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".
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.
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
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
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.