the Ice Maiden for lack of refrigeration. This was taken as another sign that the maiden did not like to be disturbed. An earthquake in September 2003 in Altay was also seen as bad fortune linked to the disturbing of the dead.
From the beginning, there was controversy over the ownership of the Ice Maiden and other archaeological finds which were found just within a disputed strip of land between Russia and China and were removed by Polosmak and Russian officials to Novosibirsk and Moscow for research. Modern forensics by the Moscow Police and the KGB determined that the Ice Maiden is "a clear-cut representative of the Caucasian race with no typically Mongolian features". The residents of this area, known as the Altay Republic, demanded the return of the burial artifacts from their Russian locations, claiming the ancient remains should never have been disturbed and that they belong at the site where they were found.
Rima Eriknova, a native Altayan and director of the Altay Regional Museum in Gorno-Altaysk, a leader of the group that called for the return of the artifacts said she was offended that the area was excavated and the valuable artifacts removed without the knowledge of or permission from the local people in the villages. She believes that the Ice Maiden belongs to the people of Altay and that Russian forensic findings are suspect and an attempt to erase the local heritage. She has been quoted as saying "...they made the Ice Maiden completely European. But in fact she has also Mongolian features. They said, she does not belong to our culture."
The issue results from conflicting elements. The scientific evidence provided by genetics regarding the Ice Maiden's genotype or phenotype that suggest she was not an ancestor of the people now living there, and the claim of the Altayans that the mummy is Altayan because she was found in Altay and is part of their heritage, scientific findings having no bearing on the matter from their point of view.
The artifacts have not been returned but a ban has been put in place specifically excluding Russian archaeologists from the excavated gravesites on the Ukok Plateau. It is now off limits to Polosmak. Polosmak has expressed her hurt regarding this ban. In the years since the discovery of the "Ice Maiden" she had made the area and her findings there her life's work.
Articles by Polosmak
- The First Report on a Burial of a Noble Pazyryk Woman on the Ukok Plateau
- The frozen tombs of the Scythians
- "The First Report on a Burial of a Noble Pazyryk Woman on the Ukok Plateau". Retrieved 2007-12-01.
- Bahn, Paul G. (2000). The Atlas of World Geology. New York: Checkmark Books. p. 128. ISBN 0-8160-4051-6.
- "Golden Mountains of Altai". UNESCO. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
- Natalia V. Polosmak. "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden". PBS - NOVA. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
- "Prehistoric Art - Early Nomads of the Altaic Region". The Hermitage Museum. Retrieved 2007-07-31.
- "Natalia Polosmak". Retrieved 2007-07-31.
- "Bronze collect at Novosibirsk State University - including Pazyryk". Retrieved 2006-11-30.
- "Minor nationality of Russia demands the return of "Princess of Ukok"". Pravda. February 21 2005. Retrieved 2007-11-27.
- Leigh Fenly (December 8 2004). "Archaeology News". Retrieved 2007-11-27.
- Edward P. Rich (2001). "Archaeology in Support of Profs. Sergei I. Rudenko, Vychesalav I. Molodin, and Natalia Polosmak". Retrieved 2007-11-27.
- Agnieszka Halemba (2006). The Telengits of Southern Siberia. Routledge. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-415-36000-5. Retrieved 2007-11-28.