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Ust-Polui: 1st century BC

The exhibition "Ust-Polui: 1st century BC" is the first of its kind to take place in the history of Russian museums. It has been composed from authentic, previously un-exhibited materials from the archives of Peter the Great's Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkammera) RAS, as well as new objects collected from the Ust-Polui settlement/sacrificial area and kept at the Yamal-Nenets local museum and exhibition complex "Shemanovsky".


While the exhibition currently only presents a small fragment of the entire Ust-Polui collection, the set of artifacts paints a vivid picture of the original circumpolar culture of the settlements found around the lower Ob River around the first century BC.


In the first century BC, the "civilized world" consisted of a narrow strip stretching from the Mediterranean to the Huang He basin, occasionally interrupted by deserts and mountain chains. Most of the world's great events occurred in these narrow confines, their reverberations making their way to the East and sweeping back towards the West. Here Rome slowly grew into an empire, landing its troops in Britain; a passionate drama between Anthony and Cleopatra played out in Ptolemaic Egypt; Parthia was raising troops to take revenge on Iran's quick defeat by Alexander the Great; the Middle Kingdom was forming in the Far East after years of chaos and open warfare. This world, and all these separate dramas, was tied together by a single chain: the Chinese Silk Road.

At the same time, groups of nomads roamed the Eurasian steps: the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Sakas, recorded by the earliest historians, and countless other tribes whose names have been lost. These peoples formed a parallel cultural layer in history, known as the "second circle." They were a mobile people, highly perceptive and militant. The steppe stretching from the Danube to the Altai was a well known road to them. They embraced the fruits of developed civilizations as tribute or war spoils, and "communicated" amongst themselves in the language of animal patterns, artifacts which regardless of their origin are all surprisingly similar from the Crimea to Ordos. This world was bound by the "road of the nomads."

The tribes of the taiga were hidden deep in their forests; the only written documents relating to their cultures are indistinct and unreliable. To us, they only exist after the names of their archeological remains. A Kulai cultural-historical community was unearthed in Western Siberia, one whose influence spread throughout the entire taiga area around the Ob River and the surrounding tundra. In the first century BC, this group of peoples began to actively participate in international events, through war, migration, and trade. Characteristic "taiga" ceramics were found as far as the northern Ob, while Sarmatian bronze mirrors and silver medallions bearing the portrait of the Parthian king of kings were found in the remotest taiga. The cultural layer of the "third circle" formed yet another shell of the world.

Ust-Polui acted as a sacred place to many different tribes found around the Arctic Circle in Western Siberia during the first century BC. It was located on the cross-roads of different ecological areas and various cultural traditions. As the many peoples of the Ob River valley region met during the sacred rites, they exchanged their knowledge, technology, and cultural achievements. During these meetings they formed new cycles of magic legends and epic tales. This far-northern sacred place became one of the nexuses of the common world culture.

The archeological find known as the settlement and sacrificial area of Ust-Polui is located within the territorial limits of the contemporary city Salekhard- the capital of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district. Its modern history begins in the winter of 1932, when workers digging out the foundation of a hydro-port found numerous bone and ceramic fragments. Their finds were sent over to Leningrad, to be examined at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (MAE). The scientists there were amazed by the finds and immediately organized a scientific expedition to conduct further excavations. V.S. Adrianov was appointed head of the expedition, and named the settlement being unearthed during the 1935-1936 excavations "Ust-Polui." During the course of their early work there, more than 18,000 items were unearthed, of which 1,500 were handmade artifacts.

Ust-Poui was on the verge of becoming the central archeological site of numerous specialists for years to come, however fate would have it differently. V.S. Adrianov was arrested by the NKVD and shot sometime in late 1936. The authorities imposed a ban on any mention of his works, including the fact that he was the first to document the Ust-Polui culture and name the site.

The next stage in the contemporary study of Ust-Polui is strongly associated with the name of one of the most famous researchers of the North: V.N. Chernetsov. This archeologist, ethnographer, and linguist conducted numerous studies at the site along with his wife (fellow archeologist) V.I. Moshinskaya. In 1946 they visited the site and bore several test pits, attempting to examine the cultural layers of Ust-Polui and calculate how many times and when it was an inhabited settlement. Their findings concerning Ust-Polui were published in 1953, in the series "Materials and Research in the Archeology of the USSR (MIA)."

In 1993 archeological digs started anew at Ust-Polui, held in honor of the 400th university of Salekhard. These were carried out by the Yamal archeological expedition of the History and Archeology Institute of the Ural RAS as well as scientists from Ural University.

The settlement and sacrificial place of Ust-Polui now preserves the name of its first discoverer, a name which is also reflected in its geographical location- located on the high banks of the river Polui, the site is not far from the river's confluence with the Ob River. The finds from the many layers of the archeological site consist of a vast number of artifacts, the brunt of which are arms: arrow heads, bow parts, ornamental armor plates, and bronze teeth. There are also elements of deer harnesses, as well as bone artifacts with the traditional engraved decorations which have become a sort of "carte-de-visite" of Ust-Polui. Also found on the site were several dozen ivory knife hafts, hundreds of ceramic fragments, ornamented birch bark and other wooden items. The finds are a treasure trove of information relating to the history of the Ob region: the ethnic genesis of the people, their military traditions, religious beliefs, art, transportation, economy, crafts, &etc. Scientists are currently studying these artifacts, and will continue to do so for quite some time.