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Medieval, modern looters destroy most mummies in Russia's Yamal — scientist

This summer, Russian and South Korean researchers continued tests of a boy’s mummy found in 2015

SALEKHARD, February 9. /TASS/. Medieval and modern looters have destroyed most mass burials in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, and finding undamaged remains of mummies is great surprise for researchers, Aexei Zarodov, head of the archeology and ethnography department of the local museum complex, told TASS on Thursday.

"It is next to impossible to find well preserved remains in the burials of the XII-XIII centuries, since practically all burials had been robbed, and the looters had taken away all the metal they found - in order to smelt it and sell on black market," he said. "Meanwhile, those objects of copper and silver used to protect mummies from destruction."

The best known place in Yamal, where ancient mass burials were found is the Zeleniy Yar archeological complex. "The monument consists of several complexes - those are parts of the smelting shop, about the XI-XII centuries, and two burials - of the VIII-IX and XII-XII centuries," the scientist said. "Two mummies were found there - of a warrior and of a teenaged boy - as well as many objects, which had been used in the burial ceremonies."

"There are two reasons why the remains preserved well - the permafrost and the metal plates in the burials - made of copper, bronze and silver, as well as fur," he explained. "Those are good preservers, which made it possible for the organics, including humans’ remains, last through to this time."

"The looters nowadays see through most burials using metal detectors, and the most negative here is that they are destroying the burials exactly like the ancient marauders of the XV-XVI centuries," he continued. "After them, scientists are unable to find mummies, as they become unprotected and get mixed with soil and remains of cloths."

History of Zeleniy Yar’s research began in 1976 - at that time a scientist from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Leonid Khlobystin, found a dwelling of ancient people there. Later on, in 1997, an expedition of local and the U.S. scientists found in a well there an edge of a grave with a part of skull. The research was suspended in 2002 to resume nine years later.

Black Warrior

In 2001, during the excavations in Zeleniy Yar, scientists found a mummy of a red-haired man, whom reporters nicknamed a "black shaman." "He was about 40-50 when he died, and the burial is dated 1240," the scientist said. "One of the bronze plates covered the body fully, and thus the mummy was in a very good condition."

Archeologists supposed the man had been a warrior. "Next to him was an axe, tips of iron arrows, and a metal buckle, which was used as a pendant, and it was sewn to the garment. The man’s body was found in a sarcophagus, which resembles a modern boat; the warrior was wrapped in a cocoon of clothes. The mummy’s face remained undamaged, as the head was covered by a fur blanket, to which another copper plate was attached."

"As of now, this is the only mummy, which is exposed to the public - the museum in Salekhard has special cooling equipment, which keeps certain temperature in the glass sarcophagus," he said.

Scientists restored the warrior’s features using 3D scanning. "Clearly, he was of the Mongoloid race, but unfortunately it is practically impossible to identify the nationality - even tests cannot be helpful here as DNA could be close to that of the North’s indigenous peoples."

New finding

In summer 2015, Russian scientists found the second well-preserved mummy.

At first, archeologists found a birch bark cocoon 1.3m long and about 30cm wide, in which they saw the mummy of a boy, about 6-7 years old. Right now, Russian scientists are testing the mummy’s DNA to find why the boy had died - whether the reason was an infection or maybe parasites.

First results of made research date the mummy to the XIII century. Next to the mummy were: a small copper axe, an object with figure of a bear, and temple rings of gilded silver. "Restorers have made colossal work on these objects - now they are at a museum, where they will be exhibited," the scientist said.

This summer, Russian and South Korean researchers continued tests of the boy’s mummy. "By studying the intestinal tract’s substance, we shall learn more about parasites of the ancient people, and thus will know more about nutrition and diseases typical for the ancient people, who lived in Zeleiy Yar," he continued. "Besides, we shall study samples of the mummies and mummies’ remains from Zeleniy Yar to see how the ancient and the modern peoples are connected genetically, and besides we shall analyze stable isotopes to reconstruct food preferences of the ancient people."

The mummy has not undergone conservation, as "the issue of exhibiting is of the ethics origin - we say just ‘a mummy’, but for the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North it is a burial," he said. "Right now, I cannot say whether we shall exhibit it, now we are only making scientific studies - in any case, we shall certainly consider opinions of the indigenous peoples."

Scientists have found in the Zeleiy Yar medieval burial 30 burials and more than 15 mummies. During the 2016 expedition only, archeologists opened nine burials, but all of them turned out to have been robbed before the scientists found them.