Many people have claimed to have found the legendary (and some believe fictional) island of Atlantis. Many areas, both above and below water, have been pinpointed as the exact location of Atlantis. So far, all are wrong. However, an island in a body of water in southern Siberia can lay claim to at least acting like Atlantis – rising up from the bottom of its sea to expose its artifacts and treasures dating back to the Bronze Age, only to be quickly submerged again. The island is Ala-Tei (or Ala-Tey) and its stone graves have been sealed and undisturbed since the time of Genghis Khan, but their time on the surface is too short for archeologists to properly remove their contents before it returns to the abyss. What is the story of this so-called Russian Atlantis?
“This site is a scientific sensation. We are incredibly lucky to have found these graves of rich Hun nomads that were not disturbed by robbers. We discovered 110 burials at the Ala-Tey burial site, which is usually 15 metres underwater.”
Dr. Marina Kilunovskaya from the St Petersburg Institute of Material History Culture leads the the Tuva Archeological Expedition into the Ala-Tey necropolis, which began digging there in 2015. Dr. Kilunovskaya describes the artifacts found in the graves and the unusual clothing and objects found with the remains in her September 2018 paper published in Asian Archeology (read it here and view the many pictures). The Siberian Times this week highlights the urgency in excavating as much as possible from the necropolis before it sinks again.
Why is it sinking? Ala-Tey is located in what is called the Sayan Sea, which is actually an artificial reservoir created upstream of the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam. Located on the Yenisei River, it’s the largest power plant in Russia and the 9th-largest hydroelectric plant in the world. Construction began in 1963 and the plant became fully operational in December 1985, all under the Soviet Union. The island of Ala-Tey, even though it’s near the shore, is only accessible from mid-May to the end of June when spring flood waters sink it until the following year.
While the Russian Atlantis is above water, Kilunovskaya and her team quickly open the stone graves whose seals have preserved their contents and were so tight that they allowed foa natural mummification of the bodies. One held a young woman well-dressed in a silk skirt with a beaded belt and a precious jet gemstone buckle that may signify she was a princess during the time of the Huns. Kilunovskaya says this indicates the surprising high regard the Huns of central Asia and eastern Europe held their women in.
"Huns cherished women. It wasn’t a matriarchy, yet women - mothers and skilled artisans - were treated with great respect. For nomads a belt was an extremely important part of their clothing, indicating wealth and society rank. They didn’t use pockets, so all key elements of day-to-day life had to be hung on belts - which in case of Huns women were intricately decorated.”
Other artifacts in the graves – mirrors, silk, coins, pottery -- came from China and date to the Han dynasty of 206 BCE to 220 CE. Bronze belt buckles, stone weapons and metal knives are also being found.
Because the power plant is fully operational, Ala-Tey disappears every June as the winter snow melts. Water release doesn’t begin until November and Ala-Tey doesn’t reappear until May. The waters are increasing annually due to climate change and the island could disappear forever. On the other hand, concerns about the safety (there have been accidents and shutdowns) and future of the dam are discussed and the possible destruction of the dam is considered, which would expose Ala-Tey for good. That possibility is a long way off.
One benefit of the annual submersion is that the waters help remove layers of dirt over the graves, making the rush job of the archeologists somewhat easier. However, it’s probably not enough to stave off the inevitable permanent disappearance of the Russian Atlantis.