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.
The proposed Sino-Russian pipeline across the Ukok plateau has generated controversy (although, arguably, not much publicity) since it was first announced back in 2011. The bald facts of the matter are that Russia, in the shape of Gazprom, have immense oil and gas reserves and China represents a large and growing market for those products. The two countries share two borders, either side of Mongolia, which they enclose. The westernmost of the borders is the most direct and, therefore, cheapest way to move the product from the producer to the consumer so, naturally, Gazprom wants to build a pipeline across it (above ground, in case you were wondering). The thing is, this 54km international border also marks the northern boundary of China’s Kanas Nature Reserve, which marks the southernmost portion of the Ukok plateau, most of which is in Russia.
The Kanas reserve is ecologically important in that it’s one of the few remaining truly wild places in China. It abuts the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, in Mongolia, the Katun State Nature Preserve, in Russia, and the Katon-Karagay National Park, in Kazakhstan. Together they form probably the largest (supposedly) protected area in Central Asia; crucial for the free movements and migrations of its wildlife. Moreover, the convergence of the modern borders of China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan in this area is illustrative of its probable long-standing marginality. These days it is an incredibly sparsely populated region that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998: it is a critically important habitat for several globally endangered species and is probably the homeland of the early Iron Age Pazyryk culture. Historically, the free movement of the people in the region has also been important and, regardless of modern borders, it’s presently principally inhabited by Kazakhs.
Today, the first assessment of the archaeological impact of the pipeline has been released by the Altai State University and, predictably, it highlights the kurgans that will be destroyed by the pipe construction. These Scythian and Pazyryk monuments are internationally famous and important – ‘Princess Ukok’ remains the subject of a repatriation suit and re-examination of the kurgans continues to fuel debate and shed new light on areas such as the development of human-animal relationships, ideology, cosmology and social structure. Any report which helps to throw light on this subject and bring it to the world’s attention is a good thing.
I am, however, a little disappointed but not at all surprised by the focus of this report on the region’s large and obvious monuments. Monumental archaeology has long been a focus of Russian prehistoric research; with a bit more effort, though, we can find out so much more about the lives of past inhabitants in the region by looking for different kinds of sites and this too, like the natural environment, could be of global significance. Regular visitors to this website will know that last year I was involved in a one-year pilot project to look for habitation sites, contemporary with those kurgans (or khirigsuurs as they’re known locally) in the Mongolian Altai – just 30km east of China. We found enough evidence there to suggest that this tough, rugged region may have always been liminal – occupied and deserted by a succession of peoples pulling and pushing from outside regions through the Altai.
Now, the Central Asian steppe and mountain ranges are threatened by climate change, just as elsewhere in the world. It’s important for us to research possible reactions to these changes and it has long been my opinion that there is no better way for us to learn than from the past. We hope to carry out more work in the Altai in the future – work which becomes more important with the threat to the Ukok. Previously, the same team worked for several years in the Arkhangai mountains, east of the Altai. There, too, we discovered several Bronze and Iron Age habitation sites (Xiongnu there, rather than Pazyryk) and we established that cultural changes occurred within a stable environment but that other changes, arguably more drastic, occurred at the end of the Xiongnu period, when the climate changed. By studying past responses to climate change – and, as far as possible, the causes of those changes – we can learn what might work or not work in the future. By studying those changes on a local basis we can suggest local responses. There’s much that we could learn from the Ukok as well as preserve.
I’ll be co-presenting a paper with Oula Seitsonen and Jean-Luc Houle on the Arkhangai research mentioned above (carried out in the Khanuy valley) at the AEA conference in Kiel later this year, using zooarchaeological and palynological evidence to explore cultural responses to environmental conditions.
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.
I received a copy of the glossy hardback to the left in the post this morning. It’s a weighty tome, comprising over 600 A4 pages of the most up to date research into the Xiongnu with papers from leading scholars outlining our current understanding of a culture that has seen an increasing amount of academic attention in recent years. It also includes the following article:
Houle, J.-L., Broderick, L.G., 2011. Settlement Patterns and Domestic Economy of the Xiongnu in Khanuy Valley, Mongolia. In Brosseder, U., Miller, B.K., eds. Xiongnu Archaeology – Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the First Steppe Empire in Central Asia. (Bonn Contributions to Asian Archaeology 5). Vor-und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn: Bonn. pp. 137-152
In the last couple of weeks I’ve also heard that I’ve had a poster presentation accepted for the Deer and People: Past, Present and Future conference at the University of Lincoln, beginning September 8th. I’ve included a copy of the abstract for the poster, below, and have also uploaded a copy of the poster itself to my Academia page.
Deer and People: Past, Present and Future
Deer form a highly significant and visible part of the worldview of prehistoric people within the area of the Mongolian forest steppe. Ecological studies suggest that deer species may only ever have been thinly distributed within this biome and be represented principally by Cervus elaphus and Capreolus capreolus. Recent archaeological studies are also beginning to suggest that deer may only ever have been a minor component of anthropogenic faunal assemblages. The combined ecological and archaeological evidence suggests, then, that the importance of deer to Mongolian people never lay in an economic role but in an ideological one.
Hunting pressures have led to a rapid reduction of deer numbers in the Mongolian forest steppe, with cervids suffering local extinction in several areas. One such area is the Khanuy Valley, where the last sighting of deer is commemorated in the naming of “Deer Mountain”. This poster explores the significance of deer to the local population.
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.