High in the Altai mountains of Siberia, not far from the border between Russia and Mongolia, researchers have found the mummified body of a young woman covered with tattoos that archeologists say look remarkably modern.
The woman, probably about 25 years old, was buried some 2,500 years ago and found in 1993. She most likely belonged to the Pazyryk tribe, nomads who inhabited the area for centuries. Kept cold in the permafrost, she was, say the scientists, well enough preserved that one can see intricate tattoos of animals and what appear to be deities.
"Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated and the most beautiful," said Natalia Polosmak, the lead researcher, in an interview with The Siberian Times. "It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible."
The young woman has come to be known as the Ukok princess. She was buried on a remote plateau with six horses, possibly her spiritual escorts to the next world, and two men, possibly warriors. The men had tattoos, as well. Polosmak said there are older examples of tattooing - Oetzi, the famous "iceman" from 3,300 B.C. in the Italian Alps, had some short, parallel lines on his legs and lower back - but there's been no body decoration as elaborate as what the Ukok princess had.
On her left shoulder, said Polosmak, the young woman had a depiction of a fabulous mythic animal - a deer with a griffon's beak and a Capricorn's antlers. On her wrist was a deer with elaborate antlers. The same deer/griffon also appeared on the body of the man found closest to the princess, covering most of the right side of his body.
The Ukok woman has been kept frozen since she was discovered. A case is now being prepared so that she can be preserved while on public display.
The tattoos were probably made of dyes made from burned plants, rich in potassium. The skin was apparently pierced with a needle or another sharp object, and rubbed with a mixture of soot and fat.
Even though the Ukok princess lived some 500 years before Jesus, Polosmak said some things have not changed.
"I think we have not moved far from Pazyryks in how the tattoos are made," she said. "It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible."