The “masked horses” of the Pazyryk-Culture

In the highlands of the Altai Mountains (Quadrangle of Russia-Mongolia-Kazakhstan-China) nomadic tribes lived in the Iron Age, whose names are no longer known to us, but whose material culture belongs to the complex of other nomadic cultures of the ancient steppe belt. Archeology today refers to this cultural area as the “Pazyryk Culture”, as the first finds from ancient times were made in the Pazyryk Valley.

The heyday of the Pazyryk culture dates to the 4./3. Century BC from which a number of well-preserved graves have survived. The good state of preservation we owe to the permafrost soil of the Altai Mountains, in which the finds were “deep-frozen” for about 2500 years. Because of this fortunate circumstance, there are many finds of organic material such as felt, wood, leather and fabric with partly still bright colors, which is very unusual for graves of the Iron Age.

A spectacular peculiarity of the Pazyryk culture are the findings of several horses that were sacrificed in the context of the burial-rites and typically placed at the north side of the grave pit outside the burial chambers . They were partly equipped with richly decorated bridle and saddle stuff. Some horses even wore masks that encased the entire head of the animal, displaying antlers or animal protoms.

The purpose of this “disguise” of the horses, is not clear to this day. No doubt the horse as a riding and load animal as well as a food and economic basis played a central role in the pastoral nomadic society. Such a complex ornate should therefore be symbolically highly charged and has not been a mere ornament for the animal. Whether the masking for the horses was only used once in the context of the burial rite or was repeatedly used for other ceremonies, we do not know.

Bridles and saddlery as well as the decorations were mainly made of animal products, i.e. of felt, leather, wood, horsehair and an organic glue. Only a few parts, such as the bits or the thin foils of gold and tin that were used to cover wood and leather, were made of metal. The motives, which were attached to the decoration, are mainly animal fight scenes or images from the sphere of ​​the early-nomadic animal style. They support the assumption that the complete equipment of the sacrificed horses had a central symbolic content, which today largely exceeds our knowledge.


Rudenko, Sergei I.: Frozen Tombs Of Siberia – The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen, 1970.

Gryaznov, M.P.: ПЕРВЫЙ ПАЗЫPЫКСКИЙ КУРГАН (The First Pazyryk Kurgan), 1950

Busova, V.S.: О Конских Масках Раннего Этапа Пазырыкской Культуры (Über Pferdemasken der frühen Pazyryk Kultur), 2014

Busova, V.S.: Опыт Реконструкции Конской Маски Раннего Этапа Пазырыкской Культуры (Erfahrungen bei der Rekonstruktion von Pferdemasken der frühen Pazyryk Kultur), o. J.

Polosmak, N.V.: Всадники Укока (Ukok Reiter), 2001

Polosmak, N.V.: Костюм и Текстиль Пазырыкцев Алтая (Kostüme und Textilien des Pazyryk Altai), o.J.

Go to the detailed equipments of the Pazyryk-horse.

The original mask from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg