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  Field Notes From
Masters of Gold

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From Author

Mike Edwards

Masters of Gold On Assignment

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From Photographer

Sisse Brimberg

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Meaghan Mulholland


Masters of Gold

Field Notes From Author
Mike Edwards
Best Worst Quirkiest
    I went to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, where the fabulous horde of Scythian gold is kept. The Hermitage is always a treat. It brims with marble statuary, exquisite antiques, and paintings by old masters as well as 20th-century Impressionists. But the Scythian gold wasn't on display. Some pieces were being restored, and the rest was locked away in a vault. To see these, photographer Sisse Brimberg and I got permission to go into the Hermitage outback.
    It's another world. To get there, we climbed the worn steps of a narrow circular staircase and walked down a hall of creaking parquetry. The hall was lined with storage cabinets that bore artifacts brought back over the years by other archaeologists. There were also finds that couldn't fit into the cabinets: crude pots, huge urns, animal skeletons.
    Archaeologist Konstantin Chugunov took us to his office where he removed the Scythian treasure from a huge safe. Box after box came out. Lustrous animal figures, belt buckles, long gold hairpins, beads of amber and turquoise. What a sight!
    And what a wonderful place the Hermitage is, especially so now that I've seen the funky jumbled backside as well as the gorgeous front.

    I hate baggage. Hate to pack it, hate to lug it.  Even though I pack frugally, I always find I'm burdened. Besides my personal gear I carry a laptop and printer with all the necessary attachments, plus camera, film, tapes, a couple of tape recorders, sometimes a satellite phone, and—always—peanut butter for emergencies.
    On my trip to Siberia, I also carried a tent. I hated it. It weighed 25 pounds (11 kilograms) and required its own duffle bag. It wasn't for sleeping; rather, it was to be a sort of National Geographic command post at the archaeological site. I'd been forewarned that the site was in the middle of a wide treeless valley and that we—me and three other Geographic folk—would be under bright sun all day. So the tent seemed like a smart idea.
    The site was just as advertised, but I didn't anticipate the wind. Before I even got the tent out of its duffle, the wind toppled the archaeologists' plywood cabin. No way my tent was going to withstand gusts like that.
    So the whole exercise—lugging this big tent through airports, grumbling all the way—was a waste of energy and excess baggage fees.

    Shamanism is so openly practiced in the southern Siberian city of Tuva that shamans hang out shingles and keep office hours like doctors. With mysterious chants and trancelike dances, shamans decorated with symbolic trappings—feathered headdresses, bells, bear paws—offer to cure almost any ailment.
     I waited an hour to see the dean of Tuvan shamans, Mongush Kenin-Lopsan. I wanted his opinion on the Scythian tomb excavation. After asking my birthdate and consulting an astrological chart, he determined that we could work together. And so I put the question: Was the tomb's excavation a serious violation of the spirit world?
    He delivered his answer as if it were a dictum from on high: "I hereby state that it is dangerous and unnecessary to excavate a Scythian grave, any grave whatsoever." Sounded bad for the archaeologists. But then he added: "At the same time, I state that to excavate Scythian graves is very important for mankind and for science, and as long as that is so, we have to excavate."
    I can't confidently parse this seeming contradiction, but I presume it means the spirits will tolerate the opening of graves in the interest of adding to man's knowledge of ancient life.

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