American-Russian Partnership
Seeks Central Asian Treasure
by Pamela Logan

(click on links in the story text to see photographs)

In a far corner of Russia is a place called Mongun Taiga, which means "Silver Mountain." Here, where Siberian forest gives way to Mongolian steppe, two men are realizing a dream: to find ancient treasures of the Scythian Empire buried in the permafrost that has hidden and protected them for two thousand years.

Jeremy Pine is an American art dealer who has decided that wrangling in the marketplace for art is not enough--he wants to be the one to pull new-found treasure out of the earth. Vladimir Semionov is Russian archeologist who has known for years where such treasure might lie, but has lacked the financial means to travel to it and excavate. Now with their knowledge and resources joined, they have organized an expedition to Central Asia, where they are leading the first team ever to turn over a spade of earth in this little known but archeologically rich region.

"I'm a treasure-hunter," said Pine in an interview at his remote camp, which lies in southwestern Tuva, a semi-autonomous region of the Russian Republic. "I'm looking for what's rare, what's beautiful, what nobody else has. You've got to keep topping your last show in this business, but Christ! Where do you find it? At some point finding it becomes more important than having it, owning it."

Pine's quest to discover buried treasure has brought him to invest his personal savings in this Tuva expedition. "I could have bought a house at Tahoe and moved my family there, but instead I'm camping on the banks of the Duruq-Suq (River) looking every day how much further down we go. We just hit permafrost."

While Pine brings an extravagant sense of romance and adventure to the partnership, archeologist Semionov is the perfect scholar: cautious and conservative. Although he has been working in Tuva for 23 years, he was never before able to mount an expedition to the Mongun Taiga region because of the high cost. "Such great exploration as what we have accomplished so far would be impossible without Jeremy's support," he says. "It's very difficult to organize expeditions to such remote areas."

--Count that as typical scholarly understatement, for the logistics required to assemble, equip and transport the team are prodigious. Just scan the campsite: it is a small city of tents, for every purpose from cooking to sleeping to bathing. There is a "conservation tent" crammed with a battery of special chemicals for preserving ancient artifacts. There is a storage tent with a month's supply of food for thirty hard-working people. There are two rugged Russian army trucks that are used to haul rocks, fetch firewood, and make the five-day round-trip journey to town for re-supply. And there is an army of expeditioneers: archeologists, artists, cooks, mechanics, doctors, and muscular, rock-toting young men.

All this manpower and equipment is focussed on a ring-shaped heap of stones, 36 meters in diameter and two meters high. It's a kurgan, or burial mound, dating from the Scythian era more than 2200 years ago.

During the 1920s, in a different part of Tuva, a Russian archeologist named Sergei Rudenko discovered the oldest carpet known in the world today. Pine points to that carpet, which is exquisitely made and older than any known Chinese or Persian carpets, as evidence of a highly advanced civilization. "It's my personal belief that all Asian culture springs out of Central Asia, (starting from) way, way back. They were not 'simple nomads.' Valodya (Semionov) and I disagree on this. I think the eastern Scyths were a big, big empire, not just two horseback days ride. After all, they were here for five hundred years."

Now Pine is looking for more evidence--especially another carpet--to bolster his belief. If they do find one, they won't get to keep it, for they have already agreed to turn over their finds to the Tuvan government. This is untroubling to Semionov, who is interested purely in the scientific results of the expedition. What does Pine get out of it? "What I'm getting out of this is that I get to do it. I get to be the first non-Russian to come out to Central Asia and excavate kurgans."

His personal involvement is apparent as he eagerly surveys the diggers at work. Two men work with blow-torches to melt the permafrost at the bottom of the central pit, while a three-man relay shovels newly unfrozen dirt to piles outside. Nearby, more workers are cleaning soil and grass from the stones at the kurgan's edge to expose complicated overlapping patterns, and paper-thin remains of bones are being gently lifted from a bed of earth.

Already the site has yielded one important find: a 2200-year-old decorated ceramic pot, perfectly intact. It was discovered in one of the seven side-burials that ring the kurgan. But the real prizes are those deeper in the ground, preserved by permafrost, which more digging is required to reach. And if they aren't here, then there are plenty of other kurgans to search, for the valleys of Mongun Taiga contain hundreds--perhaps even thousands--of them.

Semionov takes a break from the digging to talk about his American partner. "Nowadays international cooperation is the only way to do research in the humanities," he says, "not only because of financial difficulties, but because this work is part of our common world heritage. Different countries have different strengths: some can excavate, some can sponsor, some can publish. If we work together, we can bring these new discoveries to light as soon as possible."

Adds Pine, "We've got more to do, and we will continue."


Return to Pamela Logan's Tuva Info