Altai Mountains have been shaking for six months in a row. Each day is broken by two tremors. The dogs begin to howl and the windows go atrembling. The ground goes up and down in waves and the water bursts out of the mountains. The shamans say that the end of the world is nigh.
The residents of the affected areas keep forwarding their request to the authorities based in the town of Gorno-Altaisk. They first asked for some tents, makeshift stoves and fodder. Their requests were either lost in the process or simply disregarded. The head of the autonomous republic simply took a holiday before the next elections.
The people had to build up mud huts and make stoves from the broken bricks. They began to slaughter their livestock that was doomed anyway due to the lack of fodder.
Then they found out that 500 million roubles had been allocated by the federal government to finance the rebuilding. They figured out that the money had been allotted for them so they sent more letters to the officials in Gorno-Altaisk. They wanted to know: where?s the money? The letters seem to have been lost again.
When an old man and a young boy, the residents of the destroyed village of Beltir, committed suicide, everybody put the blame on despair. And then a wave of suicides swept across the damaged areas. The shamans? verdict: ?The curse of the Altai Princess.?
Another letter was sent to the high places:
?We, the indigenous people of the Mountainous Altai, are the pagans and nature worshippers. All the diggings that have been conducted and are conducted in the Altai cause us unrecoverable harm. The invaluable treasures, a spiritual heritage of the Altai people, are moved out of the region despite our protests. A burial mound containing a young tattooed woman of noble descent was opened at the Ukok plateau in the Kosh Agachsk region. She?s a sacred relic to the Altai people, a keeper of peace and grandeur of our people. The Altai Princess is now kept in a museum in Novosibirsk. Being the pagans we?re completely confident that the soul of the Altai Princess is full of anger because she hates being bothered and wants to be laid to rest. The tragic events of the last few months spring from the situation. We, the residents of the Oroktoy village, are calling on the people of the Republic of Altai to support our demands for the return of the sacred relic.?
The above letter finally made it to the authorities. Just like all the other collective letters asking to put the mummy back to the ground.
The requests are signed by cattle-breeders, lumberjacks, livestock experts, masons, milkers, tractor operators, doctors, shepherds, combine harvester operators, teachers and the unemployed. Aelkhan Zhatkambaev, a governor of Kosh Agachsk, an area most severely hit by the earthquake, also put down his signature. The requests were discussed by the government. The head of the republic made a televised address promising to put the mummy back where she belonged.
The mummy was uncovered in the summer of 1993. At the Ukok plateau. 2500 m above the sea level. The argalis, snow leopards and the border guards. And the burial mounds. The border defenses were built up in the area back in the 1960s when the threat from China seemed imminent. The border troops used stones from the mounds for their pillboxes. Natalya Polosmak, an archeologist, chose one of the semi-demolished mounds for her digging, it was sitting ugly next to the barbed wire. It looked small and ordinary.
?Can?t you find another mound at Ukok? There?s plenty of them around,? said to her Academician Vyacheslav Molodin, her teacher and husband. ?It?s been vandalized, no doubts about that.?
Natalya was persistent in her plans.
Her team dug out a burial site dating back to the early Iron Age in a week. It proved to be a double burial site with an early tomb hidden underneath another one which was inserted later on. The original tomb was covered with an ice lens. It meant that lots of interesting things could be lying in the lower burial chamber just like in a freezer.
A helicopter brought to location a group of archeologists and journalists from Switzerland, Belgium, USA, Japan and Germany to location a few days after the news had been passed to the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian division of the Academy of Sciences.
The burial chamber was being unsealed to the buzz of the media. It took a few days to complete the operation. The burial chamber was a wooden framework. Packed with ice. It was melted down with hot water delivered in mugs. The mugs were used again for scooping out the water from the melted ice.
Six horses lay frozen in ice, the saddles and harness in place. There was a wooden block too. It was fixed with the bronze nails. The blocks like that made of larch were used for burying noble people.
The mummy was lying on the right side with her legs slightly bent under, her arms covered with tattoos. The mummy was clad in a silken shirt, a woolen skirt, felt socks around her feet, a fur coat wrapped around her body and a wig covering her head.
Two helicopters were used for taking the archeologists and the find to Novosibirsk. The chopper carrying Natalya and the mummy crash-landed somewhere between Barnaul and Novosibirsk due to an engine failure. The party reached the city by car.
The local press reported the following news: ?The helicopter carrying the mummy of the Altai Princess suffered a crash killing everybody onboard. The mummy survived the crash intact.?
An authority on mummies arrived from the Moscow Research Center of Biological Structures. The institution is charged with preservation of Lenin?s body. Moscow biologists agreed to restore the mummy for 15 million roubles.
A few dozen research teams from Russia and the rest of the world were busy studying parts of the mummy as it was soaking in the Lenin baths. The find turned out to be a world sensation. It?s reported to be 2,500 years old. The tissue condition is pretty satisfactory for such an old age. Specialists at the Cytology and Genetics Institute singled out DNA from the mummy?s tissues. They found out that:
?A deletion measuring 9 p.n. is missing in the DNA sections. The above deletion is a direct marker indicating the presence of the eastern Asiatic component.?
The princess wasn?t a Mongoloid, in other words. The Altais are a Mongoloid people. The face restoration confirmed the geneticists? findings: the princess had European facial features. The further research showed that the Nenets and Selkups were most likely to be her descendents.
