Archaeological discoveries

The oldest carpet in the world, found in an Iron Age tomb

It is reasonable to deduce that Man, in the successive phases of his prehistory and in order to achieve a warmer environment, resorted to animal skins to cover the floor of the caves and huts that he inhabited. They were the antecedents of what later, with technological progress, was elaborated ex profeso weaving and today it is called a carpet. When exactly did it happen? The archaeological record tells us that the oldest carpet in the world is more than 2,000 years old.

Of course, it is impossible to know if there were no earlier copies, which is almost certain; only that the material reality is that. It corresponds to a piece found in 1947 in Siberia, a place with temperatures so cold that they caused it to freeze and, thanks to this, its conservation was guaranteed for two and a half millennia, since it never melted. It is known as the Pazyryk carpet or the Gorno-Altai carpet, in reference to the place where it was found:a series of burials located in the Pazyryk Valley, present-day Russia.

It is a mountainous corner, a plateau called Ukok near the Russian border with China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, where the archaeologist Mikhail Gryaznov excavated a tomb in 1929, thus attracting scientific interest to the site. Eighteen years later it was his collaborator, Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko, a prestigious anthropologist from the Soviet Anthropological Institute, who carried out larger-scale excavations discovering that the finding of his predecessor was not something isolated but rather integrated into a whole necropolis.

Most of the tombs had been looted before, but the thieves always take jewels and precious metals, not being interested in the rest, which is often what gives investigators the most information. Thus, furniture appeared, a cart with the skeletons of the horses that pulled it, everyday objects of trousseau, textiles and, of course, human remains. The subsequent craniological analysis of these would reveal that they were Caucasian, although some showed somewhat different characteristics, Mongoloid.

Of all of them, two mummies that were quite well preserved by the cold had a special importance. One was of a stocky man in his fifties with tattoos on his skin. It was later analyzed with infrared and it turned out that, like the other recovered bodies, he was heavily tattooed; in his case, with a bestiary that included animals such as donkeys, deer or rams but also fantastic zoomorphic figures similar to griffins and other monstrous-looking beings. There were also circles lined up that probably had a therapeutic function, considering that today's Siberian tribes continue to practice this method of back healing.

The other prominent mummy was found decades later, in 1993, by archaeologist Natalia Polosmak:she was baptized the Ice Maiden (or Lady of Altai, alluding to the mountains where Pazyryk is), a young, single upper-class woman buried in a tomb chamber built of wood and rounded stones, surrounded by a trousseau that included crockery and a cart pulled by six sacrificed horses. Her body rested in a coffin that was a hollowed-out Siberian larch trunk with a leather lining decorated with zoomorphic figures. The degree of preservation was very good because the rains flooded the tomb and it froze, thus joining the permafrost.

The Ice Maiden was 1.67 meters tall, lying on her side and had no hair - she had been shaved - but a wig and a felt headdress with gold embroidery. Like her boss, she had tattoos on her skin, both animal and plant motifs. The blouse she was wearing was made of wild silk that is believed to have come from India, which, together with other products found in the trousseau (such as Iranian coriander seeds), was of extraordinary interest to imagine the commercial routes that would exist between those Siberian regions and culture.

What was this? The maiden and the chief were dated to the 5th century BC, although some of the burial mounds studied are a century or two more recent. In any case, halfway between the Bronze and Iron ages, which in those latitudes corresponds to the Pazyryk culture, framed in the Kurgán group. The Kurgans constituted a group of peoples that extended from that region to Europe (Romania, Bulgaria), passing through the Caucasus.

The Pazyryk inhabited the steppes and were culturally related to the Scythians, who had similar artistic iconography and also practiced similar burial customs, archeology shows. Dedicated to herding, their nomadic way of life did not prevent them from maintaining intense commercial relations with distant areas such as India, Persia or China, as we saw before, the main product of their transactions being equine cattle. The discovery of masks of Greek origin shows that they also had contacts with the Hellenistic colonies of the Cimmerian Bosporus.

The Pazyryk burial mounds, which are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, continue to give surprises from time to time. In 2007, the tomb of a blond, tattooed warrior wrapped in a sable fur coat and accompanied by trousseau came to light. Five years later, several more burials appeared, although working on the ground has become somewhat problematic due to the opposition of the local inhabitants to the removal of the resting places of their ancestors and knowing that the rescued pieces are not going to stay. there but are taken to the Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg).

And the time has come to return to the beginning of this article to talk about the oldest carpet in the world, understanding as such the one that has been made by weaving. It was Sergei Rudenko himself who found it in 1949, at the end of that excavation campaign, in the tomb of a noble character. Dating from around 40 BC, it measures 2 meters long by 1.83 wide and 2.4 millimeters thick. It is made of sheep's wool and is made with approximately 1,125,000 knots (3,600 knots per square decimeter, a density greater than that of modern rugs, which would indicate such an efficient use of the technique that it would go back a millennium).

Thanks to its freezing in the permafrost, due to the aforementioned flooding, it is in a good degree of conservation that allows us to appreciate the red and gold color of the fabric, as well as the details of its decoration. This has a quadrangular central part subdivided into chess-like grids (in fact, it has been suggested that it was actually a huge dice board), each adorned with floral motifs. This center is framed by borders that follow one another outwards and show, in this order, griffins, moose, horses (some with mounted riders and others dismounted) and again griffins.

However, such figures do not clear up doubts about their exact authorship, so there is controversy about it; some, like Talbot Rises, see the Scythian hand; others, like S. Tolstov, bet on the Massagetae. However, the majority, with Rudenko at the helm, favored an Iranian craftsman, whether Persian, Median or Parthian. The defenders of this hypothesis point out that the place of origin must have been the environment of Armenia and Turkestan, since in that region, with a great tradition in rug making, some made with a similar technique have been found (the knot called torkībāf ).

This would imply that it was exported to the Altai Mountains area and perhaps made to order, as the equipment carried by the horses is typical there. It remains to elucidate the audacious theory of F. Balonov, who based on the asymmetry of the decorative motifs, the distribution of colors in certain sections and other peculiarities, proposes that the carpet is the support of a coded message. It's amazing what a rug can give.