All at SEAA

The Western Mongolia Archaeology Project team (mainly in our previous guise as the Khanuy Valley Project) hit the 6th SEAA conference, in Ulaanbaatar, in a big way this week. Oula Seitsonen presented a condensed version of our recent Past Mobilities paper as a poster (GIS approaches to movement and mobility in the monumental landscape of the Bronze Age Khanuy Valley) and I delivered a paper focusing on the identification of remains from Mongolian stone circles and their corresponding re-interpretation (Rings of Fire?) as well as one outlining the domestic economy of the Bronze Age and Xiongnu periods in the Khanuy Valley (The Culture Changes but the Herd Stays the Same: Bronze Age and Xiongnu Subsistence). Jean-Luc-Houle, meanwhile, focused on the seasonal movement of families in the Bronze Age and contrasted the situation in Khanuy with that in the Altai, based on data gathered during our first season of the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project (Long‐Term Occupation and Seasonal Mobility in Mongolia).

Other highlights of the conference included the big reveal of the finds from the Gol mod 2 cemetery excavations that took place in 2011, by Erdenebaatar, during the opening ceremony and excellent presentations by Julia Clark and Camilla Kelsoe discussing their recent work in Hovsgol province. Camilla used the ceramics from their excavations as a launching pad for discussing the reasons for adopting, or not, new technologies whilst Julia emphasised the need for us to consider hunter-herder interactions in the north of Mongolia. William Taylor presented a pilot study using 3D morphometrics to argue for ridden horses being present in horse-head mounds, examining them at a population level using several criteria to produce a range. Also working at a regional level were papers examining the spread of bronze metal working in East Asia, using compositional analysis (Gary Hsu) and the spread of starchy crops (Xinyi Liu).

It has, then, been a full and tiring week. At 4.30am tomorrow though we leave our rooms in Ulaanbaatar and head for Bayan Olgii and the next phase of fieldwork in the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project. We seem to have another good group of students and volunteers joining us, many of whom took the opportunity to attend some of the conference sessions as well as the usual sight-seeing in the city and we’re looking forward to working with them as we gather more data to improve our understanding of the prehistory of the region. We’ll be back, at the earliest, on July 6th.

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Animal Other Than Horse Found in Diet Shock!

With the British currently horrified at having been tricked into breaking one of their most cherished taboos and the associated scandal now spreading to Europe, it’s with peculiar timing that I should learn that my paper (co-authored with Jean-Luc Houle) “More than Just Horse: Dietary Breadth and Subsistence in Bronze Age Central Mongolia” should have recently been published in Mongolian Journal of Anthropology, Archaeology and Ethnology.  Of course, the real issue in the European meat trade scandal is one of labelling and honesty (although I’d question the intelligence of anyone who honestly believed that bargain processed meat was ever anything but suspicious) but the way that it has been reported in Britain serves to remind us of the cultural implications of dietary choice.  Were this a muslim country then it’s safe to assume that the pork that ended up unlabelled in beef meatballs would have been more controversial.

The reasons behind the British taboo on hippophagy remain as obscure as its origins.  The simple truth is that we do not know when the taboo began or why.  I recently read an archaeologist who referred to the consumption of horse-flesh in Mediaeval Winchester but did so without fully explaining that interpretation, which is a great shame when related to such a controversial topic and in a period which sees butchered horse remains more commonly interpreted as dog-food waste in Britain.  Others have suggested that the taboo extends back into at least the Iron Age.  What we do know is that the taboo is not shared by our neighbours across the English Channel: the taboo is a peculiarly British phenomenon not shared by our Europeans cousins.

Given the prevalence of this taboo, largely carried over to other British-settled states such as Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA, it may seem odd that academics might argue for the existence of a people subsisting on nothing but horse meat.  Nevertheless, that is just what has been suggested in the case of prehistoric Mongolia; a case of the projected ‘barbarous other’?  Our work in Mongolia has revealed a far more complex society than hitherto suggested, with a dietary base already broad in the Bronze Age.  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that article I mentioned that’s just been published:

Our current state of knowledge of subsistence strategies and dietary breadth in Bronze Age Mongolia has been hampered by a monument focused research paradigm, which has largely ignored habitation sites. This approach has skewed our understanding by extrapolating the ordinary from the extraordinary. The Khanuy Valley Project has recently excavated Bronze Age transhumant habitation sites in central Mongolia and recovered the associated faunal remains. Analysis has revealed a complex subsistence strategy focused on the herding of several species of domestic animal, with dietary breadth increased through the minimal exploitation of wild resources.

