Krym Altynbekov has been doing detective work for more than 40 years—but not to solve crimes.
The 65-year-old uses his forensic skills to preserve and reproduce archeological treasures in his homeland of Kazakhstan.
He has restored and replicated long-buried wooden chariots, gilded horse saddles of nobles, as well as the clothes, tools and ornaments of warriors and priestesses who lived as long as 2,700 years ago. One of his reproductions was the Altyn Adam (Golden Man), a sixth-century-bce Saka warrior prince whose discovery in 1969 generated international headlines due to the armor of gold foil and ornamentation buried with him. Since then, the Golden Man has become Kazakhstan’s most prominent national symbol after the shangyrak, the crown of the nomad’s yurt.
The artifacts that Altynbekov preserves allow scholars to learn more about Kazakhstan’s nomadic heritage. And the reproductions, which are major attractions at museums, provide windows into the past. His work has helped the country, independent since 1991, distinguish its own history from that of both the former Soviet Union and its Turkic neighbors in Central Asia.
All this takes place at Altynbekov’s Scientific-Restoration Laboratory of the Island of Krym—a name, he explains, that is a not-so-subtle nod to the financial independence of the two-story lab, located in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.
It functions as “kind of a small independent country, which conducts its own business,” Altynbekov says. It is also a family operation: The 15-person team includes Krym’s twin daughters, Elina and Dana, as well as his wife, Saida. Together they have preserved thousands of artifacts large and small, mostly from Kazakhstan but also from around the world, much of it on contracts with museums and Kazakhstan’s ministry of culture.
Some of the artifacts have been so badly decomposed, or in such danger of rapid deterioration when exposed to air, that Altynbekov developed new preservation techniques to save them—approaches he shares with experts from other countries.
His dedication to his work and his preservation breakthroughs have earned him recognition at home and abroad, including from the Louvre in Paris and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Hermitage restorer Natalia Vasilyeva was so intrigued with his techniques she came to Almaty to learn them.
“Preserving the different materials found at archeological sites—wood, leather, tissue, bone—is very difficult,” Vasilyeva says. Altynbekov’s team is so sucessful it can “recover archeological finds from the rot,” even after having been ravaged by bacteria, she says.
Viktor Novozhenov, an archeologist and historian at al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, teases that he has worked with Altynbekov “seemingly for centuries.” The family’s preservation lab has been instrumental in shedding light on who Kazakhs are and where they come from, he says.
Restoration specialists face a major challenge in the preservation of wood, which can disintegrate when hit by air. So Altynbekov journeyed to Grenoble, France, to see how a preservation facility there did it. Its system of climate controls was far too expensive, Altynbekov reasoned, so—after six years of experimentation—he invented his own method. He soaks wood in alcohol and polyethylene glycol to strengthen its structure. This preserves the wood without costing as much. Now other restoration facilities that can’t afford the Grenoble approach adopt Altynbekov’s.
Archeological finds with gold, jewels and other valuables may be the ones that capture the public’s imagination, but as Altynbekov’s daughter and protégé Elina points out, “gold isn’t the treasure for us. It’s the information we obtain about our past.” To be sure, gold pieces provide insight into the past, but so do the wood, textiles and other materials they’ve found.
She and Dana, both 34, work alongside their father in the lab, while their mother, Saida, keeps the lab’s records.
One reason the family loves the work is that trying to create a picture of a civilization from bits and pieces “is like doing detective work,” Elina says. The payoff is in learning about “how our ancestors lived. Their artifacts show us their way of life, their myths, their connections with other civilizations,” she continues.
Typical projects, Altynbekov says, take up to six years, depending on the state of the artifacts when excavated.
The family’s most recent projects have focused on preserving the belongings of two priestesses, one of whom was found in the province of Batys Qazaqstan (West Kazakhstan), bordering Russia, and the other in Shyghys Qazaqstan (East Kazakhstan), just west of Kazakstan’s border with China. As was the custom of the period, the priestesses, along with weapons, household objects and bodies of horses, had been interred in burial mounds known as kurgans.
The finery of the women’s clothes, jewelry and tools suggest they held high social positions. In addition to mediating with the gods, their roles likely included fortune telling, traditional medicine and varieties of scientific work.
The priestess of Batys Qazaqstan, whom Kazakhs refer to as Altyn Khanshayim (Golden Princess), was unearthed from the Taksai Kurgan complex near the Ural River, where she had laid buried for some 2,500 years. Immediately after her discovery in 2012, the Altynbekovs began work on preserving her belongings.
