What do the wool artifacts found buried inside Pazyryk tombs tell us about these ancient peoples?
A treasure trove of woolly secrets
My latest read, Follow the Flock: How Sheep Shaped Human Civilization by Sally Coulthard, told the fascinating story of the humble sheep and their important role in human civilization. In Chapter 2, “Wool’s Scaly Secret,” Coulthard writes about certain archaeological excavations of burial sites in the Siberian Altai Mountains that yielded woolen artifacts, among other findings, which give us a glimpse of the rich culture of ancient Pazyryks, a Scythian tribe. These, and other ancient peoples such as the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, were highly skilled weavers and needle crafters who used wool and felt for practical, ceremonial, decorative, and military purposes. This interesting information prompted me to learn more about the excavations that Coulthard mentions, the woolen findings, and the Scythian culture.
Herodotus on Scythians
Because the Scythians didn’t know writing, most of what we know about their culture and clothing first came from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 — c. 425 BC.) In his Histories, Herodotus describes the Scythians as horse-riding people who wore trousers, shot bows from horseback, carried their dwellings wherever they went and observed burial traditions.
Some of his descriptions are rather accurate in reference to archaeological evidence found in several burial sites (dated 7th through 4th centuries BC.) in two regions: a) the Black Sea region where Greeks had established settlements to trade objects with the Scythians and other local people they came in contact with; and b) the Altai Mountains region where Kazakhstan, China, Russia, and Mongolia meet, and which specially interested archaeologists.
The burial chambers in both regions were often looted, and afterward, water seeped into the chambers and froze in the cold climate of the high mountains. When Russian archaeologists excavated them in the 1920s and 1940s, all the objects and organic substances were well preserved because of the permafrost.
The discovery of the oldest carpet in the world (1949)
The most elaborate Pazyryk burial sites were in the Altai Mountain range and were discovered by Soviet archaeologists M. P. Gryaznov and Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko. Gryaznov excavated the first tomb, barrow 1, in 1929. Rudenko excavated barrows 2–5 between 1947 and 1949. These excavations brought to light horses, cloth saddles, a chariot, a tattooed Pazyryk chief, textiles, wooden furniture, and other elaborate artifacts.
In 1949, Rudenko unearthed a woolen pile carpet, 283 cm long and 200 cm wide, from the tomb of a Scythian nobleman. Experts determined that the carpet is Persian or Armenian and dated it to the 5th century BC. The carpet shows advanced weaving techniques, lavish patterns, and rich colors (red, blue, yellow.) It has 36 symmetrical knots per square centimeter, repetitive patterns, cross-shaped figures, lotus buds, and borders with warriors on horseback, deer, and griffins. This sophisticated carpet is housed at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
The discovery of the Arjan Tomb (1982)
In the autumn of 1982, a bulldozer working on the Marun River dam construction in Arjan, a city in Iran, accidentally smashed onto the stone tomb of an Elamite king. Inside the tomb chamber was a U-shaped bronze coffin and several funerary objects. An interesting finding was a large bronze tray, called the Arjan Bowl, with five registers of painted scenes around a central rosette of sixteen petals.
One scene on the outer border of the bowl showed the wooden frame of a yurt with a felt flap as a door. The felt cover of the yurt was intentionally omitted to show its interior.
This image proves that ancient peoples used woolen felt extensively for portable housing, besides clothing. They decorated their yurts with felt wall hangings and carpets to make them warm in bitter winters.
The discovery of the Siberian Ice Maiden (1993)
The rugged Siberian Altai mountains had been an inhospitable region where only a few archaeologists had ventured. But for Dr. Natalia Polosmak, a Russian archaeologist, the intriguing tales of the ancient Pazyryks had fueled her passion to reach their burial sites at the Ukok Plateau of that region. A border guard came to Dr. Polosmak’s aid when he guided her and her team to a kurgan, a burial mound between Russia and China. After weeks of removing stones and digging dirt, the team found a wooden chamber with the frozen mummy of a mysterious young woman, known as the Ukok Princess or Siberian Ice Maiden, buried in a wealth of organic artifacts such as a cosmetics bag and coriander seeds.
Her elaborate costume revealed that she was a high-status woman. She wore a silk tunic and a long woolen skirt with three horizontal bands. Each band was dyed a different shade of red. The skirt included a soft belt, braided with woolen lace threads, and finished with tassels. Her legs stayed warm in felt thigh-high stockings decorated with felt appliqués. Most astonishing was her hat, an 84 cm long headdress made of felt and decorated with the figurine of a deer covered in golden foil and 15 wooden birds.
The importance of wool in the Pazyryk culture
The archaeological findings from the frozen tombs discussed above made us understand how important wool was to the Pazyryks and Scythians, in general. They favored wool because of its adaptable properties that suited their nomadic lifestyle.
The Pazyryks were skilled horse riders, nomads who followed the seasons and guided their sheep in different pastures. Because they were constantly on the move, they lived in large yurts which they could erect or dismantle fast and carry on camels or yaks. These yurts were tents made from a wooden frame and covered with felt. Their floors and walls were lined with sheepskins and felt carpets to provide warmth. The Pazyryks knew other fabrics such as linen and silk before they knew wool. But wool captured their imagination because it was so adaptable. It was a great insulator and windproof. It could both repel and absorb moisture, keeping them warm in harsh winters and cool in toasty summers.
Wool’s success is in its fibers: they are coated with overlapping scales of protein that work as shingles on a roof. They repel water and absorb any water that slips between the cracks of the scales. The absorbed moisture at the inner core of its fibers makes wool naturally fire and flame resistant. That’s why wool blankets are great to smother flames. Today, many firefighters, military personnel, and first responders wear wool clothes to protect them from skin burns.
Wool is also naturally elastic. It stretches and keeps its shape, making it resilient to tearing. For this reason, the Pazyryks used sheep’s wool to make strong felt mats that they used for everything: yurts, clothing, headgear, shoes, saddle clothes, and rugs. Other ancient cultures also knew of the robustness of felt and used it to their benefit: The Romans wore felt vests, tunics, and boots to protect them from puncture wounds and infections in battles; the Greeks lined their helmets with felt; and the Chinese used felt for armor, caps, mattresses, and even boats.
Wool for everything
Much of what we know about the Pazyryk culture has been gleaned from the writings of Herodotus and archaeological excavations of frozen tombs in the Black Sea and the Altai Mountains regions. These excavations brought to light frozen mummies, sacrificed horses, wool textiles, small furniture, and other objects, which today are hosted in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Scientists learned as much as they could about this nomadic Scythian tribe that favored sheep’s fleece so much for their survival. The Pazyryks used wool for their housing, clothing, and military because it was waterproof, windproof, fire resistant, robust, breathable, and antibacterial. Their artifacts were distinguished by a sophisticated level of artistry and craftsmanship.
Coulthard, Sally. (2021). Wool’s Scaly Secret. Follow the Flock: How Sheep Shaped Human Civilization (pp. 19–32). Pegasus Books.
Fashion and Beauty Secrets of a 2,500 Year Old Siberian “Princess” from her Permafrost Burial Chamber. (2012, 28 August). The Siberian Times.
Purple and Gold over Thousands of Years. (2005, January 30). SCIENCE First Hand.
Rubinson, Karen S. (1975). Herodotus and the Scythians. Expedition Magazine, 17(4), 16–20.
Smith, Ian. (2016, 29 April). Pazyryk Carpet is the Oldest One in the World. Vintage News.
Stronach, David. (2004). On the Antiquity of the Yurt: Evidence from Arjan and Elsewhere. The Silk Road. http://silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/2004vol2num1/yurt.htm