Some of the tombs were excavated by the archaeologist Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko in the mid 20th century. He assigned the label Pazyryk culture for these nomadic pasturalists of horses and dated them to the 5th century BC.
While many of the tombs were already looted in earlier times, others have been found to contain remarkably well-preserved remains. Bodies were preserved using mummification techniques and were also naturally frozen in solid ice from water seeping into the tombs. They were encased in coffins made from hollowed tree trunks and sometimes accompanied by sacrificed concubines and horses. The clustering of tombs in a single area implies that it had particular ritual significance for these people, who were likely to have been willing to transport their deceased leaders great distances for burial.
The most famous body recovered is the "Ice Maiden", a rare example of a single woman given a full ceremonial tomb, accompanied by six horses.
The Pazyryk culture has been connected with the Scythians described by the ancient Greeks, whose very similar tombs are found elsewhere. It has been suggested that Pazyryk was a "homeland" for these tribes at one point before they migrated west. There is also the possibility that the current inhabitants of the Altai region are descendants of the Pazyryk culture: their unwillingness to see their presumed ancestors disturbed has closed the site to archaeologists for the time being.