Saviours from space for Siberia's frozen tombs

A UNESCO programme uses satellite imagery to protect ancient frozen tombs of Siberia.
Hundreds of frozen tombs lie scattered across the Altai mountains straddling Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. A major archaeological find dating back to the 1920s, these tombs belong to the lost Scythian culture which flourished 2500 years ago. Inside the tombs lie bodies which have often been so well preserved in the frozen ground that even the tattoos on their skin remain intact.

Grave robbers and fortune hunters have been the tombs’ traditional enemies but, today, a new threat hangs over them. Climate change is causing the permafrost in this part of Siberia to thaw. In a race against time, UNESCO and the University of Ghent in Belgium are helping teams in Russia and Kazakhstan to pinpoint the location of the remaining tombs from space, to help local conservationists protect them.

This project is part of the Open Initiative, which was launched by UNESCO and the European Space Agency in 2001 to support the World Heritage Convention and the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. The Altai project involves Katunsky Biosphere Reserve in Russia, which is also a World Heritage site.

In addition to the Altai project, the Open Initiative is currently surveying the Iguazu Falls in Argentina, the ancient Machu Pichu site in Peru and vestiges of the Mayan civilization in Guatemala. It is also using satellite imagery to observe and safeguard the archaeological site of Uruk-Warka in southern Iraq. A fifth project was completed in 2003; it consisted in providing the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda with their first accurate maps of inaccessible mountain gorilla terrain, as part of efforts to save the last 650 or so mountain gorillas.

Learn more about Siberia's frozen tombs
Article from July issue of UNESCO’s journal, "A World of Science".

UNESCO's Remote Sensing Programme
Part of the Open Initiative.

Photo: © I. Verhaege / UGent
Source UNESCO Science Sector
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