Archeologists found buried with her a wolf paw and a gold-dipped bracelet made of wolf teeth: Both objects together suggest the wolf served as a mythological symbol of her clan, most likely Sarmatian, a nomadic people.
But “the most interesting thing she had was a wooden comb,” says Elina. Its intricate carving offers insight into war chariots of the time and suggests interaction between her people and Persian warriors.
One reason the family loves the work is that trying to create a picture of a civilization from bits and pieces “is like doing detective work,” Elina says.
The carving consists of two men in a chariot—a driver and an archer—and a third warrior holding a horse. The clothes and headwear of the men in the chariot are Persian, while those of the man holding the horses are Saka—a nomadic group neighboring the Sarmatians to the east.
The Altynbekovs found the comb in pieces, with many parts missing. The family used graphics software to simulate what the missing portions would have looked like in order to create a faithful reproduction.
The priestess’s red hood, long and pointed upward, features depictions of birds and antelope. The Altynbekovs reproduced it and the rest of her clothes for the National Museum in the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana.
The family has also just finished the eastern princess project. Discovered in the Urzhar River Valley of Kazakhstan’s eastern-most province, and like her western counterpart probably dating to the fifth or fourth century bce, she had been buried with a fern placed in her hand and other items that have led archeologists to think she practiced traditional or mystical medicine. In the earth around her, archeologists discovered seeds of a number of plants in addition to grinding tools, all of which may have been items typical of a conjuring, healing priestess.
“This was her medical laboratory,” Elina says.
Altynbekov’s knack for historical craftwork has prompted others “to ask that I make jewelry and other things for them,” or restore items, he says.
He proved so skilled at restoration that he enrolled as a young man at the Soviet Union’s top trade school for the work—the All-Union Scientific Research Institute for Restoration in Moscow.
One of his first projects was the high-profile Tsar’s Village in Pushkin, just outside Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg. He has also helped restore historical treasures in Moscow and Yekaterinburg in Russia, and Sevastopol in Ukraine.
It was while Altynbekov was still in high school that archeologists unearthed Kazakhstan’s most celebrated cultural treasure, the Golden Man, near Issyk, just outside Almaty, in 1969. Altynbekov was too young to become involved in preserving the original, which now stands in the Museum of Gold in Nur-Sultan. But he noticed later that the first reproduction of the Golden Man’s golden raiment wasn’t authentic.
“So in the 1990s my father decided to make his own version,” says Dana.
He spent a lot of time backgrounding himself. He pored through books and archives, studied photos of the original and talked to the archeologists who took part in the discovery, she says.
When he finished the reproduction, the archeologists said that although it was not of pure gold, “my father’s version was truest to the original,” she says.
Altynbekov has made a number of copies since that first one. The others are in the Museum of the First President and in the Nazarbayev Center, both in Nur-Sultan, as well as in the un headquarters in New York and other venues across the world.
One of the Altynbekovs’ most heralded recent projects was the restoration of a glittering saddle found in the tomb of a noble at Berel’, in eastern Kazakhstan’s Altai Mountains.
To insure the best preservation effort possible, Altynbekov had the entire block of earth containing the saddle and part of the horse’s remains lifted from the burial site. This approach, which he has used many times since, allowed his team to remove and preserve artifacts with the utmost care, resulting in minimal loss. It is one of his innovations that has been adopted by other preservationists.
“The first thing we did was make an X-ray and [3D] tomography analysis to see what was inside,” Dana says.
As the team got to the saddle, they discovered it consisted of wood, leather and cloth that included depictions of a tiger attacking a deer and a mythological creature with horns similar to that of a mountain goat.
Afterward, the team began identifying and eliminating bacteria on the saddle—a process that took years. They then cleaned it, gently, meticulously. Their combination of preservation and reproduction has allowed the original saddle to be stored and displayed at room temperature.
It is a stunning artifact: The luxurious red cloth and ornamentation are unmistakable signs that it belonged to a leader.
The Altynbekovs have been so successful that many of the artifacts they’ve preserved or reproduced have been shown abroad.
In 2012, “Nomads and Networks,” the first exhibition in the us to offer a full overview of early steppe nomadic culture, opened at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Other exhibitions in major cities across North America, Europe and Asia followed, and these led to collaborations and opportunities for Altynbekov to share his techniques.
While some scientists closely guard their formulae, “the Altynbekov family is always ready to share their experience and offer professional advice,” says Vasilyeva, the Hermitage restorer.
One might not expect anything less from an Altynbekov—a name that translates loosely into English as “Honored Golden Son.”