Research Article: Medieval mummies of Zeleny Yar burial ground in the Arctic Zone of Western Siberia

Date Published: January 25, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sergey Mikhailovich Slepchenko, Alexander Vasilyevich Gusev, Evgenia Olegovna Svyatova, Jong Ha Hong, Chang Seok Oh, Do Seon Lim, Dong Hoon Shin, Mark Spigelman.


Notwithstanding the pioneering achievements of studies on arctic mummies in Siberia, there are insufficient data for any comprehensive understanding of the bio-cultural details of medieval people living in the region. In the Western Siberian arctic, permafrost mummies have been found in 12th to 13th century graves located in the Zeleny Yar (Z-Y) burial ground (66°19’4.54″С; 67°21’13.54″В). In 2013–2016, we were fortunate to be able to excavate that cemetery, locating a total of 47 burials, including cases of mummification. Some of these mummies had been wrapped in a multi-layered birch-bark cocoon. After removal of the cocoon, we conducted interdisciplinary studies using various scientific techniques. Gross anatomical examination and CT radiography showed that the internal organs were still well preserved inside the body cavities. Under light and electron microscopy, the histological findings were very similar to those for naturally mummified specimens discovered in other countries. Ancient DNA analysis showed that the Z-Y mummies’ mtDNA haplotypes belong to five different haplogroups, namely U5a (#34), H3ao (#53), D (#67–1), U4b1b1 (#67–2), and D4j8 (#68), which distinguish them for their unique combination of Western- and Eastern Siberia-specific mtDNA haplogroups. Our interdisciplinary study obtained fundamental information that will form the foundation of successful future investigations on medieval mummies found in the Western Siberian arctic.

Partial Text

Over the course of the past several decades, different kinds of mummies have been discovered, attracting the attention of scholars around the world [1–3]. As for the question of how the remains had become mummified, there are two main hypotheses proposed thus far: natural and artificial mummification [1]. Natural mummification typically occurs either in extremely dry or permafrost conditions [3]. For instance, in polar-climatic zones or high-altitude mountainous areas, bodies are often mummified by the combination of high wind, low temperature, and humidity [4,5]. By repeated freezing or evaporation, water continues to be removed from the tissues; the body’s complete putrefaction and decomposition thus prevented, it finally becomes mummified [4].

The Z-Y archaeological site (66°19’4.54″С; 67°21’13.54″В) is situated on a flood plain island that is located about 40 km from the city of Salekhard, YaNAO, Russian Federation (Fig 1). The cemetery was dated to about the 12th to 13th centuries based on the archaeological findings and dendrochronology data. As mentioned above, the cemetery was first investigated from 1999 to 2002. After a long break, a new excavation (2013–2016) at the Z-Y site began in 2013, thanks to a permit (Approval number: 422) issued by the YaNAO government for fieldwork at the identified archaeological heritage site known as “Zeleny-Yar Yard”. Archaeological investigations were performed in accordance with the related laws and bylaws currently enforced in the Russian Federation. We declare that there are no ethical conflicts with respect to our study’s potential impact on the people currently living in the area.

At the Z-Y burial ground in the Western Siberian arctic, 12th to 13th century permafrost mummies were unearthed. After removal of the multi-layered birch-bark cocoon from each specimen, interdisciplinary studies were performed using various scientific techniques. From our gross anatomical, histological, radiological and molecular-biological analyses, we were able to secure invaluable original data on historical native Siberian populations. This information will form the foundation of successful future studies on medieval mummies discovered in the Western Siberian arctic.




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