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Burying A Shaman

In the 1960s, Soviet archaeologists were excavating a Siberian burial site known as Ekven on the edge of the Arctic Circle when they uncovered a magnificent wooden mask, complete with staring eyes carved from bone. 

Recognizing the face from their own mythology, the local Yupik working on the dig almost refused to go on, believing it would bring terrible misfortune to disturb the grave of a shaman.


Lead archaeologist D.A. Sergeev declared that he would take on the consequences himself and pressed on, excavating one of the most remarkable graves of the Old Bering culture, which thrived in the area some 2,000 years ago.

The shaman died during the summer, when the Arctic permafrost had somewhat thawed. She was old (around 40–50 years) and probably passed away from natural causes. Her people hacked a deep grave into the soil, lining the floor with planks. The shaman was placed in the center with her ceremonial mask at her knees and surrounded by curved whale bones planted upright in the ground. The whale bones were also used to support a roof, which was lowered into place and then carefully covered with dirt.

Boasting the power to communicate with the spirit world, the shaman must have been a particularly powerful woman, since the grave was packed full of objects precious to the Old Bering people. Many were tools typically used by men, and the sheer number suggests that the shaman couldn’t have owned them all in her lifetime. Instead, people probably came to offer their valuables for burial with the holy woman. 

Despite its remote location, Ekven was likely the center of a thriving trade in iron objects, so precious to the Bering people that the shaman was buried with walrus ivory carved into the shape of an iron chain. 

At some point, water seeped into her grave and then froze, helping to preserve the shaman and her priceless mask for the next two millennia.