Treasures in the permafrost



The treasures in the permafrost help to understand the importance of permafrost in preserving artifacts.

Permafrost is any ground that remains completely for at least two years straight. These permanently frozen grounds are most common in regions with high mountains. Permafrost covers large regions of the Earth. Although the ground is frozen, permafrost regions are not always covered in snow.

Permafrost is made of a combination of soil, rocks and sand that are held together by ice. The soil and ice in permafrost stay frozen all year long.

Near the surface, permafrost soils also contain large quantities of organic carbon a material leftover from dead plants that couldn’t decompose, or rot away, due to the cold. Lower permafrost layers contain soils made mostly of minerals.

A layer of soil on top of permafrost does not stay frozen all year. This layer, called the active layer, thaws during the warm summer months and freezes again in the fall. In colder regions, the ground rarely thaws even in the summer. There, the active layer is very thin only 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters). In warmer permafrost regions, the active layer can be several meters thick.

As Earth’s climate warms, the permafrost is thawing. That means the ice inside the permafrost melts, leaving behind water and soil.

Thawing permafrost can have dramatic impacts on our planet and the things living on it. For example:

  1. Many northern villages are built on permafrost. When permafrost is frozen, it’s harder than concrete. However, thawing permafrost can destroy houses, roads and other infrastructure.
  2. When permafrost is frozen, plant material in the soil called organic carbon can’t decompose, or rot away. As permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing this material. This process releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.
  3. When permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. These newly-unfrozen microbes could make humans and animals very sick. Scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost.


Archaeological sources


There are numerous findings of perfect preservation all over the world: the remains of mammoths and other extinct animals in permafrost of the northern Siberia, sacrificed children’s bodies made by ancient Inca of about 500 years ago, reviving of insects that have been in permafrost for more than hundred or even thousand years and frozen burial mounds of people with the highest social status in Kazakhstan.

The Berel burial site in eastern Kazakhstan region that includes approximately 70 burial mounds of the various sizes covered by stone fills.

One of the Berel burial mounds that excavated by V.V.Radlov in 1865 was for a person with seventeen horses. Sixteen horses have been stacked in four lines (four horses in every line) behind the northern wall of the burial chamber and one horse has been buried inside the frame.

However the Berel burial site has been known to the broad public audience since 1998 due to the unique finds from one of the largest burial mound No.11.

The burial mound is the spe­cial construction for the person that has a highest position in a nomadic tribe society in the Altai region.

The construction shows culture, architecture and religious believes of people of the region in IV — III centuries ВС. Its diameter is 33.5 x 22.8 m; the height of the stone fill is about 3 m. The main part is a stone fill consisted of blocky and rubble-pebbled material without fine-grained fill­er carrying out role of the natural cold accumulator. A formation of perma­frost has been occurring in this man- made porous thickness at positive av­erage annual air temperatures. The presence of the burial mound perma­frost has been provided good safety of all organic material during more than two thousand years. The basis of the burial mound is a platform that includes the large plates stacked on a flat area. The platform has a little angle to the middle of the burial mound. It was determined after picking the stone fill. It testifies natural sag­ging sandy clays under the large-tonnage stone loading. The squeezed out clay filled in emptiness between stone plates in the bottom lay­ers of stone fills that created false im­pression about application of clay solu­tion at their stacking. Edges of stone fills were fixed by the large plates stacked flat wise or on edge in several lines; then they were closed by the layer containing small plates and pebble. The stone fill in the middle part consist of the plates with different size stacked in var­ious position. But their most part was in horizontal position. The top layer of stone fill includes small plates and peb­ble covering densely underlying stones.

Depending on the area and thickness of the stone outline has been developed a special model for the formation and preservation of various frozen rocks for the Berel burial site. During the construction of mound No.11 there were favorable conditions for the formation and preservation of permafrost. Natural and artificial fluctuations in the temperature of the soil impact negatively affected the stability of the temperature and preservation of organic remains under the barrow for 2400 years. However, the permafrost preserved the remains of people and 13 horses till 1999 excavation.

The buried man and woman belonged to the highest layer of society. They were buried heads to the east. The woman was older than the man according to anthropologists. She is buried with bent legs. The bones of her skull were not preserved. The man was lying on his back with his head turned to the right. On the man’s head there was a simple hairstyle and a complex wig, also preserved a mustache and a part of a leather caftan (jacket) decorated with gold and precious stones. Anthropologists determined the age of a man in the range from 30 to 40 years because of the condition of his skull and the teeth.  The reconstruction of the Berel leader was made on the man’s skull he belonged to the ancient European forms with Mongoloid impurities.

The north side of the burial chamber was for horses. It consisted of upper and lower tiers for the burial of horses. Tiers of horses were separated by a thick layer of birch bark and shrubs. The horses were lying on their stomach with legs bent. They were partially preserved hides with fur, manes, tails, stuffing of the stomachs and soft tissues. All the horses were saddled and bridled in full in golden decorations.

Decorations for horses executed the best traditions of “Scythian-Siberian animal style”.  Many things have unique decorative design in a form of an­imals or fantastic creatures.  The technique and Kazakh ornamen­tal design are direct continuations of upper-mentioned felt products. The rich decorated leather saddles found in the burial mound are the most ancient in Kazakhstan.

The Berel burial mound No.11 stands in one number with the most outstanding monuments created by ancient nomads of the Central Asia region in the first thousand ВС. Due to burial mound permafrost the wooden, leather goods and felt covers on the horse’s saddles with magnificent application on a theme of struggle with fantastic predators kept in a perfect condition. The finds made in the Berel burial mound are not only unique but they represent outstanding discov­ery certainly will bring in the essential contribution to development of world culture and also will lift prestige of the Kazakhstan science.




The Berel burial ground was the first in the history of Kazakhstan unique material for studying the problems of paleogenetics and transmitting the ancient and genetic code to subsequent generations.

Today the Berel burial mound in Kazakhstan is unique monument that will allow not only to reconstruct shape of the inhabitants lived in the region 2.5 thousand years ago with the greatest reliability. On the basis of research of mummified remains of the ancient people for the first time win be allocated paleogenetical mark­ers of blood of the Kazakhs at bio­chemical and molecular-genetic levels. Last decades of XX centuries in the adjacent region of Russian Altai the new monuments related directly to the «phenomenon of Pazyryk mummies» were opened. It was mummified re­mains in the burial mound permafrost in the Ukok plateau located in 80 — 100 km from the Berel. As a matter of fact these finds have begun development of problems of ethnogenesis and eth­nic history of ancient, medieval and modern people of the Central Asia at essentially new molecular-biological level. This fact promoted to active introduction interdisciplinary approach to a technique of archaeological search.





  1. P. Gorbunov, Z.S. Samashev, E.V. Severskiy – The treasures of burial mounds of the Kazakh Altai / materials of the Berel burial site – 2005/Almaty. 37-38.
  2. Site of Berel research papers – / K.Altynbekov – CONSERVATION OF SADDLE COMPLEXES FROM BEREL BURIAL GROUND


Magazova Akmonshak

Reasercher of Archaeology museum