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Season’s Greetings

This has been another very busy year for me: fieldwork for projects in Mongolia and Tanzania has been completed and post-excavation work has continued on the material from Nigeria, whilst my PhD research has been refined and refocused.  We decided from the beginning that the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project should involve only one year of fieldwork; we now begin the process of consolidating our research from that project and the Khanuy Valley Project, planning how best to develop knowledge and our interest in Mongolian Bronze and Iron Age cultures further.  The Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania, meanwhile, was envisaged as a pilot project and, having met our research goals for that project we await news to hear whether or not the project will enter its mature phase.

All in all, 2013 promises to provide significant new opportunities and, more pleasingly still, the fruition of the work of several previous years.  As I look forward to the new year I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my colleagues and clients for their help and support in the last year and to wish them A Very Happy Yule.

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Mongolia 2012

I have felt privileged to have been involved with the Khanuy Valley Project over the duration of the last, most informative phase of the project in recent years.  I am, therefore, delighted to announce that the project will leave a legacy beyond our research output and friendships.  The same core team of researchers that ran the last phase of the Khanuy Valley Project (Jean-Luc Houle, Jamansarav Bayarsakhan, Oula Seitsonen and myself) will be joining together again to run the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project in 2012.

This project will feature a fieldwork component run along similar lines to the Khanuy Valley Project between 21st May and 22nd June.  I’m also pleased that some of our previous students and volunteers have already asked to join us – such requests help to reassure us that we create the space for a fun and supportive element to our fieldwork and campsites, building friendships and nurturing colleagues beyond our core team of staff.  In addition to this core team, the project will collaborate and share resources with the Rock Art and Archaeology: Investigating Ritual Landscapes in the Altai Mountain region of Western Mongolia Project, run by Bill Fitzhugh and Richard Kortum.  Working so closely together in the field, when looking at very different aspects of the same cultures, should provide valuable new insights for both teams, as well as new opportunities for our students and volunteers,

The Western Mongolia Archaeology Project has been added to the Project Gallery on my website, and applications are now open for students and volunteers to join us.  We’re only taking a small team this year and, although applications are not processed on a first come first served basis, those interested would be best advised to apply as soon as they have made that decision.

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“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

Every year I say I’m not going to TAG.  Last year I ended up running a session there.  This year, I managed to keep to my “not attending” mantra until the end of October.  Then a series of events overtook me and I found that I will be attending, and presenting, again this year after all.

The paper will feature in Jim Leary’s session on the “Archaeology of Mobility” and will be co-presented with Oula Seitsonen (University of Helsinki) and Jean-Luc Houle (University of West Kentucky), examining the issue of mobility in Bronze Age Mongolia.  A full copy of the abstract is given below.

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The Ritual Round

This paper examines the issue of mobility in the context of Bronze Age Mongolia. Recent fieldwork has identified a pattern of seasonal mobility in the Khanuy Valley which shows considerable similarity to present day patterns. Supportive ethnographic work has shown that the issue of mobility is integral to perceptions of identity in the present day population in the same region, and that this mobility is expressed through daily, annual, decadal and generational cycles. The spatial relationship between domestic habitation sites in the region and large-scale monumental complexes suggest that the themes of mobility and liminality were also an intrinsic part of belief systems in the region in the Bronze Age. The theme of movement through the landscape and through the seasons is explored through the analysis of landscape archaeology, ethnoarchaeology and zooarchaeological evidence. It is suggested that understanding past mobilities in the region is crucial to our interpretation of past lifestyles and cultures.

Khanuy 2010 Reported

This week, the zooarchaeological report of the Khanuy Valley Project 2010 excavations was submitted.  This is to be followed at a later date by the ethnozooarchaeological report of the same phase.  The report has identified some significant discoveries in the development of society on the Mongolian steppe, but many of the findings are provisional, pending a re-evaluation of the chronology on the site.

The report is available now from my profile on Mendeley.