The Altai Princess is not the original mother of the Altai people? The people of Altai would be better off without this piece of information.
The local press put out an article under the headline: ?Molodin, Polosmak &Co created their own anti-national racist theory.?
The Scythians? Gold
Archeologists had troubles dealing with the local authorities before. The locals didn?t let them dig out the mounds. Things got for the worse when the results of the genetic study were published.
Excerpts from the appeal by the Altai intelligentsia: ?... we?re of the different opinion despite the statements made by some officials at the Archeology and Ethnography claiming that the burial sites unearthed have ?no ancestors of yours.?
We view a far-fetched theory regarding the lack of a genetic link to the Altai people as a biased approach towards the history of the Turk peoples. We?re against the plans as regards the Altai land being turned into a single ugly digging hole. We ought to return an embalmed body of the young woman to her place of rest. No scientific interests whatsoever should prevail over the religious and ethnic sentiments of the entire nation.?
Having considered the appeal, the government of the Altai declared the Ukok plateau a ?zone of rest?. Digging is now forbidden. Archeologists have to take a bypass road through Kazakhstan to reach the plateau only to get caught by the angry public and police. Still, the diggers aren?t breaking the federal law, they?ve got a license to dig, an ?open list?. Therefore they can?t be expelled.
The war is going on for 9 out of 10 years of the digging at the Ukok plateau.
23 burial mounds have been opened during this period. One mummy was found.
Why didn?t they find any gold in the mounds? The public claim that gold should be there. There?s a rumor circulating around the Altai: the archeologists are keeping gold to themselves.
?This fur court is the oldest fur coat in the world. It costs much more than any gold,? says Academician Molodin.
Sarcophagus for the Princess
In the meanwhile, the battle for the princess rages on. Funds were allocated from the local coffers to buy to air conditioners in a local museum of regional studies. The units are used to keep the air at 18 C all the time in a room where the mummy is going to be stored.
Excerpts from a letter by the Altai Minister of Culture to the director of the Archeology Institute: ?This is to advise you that the museum will be shortly completing preparations for taking the female mummy from the Ukok plateau for storage pursuant to the agreement between your Institute and the Ministry. It?s highly recommended that the exhibit be put on display in the same sarcophagus. The sarcophagus in question had been her ?house? for many years. The Ministry of Culture is ready to discuss the cost of the sarcophagus.
According to local media, the money spent on the AC units had been originally allocated for the poor. Yet the poor are ready to keep on starving for a little more if the return of the princess is at stake.
From a letter by the director of the Archeology Institute to the Altai Minister of Culture: ?I?m deeply saddened to inform you that the issues relating to a potential transfer of the mummy to your museum have been aggravated by my signing an agreement on cooperation with you. According to legal counselors, I exceeded my authority by doing so.?
The talks have been disrupted. The air conditioners are blowing cool air in an empty room. The poor are relieved of the money and the princess.
Some headlines in the local press: ?The archeologists who took part in the digging of the Altai Princess, are dying one by one due to reasons unknown.?
?We?re going to fold our operations here. It?s getting too dangerous,? said Molodin
Mausoleum for the mummy
The Gorno-Altai communities are split in two. Some want to bury the princess. The others want to put it to a mausoleum.
Rimma Erkinova favors the latter alternative. She?s a director of the regional studies museum. A mockup of the mausoleum is sitting atop her desk. The republican government allocated 2 million roubles for a architectural design. ?The Princess is ours,? said the above lady.
Ivan Belekov is a pro-mausoleum sort of guy. He?s a local minister of culture. He finds it hard to estimate the construction costs. He believes the cost will be high. He knows that his republic has no funds available yet he?s sure that the construction will kick off next year.
Vladimir Sabin wants to bury the mummy. He?s a deputy in a local parliament. He shows me a photograph of poachers holding a freshly skinned argali. ?Molodin is just like them,? said he. ?The body must be put into the ground. Right where it was taken from.?
Vladimir Kadyev wants to bury it too. He?s a board member of the Congress of the Altai people. ?They should have gotten a license from the spirits before digging,? said the board member. He?s going to write to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He?s sure that the big wig will help bury the princess.
?We?re open to discussions as regards a transfer of the mummy to a local museum.
Burying the mummy is out of the question,? said Academician Molodin.
On March 7, 2004, President Putin signed a decree for the celebration of 250th anniversary since the Altai had been made part of Russia. The anniversary is to be celebrated in 2006. The leaders of the Altai people hope that Russia will give them the princess for the occasion. And the earthquakes might abate afterwards.
Object of the highest value
Putting the mummy back to rest means irreparable damage?
The Altai Princess falls under the law ?On objects pertinent to cultural heritage of the peoples of the Russian Federation?. The law says that archeological finds shall be regarded as objects of cultural heritage of the federal importance. Article 25 reads: ?The objects of cultural heritage that are deemed ... of the highest archeological value may be considered as objects of the world cultural heritage.? The mummy is undoubtedly an object of the highest value.
As by Article 61 ?Persons who caused damage to an object of cultural heritage shall recover the cost of restoration incurred thereby. The costs duly recovered shall not exempt such persons from being subject to criminal prosecution.?
Those who will bury the mummy will end up in jail.
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