In Russia’s southern regions there is a huge expanse of steppe called the Eurasian Belt. For thousands of years, this “belt” was the home for nomadic tribes. But today, those cultures are gone, assimilated into the cultures of Russia, Asia and Eastern Europe. Natalia Shishlina, 40, is one of the few archaeologists in the world who studies these lost cultures of the Great Eurasian steppe.
Shishlina’s interest in archaeology began with a visit when she was 12 to the State Historical Museum of Russia. Today, she works in that same museum, having joined it in 1985 after receiving her graduate degree in archaeology from Moscow State University. This year, she was promoted to the position of senior research fellow at the museum, where she looks after Bronze Age artifacts from southern Russian and the Caucasus.
In 1986, barely out of graduate school, Shishlina was sent to work in the steppes between the Volga and Don rivers. Modern canals and highways were being constructed in a region of Kalmykia where, according to Greek legend, the female warriors known as the Amazons roamed. Archaeologists were brought in to evaluate historic monuments that were being destroyed. Experts in steppe culture were few and far between, so the 24-year old Natalia was appointed head of the excavation work. She has been returning there in that capacity every summer for 16 years.
“There is very little left from the people who used to live in the steppes,” Natalia said. “They had no literacy, and the only proof of their time here is the kurgans, these hill-pyramids raised above the graves of ancestors. There are hundreds of thousands of kurgans in Kalmykia; they are an inalienable part of the steppe. So, after the excavation of a kurgan is done, I always try to raise the same hill again, so as not to mar a landscape created by history.”
Twelve years ago, Shishlina excavated several kurgans in Zunda-Tolga. The unique artifacts she unearthed became the basis for her dissertation on the mysterious peoples who roamed the steppe three thousand years B.C.E.
Kalmykia has continued to reveal many more secrets to Shishlina. Most importantly, she said, she has seen how inextricably communities were bound to their environment in that remote era, how economic life was adapted to the climate and landscape of the steppe, to the changing seasons of the year, and how ancient cultures were very attentive to preserving the land which fed them. To better understand all of this and the life of her subjects, Shishlina has learned to ride a horse, to husband sheep and cows, to work with furs, to weave carpets, and to harvest the same herbs for cooking as the ancient steppe nomads she studies.
Today, Shishlina’s work is known around the world. A 1996 Fulbright award led to a lecturing stint at Harvard. She has visited top universities in the US, Israel and Germany, and her scientific work is supported by the National Geographic Society, the Wenner-Gren Fund and leading scientific funds in Russia.
For the past four years, Shishlina has been doing archaeological work along the Tengiz-Novorossiysk oil pipeline. Hundreds of kurgans which stood in the path of the pipeline were excavated, with the most interesting artifacts sent back to the State Historical Museum in Moscow. Shishlina is presently assembling the results of this work into a monograph which will include her hypothesis on the provenance of the ancient steppe tribes and the reasons for their disappearance.
Lured by the romantic nature of the steppe, well-known Russian poets, scientists and artists often join Shishlina on her Kalmyk expeditions. Last summer, the famous Russian adventurer Fyodor Konyukhov went along and was so stunned by the beauty of the steppe and the scale of Shishlina’s excavation work that he offered to take part in joint scientific research. He also invited her to participate in a trip he was to take in the spring of this year : traversing Kalmykia along the Great Silk Road by camel caravan.
“My colleagues believe that the research in Kalmykia is very promising,” Shishlina said. “I would like, in the future, to study the ancient steppe tribes’ language system. I am going to conduct a genetic analysis of remains there in order to eventually establish parental relations between different tribes—this is a new field in archaeology. But what I like best in my work is telling visitors about the ancient inhabitants of the Eurasian steppe. For this layer of history is still very little known. It feels great to watch visitors stop at a museum display I made with my own hands, to see them contemplate the beautiful clay chalices used in rituals, the golden ring in the shape of a snake, the battle-axes and bronze knives, all of which—think about it!—were made five thousand years ago!”
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