Scientists Figure Out the Secret of a 2,600-year-old Siberian Rug

Found in a Scythian grave in the frozen Altai Mountains, this ancient Persian-type rug maintained its bright colors. How could that be?

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The Pazyryk rug. Circa 400 B.C.E., exhibited at the Hermitage Museum.
The Pazyryk rug. Circa 400 B.C.E., exhibited at the Hermitage Museum.Credit: Schreiber
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

How ancient people lived is of fascination to us, even if we can’t imagine life without electricity or canned cat food. In our arrogance, we may assume that humankind linearly advances to new pinnacles of creativity and technique. Then items like the exquisite 3,500-year-old "Pylos Combat" agate seal, the delicate metalworking of the “brutish” Celts, or the gorgeous encrusted red Scythian boots over 2,300 years old debunk our conceit.

Or, like in the case of the magnificent Siberian carpet from 400 B.C.E. that survived and mysteriously retained its brilliant colors after nearly 2,500 years, we are left slack-jawed. What was the secret of the ancient Siberian carpet-makers?

Now the mystery of how the earliest known oriental pile carpet in the world preserved its hues has been solved. The sheep wool in the carpet of Pazyryk had been fermented, explain Andreas Späth and Prof. Dr. Karl Messlinger of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (with colleagues) after studying the carpet’s fibers using X-ray microscopy.

The carpet had been found in 1947 by Russian archaeologists in the mound tomb of a Scythian nobleman in Kazakhstan’s Altai Mountains. It cannot be said whether the rug was made there, in Turkey, in ancient Persia or somewhere else in the vicinity.

The most ancient carpet in the world. Found at Pazyryk and dated to ca. 400 B.C.E. On exhibit at the Hermitage Museum.Credit: Hermitage Museum

The rug features a geometrical ribbon pattern in the middle, bordered by deer and Scythian-type mounted soldiers. In other words, motifs in use to this day.

But the Pazyryk carpet’s colors include vibrant greens, reds, yellows and blues so fast and bright they could have been manufactured yesterday. Even though the rug had been preserved in ice inside the mound tomb, that was extraordinary.

This is no bathroom mat, by the way. The Pazyryk rug was 2 meters in length (about 2 yards) and 1.83 meters in width, and consisted of about 360,000 Turkish knots. To be accurate, the tomb has been dated to about the fourth or third century B.C.E., and as for being the oldest – the next-earliest example is a rug dating to a mere 1,900 years ago. And it is stunning, evincing “mature craftsmanship that suggests several human generations of experience in production of such textiles,” the team writes.

Red dye in Turkey

Long story short, the scientific team came up with the idea of imaging the pigment distribution in the carpet’s wool fibers and comparing with modern wool dyed using traditional Anatolian techniques. What they found is congruence between the pigment distribution in specimens from the Pazyryk carpet, and natural wool that was fermented prior to dyeing.

Fibres from the historical Pazyryk carpet embedded in epoxy resin, left.The image on the right shows standard samples that the researchers fermented and dyed as a comparison.Credit: FAU/Dr. Andreas Spth

It bears adding that fermenting sheep fleece before dyeing it has been a thing in Anatolian tradition; it went out of fashion in modern times because the fermentation alone takes some three weeks, the team explains. There is also the issue that the wool just putrefies if not done right, and nobody wants that.

When the technique originated hasn’t been clear, and still isn’t, but now we know that 2,500 years ago, roughly speaking, somebody took sheep wool and fermented it before dyeing it in order to fix its colors better.

Why does it work at all? Fermentation with G. candidum yeast, for example, facilitates permeation of the wool fiber to its center by the dye, resulting in significantly more brilliant, and permanent, colors. 

The team focused their microscopy attention on the red pigment in the rug, which is called “Turkey red” and was known going back centuries, in central Asia and the Far East as well. Turkey red is a metal organic complex made of alizarin sourced from the roots of the rose madder, mixed with aluminum.

The Pazyryk rug.Credit: VincentKeers

Anyway, the conclusion is that the “superior” wool fermentation technique was already being used in central Asia during the Iron Age, which is about 2,000 years earlier than had been thought, Späth and the team write.

The rug is named for the central Asian Pazyryk culture, which is associated with the Scythians, who dominated central Asia – chiefly Ukraine and including parts of Iran – from about the sixth century to the third century B.C.E. Quite a few people from the Pazyryk culture have been found in the permafrost of Siberia, Kazakhstan (where this rug was found) and even Mongolia.

Among the noteworthy human “finds” were the so-called “Siberian ice princess” and, at Pazyryk itself, an embalmed man covered with animal tattoos. Their remains show that elaborate personal decoration is nothing new either.

The Siberian Ice Maiden mummy found on the Ukok Plateau.Credit: Dmitry Kobzev / Kobsev

We just add that perishables don’t survive the eons well. Though not as vulnerable as bananas, rugs and organic fibers in general fall into that category. It’s practically miraculous to discover ancient textiles, such as the linen dyed with the real royal purple recently discovered in a 3,000-year-old copper mine in Israel; and cords – which seem to go back as far as Neanderthals in France making three-ply string. Some archaeologists think the Neanderthal ability to make string indicates that they could weave cloth.

Finally, how does one ferment sheep wool? Don’t ask. Be happy.

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