1. Decorated antler armour plates.

The cult of the bear

The oldest evidence of armour in the remote western Siberian taiga has recently been found in the Ust-Polui archaeological site. Dating from between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, the carved reindeer antler plates were backed by leather to make a flexible protective suit.

2. Artist's impression of a Kualai warrior in full antler plate armour.

Archaeologist Andrey Gusev from the Scientific Research Centre of the Arctic in Salekhard told the Siberian Times that about 30 carved antler armour plates of different sizes, from 23-25cm to 12-14cm in length, in various degrees of preservation have been discovered. Ornamentation varied for each wearer so, once it is categorised, it should be possible to tell how many warriors there were. The armour would have included protective helmets, probably also made of antler plates and conical in shape like ones used in the middle of the first millennium AD, seen in images on bronze items of the local Kualai people, he explains.

3. The tiny bronze bear ring that fitted over the animal's claw.

Ust-Polui was a sacred place and Gusev believes the armour was left as a gift to the gods as part of a bear cult. This theory follows a find at the same site of a 2000-year-old ring of high quality bronze bearing an image of a bear's head and paws. As the ring was far too small for a human finger, archaeologists think that it was put on to the animal's claw during a ritual.

Bear cults flourished all around the Arctic regions. The ancient Khanty tribes to the south of Salekhard had a festival in which the head and front paws of a slaughtered bear were adorned with rings and a handkerchief, and its body laid out in the home. A festival involving the killing and eating of a bear in Nikv, in far eastern Russia, was performed until outlawed by the Soviet Union in the early 20th century.
Roger Williams