Inventory and Preservation of the Frozen Tombs in the Moutains of Altai

© University of Ghent
Frozen Tombs, Altai, Russian Federation

Using space technologies to assess the current state of the permafrost to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the Mountains of Altai.

The frozen tombs of the remote Altai Mountains constitute an outstanding cultural reminder of the lost Scythian civilization, which flourished in the first millennium BC. About 700 frozen tombs have been identified throughout the Altai Mountains, across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. The Golden Mountains of Altai World Heritage site corresponds to the Russian part of the mountain range, and includes the Katunskiy Biosphere Reserve.

 

© The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
One of the precious objects found in the Frozen Tombs, Altai Mountains

Some of these tombs, or kurgans, are located in a permafrost zone, and their contents are perfectly preserved. The tombs contain artefacts and utensils made of wood, sacrificed horses, leather, cloth, silk, metal and gold items, and in some cases extremely well-preserved, beautifully tattooed bodies.

Due to climate change, the permafrost that preserves the kurgans is gradually thawing. Its loss threatens the conservation of the remaining tombs and the precious insights they provide into the ancient nomadic Scythian culture. 

© B. van Bever/University of Ghent
Archaeological sites, Yustid research zone, Altai, Russian Federation

Through a joint project with the University of Ghent, space technologies are being used to assist with the mapping, inventory and conservation of these unique frozen tombs. Satellite images will be used to create a geo-referenced archaeological inventory that fuses traditional field work, satellite image interpretation and Global Positioning Systems. The result will be a unique inventory of this cultural heritage.

Satellite images are also being used to understand eventual climate change consequences on the permafrost zone of the Altai Mountains, by observing the state of nearby glaciers over a reasonable period of time. This information will assist the conservation authorities in establishing conservation priorities for each of the tombs.

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