Review

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The Independent Culture
Permafrost is a godsend for the archaeologist, preserving the most perishable parts of a culture, from food to clothes. There are drawbacks, though. Opening a nomad's tomb on the Mongolian border, a Russian archaeological team found their work rather more smelly than expected. Six horses had been buried with the tomb's occupant and though their skulls were clean, their stomachs reacted to the defrosting in the conventional manner. Recalling the experience, an American student attached to the dig gulped involuntarily halfway through her sentence, a little reflex of remembered nausea. And on the video recording of the original excavation you could see flies, busily enjoying a feast that was some 2,500 years past its "best-before" date. Clearly the Pazyryk, the people who had interred the important young woman found in the grave, had similar problems. Among her accoutrements was a shallow stone dish of coriander seeds, to be burned as an air-freshener. According to Herodotus, this device was also used for communal marijuana parties, but that struck the mourners as unseemly at a funeral - or perhaps they had simply saved it all for the wake. Permafrost turned out to be a godsend for Herodotus too, as it proves that his account of Scythian life was a lot more accurate than many had hitherto believed.

The Horizon film about this ice maiden (BBC2), the first of a trilogy on glacial preservation, captured the excitement of revelation rather well, with film of the team opening the long wooden coffin to find a perfect oblong of milky ice, like the fat on a terrine. Out of this casing emerged the body of a young tattooed woman, her ornaments and clothing still in an astonishing state of preservation - the wild silk blouse, in particular, looking as fine and foldable as the day it had been made. The maiden herself was a little more distressed; though her body had survived in a rather rumpled way there was no trace of her facial features. Nobody offered an explanation of why this flesh should have proved so much more vulnerable than that on hands or feet but the absence turned out to be significant - allowing rival groups to squabble over the maiden's ethnic origin and the ethical propriety of her exhumation. In an impressive demonstration of creative "objectivity", a Russian scientist had reconstructed her as a perfect Slav, with a farsighted gaze on her bold features, as if she was going to form part of an inspiring tableau about grain production. DNA tests and a neutral Swiss scientist sided with the Altai people, however, in suggesting that she had Mongol features, as did Andrew Thompson, the producer of this intriguing programme, who pointedly cast an Altai beauty for his resurrectional sequences of the ice maiden up and walking.

Sheena Chapman has also achieved a kind of immortality, evidence of her daily life being recorded on video for the first of a new series called Before I Die (BBC2), in which people with terminal illnesses contemplate their suddenly shortened futures. Her film sharply conveyed the particular agony of parents in such circumstances, forced to vicariously live out their children's imminent grief. "Up to now I've always been the oil on troubled waters," said Mrs Chapman, weeping at the thought of a family left without its chief peacemaker. This was true and moving, but if anyone watches this film in 2,000 years' time - when the necessity for diplomacy has long passed - I think it unlikely that they would not comment on Mrs Chapman's inability to connect her death with her way of life (despite a much earlier breast cancer scare, she seems to have continued smoking, and has an industrial-sized ashtray in her sick room). Nobody deserves cancer, but it did strike you that other sufferers might have marginally better cause to rail against the injustice of their fate. The scene in which she sat her children down to watch recordings of her nocturnal despair was most troubling of all - as if she wished to coach them in the hopelessness of life without her, rather than reassure them that life would go on.

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