Sunday, March 2, 2014

Past and future archaeological fieldwork at Baruun Mukhdagiin Am

Back in September I posted some pictures from archaeological fieldwork at Baruun Mukhdagiin Am (Баруун Мухдагийн Ам) with promises of more pictures and information to follow.  It's taken me longer than anticipated to prepare the follow-up post but, as a result, this post not only discusses the 2013 fieldwork but looks ahead to the 2014 field season.  The 2014 field season is still in the planning stage.  My Mongolian colleagues and I, however, are optimistic and are taking steps to insure that the 2014 field season of the BMA Archaeological Project is a success.  To that end, we have been working hard on securing funding and permits, as well as opening our project to paying volunteers who are interested in joining us in the field.  But first, there's still plenty about the 2013 to share, including some wonderful photos.  My colleagues Dr. Batsaikhan and Galdan brought high-quality cameras with them on the 2013 project.  Their photos do better justice to the beauty of the BMA landscape and the experience of fieldwork there.

The central section of the main Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery at BMA (taken facing east/northeast).  So far it's been impossible to capture all of the burial surface features at BMA in one photo frame.  Each tan circle above is a burial surface feature; at this distance, it is difficult to discern the variety of sizes and shapes these features take.  The black dot on the right edge is a Range Rover.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Zagd Batsaikhan

Баруун Мухдагийн Ам is located in along the Orkhon River in Mogod county, Bulgan province (Могод сүм, Булган аймаг), Central Mongolia.  Баруун Мухдагийн Ам is a place name.  "Баруун" and "Мухдаг" are fairly easy to translate.  "Баруун" means "west".  "Мухдаг" is a proper name for a place; thus, "Мухдагийн" means "of Мухдаг".  "Ам", however, is more challenging.  While the word most commonly translates to "mouth", when "ам" is used for geographic and landscape features, it connotes a raised, level area protected on all sides from the wind.  This is certainly an accurate description of the BMA cemetery, which is boxed in by hills of varying height to the north, south, east, and west.  The "ам" on which the BMA cemetery is located is also delineated on the east and west aspects by deep, narrow ravines, both of which ultimately flow north to the Orkhon Canyon.

View of the Orkhon Canyon.  The main Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery at BMA is located to the right of the edge of this photo.  In future field seasons we plan to investigate the landscape immediately north of the Orkhon, which was inaccessible to us in 2013, including the wide river bank pictured above.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Zagd Batsaikhan.

In 2013 my colleagues and I focused on mapping all burial features visible from the surface within the main Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery at Baruun Mukhdagiin Am.  Professor William Honeychurch (Yale University) was generous enough to loan us his Total Station to help us produce a high-quality three-dimensional map of the cemetery.  Our project team recorded 293 features within the cemetery distributed into roughly four sectors.

Mapping the main BMA cemetery with the Total Station.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Zagd Batsaikhan.
The majority of these features are burials from the Xiongnu/Hunnu Empire, based on previous preliminary excavations at BMA conducted by Dr. Batsaikhan in 2006 and the typology of Xiongnu/Hunnu burial surface features.  However, some features are less straightforward and do not follow the known typology of Xiongnu/Hunnu burials.  Such features may in fact be smaller 'sacrifice' burials, ritual deposits from the Xiongnu/Hunnu period (or later), and burials from later periods (Turk and Medieval).  Such findings complicate the original interpretation of the main BMA cemetery as a Xiongnu/Hunnu imperial cemetery, or at least indicate that the cemetery is a more complex context than previously thought.  Furthermore, these findings raise questions about the use of this politically- and ideologically-significant place over time and the relationship between the Hunnu/Xiongnu Empire and subsequent large-scale polities as seen at BMA.

Burial surface feature at the main Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery at BMA.  This feature has a dromos or entryway projecting south, a common attribute of elite Xiongnu/Hunnu burials in Mongolia.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

During our time mapping the cemetery, we were regularly visited by herds and herders going through their daily late summer/early autumn routines.  The main Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery is located on prime pasturage and seems popular with sheep, goat, cattle, and horses alike.

Walking to join the herd of horses and their herder on their morning route up from the river on their way to be milked at home.  BMA Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery Sector D in the background.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

In addition to mapping, we conducted a targeted survey of the landscape to the west, south, and east of the main Xiongnu/Hunnu cemetery.  Our permit did not allow us to conduct any subsurface recovery; however, we were able to record a wide variety of archaeological sites and features from the Bronze Age through Medieval period within a 20-km radius of the BMA cemetery.

Pastoralist landscape east of the BMA cemetery of grassy steppe, rocky hills, and deep ravines.  Herds of cattle and horse surround the white canvas gers of a local herding family (айл/ail).

Our main survey goal was to identify ancient herder campsites within 20km of the main BMA cemetery.  The identification of ancient herder campsites from the Xiongnu/Hunnu period is a key step in addressing the questions posed in my dissertation proposal: how the relationships between humans and animals in life and death shaped particular practices and institutions within a local Xiongnu/Hunnu herding community and their linkages to the broader empire.

One of the ancient herder campsites as identified by surface scatter of ceramic sherds.  Each orange survey flag marks the location of one sherd.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

In the 2013 field season, these campsite were identified through surface scatter of ceramic sherds consistent with Xiongnu/Hunnu ceramics. 

Sample of ceramic sherds from the site pictured above.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.
In addition to ancient herder campsites, we identified and recorded spatial data for a variety of other archaeological sites and features.  These include:

-a smaller multi-period cemetery immediately west of the main BMA cemetery,

Possible Bronze Age slab burial with the multi-period rock art panel in the background.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

 -a multi-period rock art panel associated with that smaller cemetery,

Reindeer and mountain goat (янгир/yangir), which are common images in Mongolian rock art dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.
 -isolated Turk- and Medieval-period burials,
Possible Medieval burial located on a slope above the Derestei Valley (Дэрэстэй хөндий) less than 10km west of the main BMA cemetery.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

-and monumental Bronze Age khirigsuur (хиргэсүүр) complexes
Central mound of a khirigsuur complex in the Asgatiin Valley (Асгатын хөндий) about 5km east of the main BMA cemetery.  Khirigsuur are Bronze Age archaeological features usually found in the central and western regions of Mongolia.  Archaeologists continue to debate the nature of khirigsuurs, but they are associated with burials, rituals, and other monuments.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

Khirigsuur feature within a larger cluster of khirigsuur and other ritual and burial features.  This khirigsuur is like many other in the region: a round central mound surrounded by a square enclosure, each corner of the enclosure marked with standing stones.  Located on a south-facing slope overlooking a broad valley about 20km southeast of the main BMA cemetery.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

In addition to survey and mapping, we conducted some preliminary community outreach with local herding families living in the BMA project area.  The BMA Archaeological Project is committed to engaging in positive, ethical interactions with the local community, and this field season we endeavored to demonstrate our good will and honest intentions to the people whose home and cultural landscape we wish to study.  During the 2013 field season at BMA, we meet with and visisted a number of local community members, but spent the majority of our 'community' time with an extended family at their autumn encampment in the Derestei Valley a few kilometers east of the main BMA cemetery.  The heads of the extended family are Byambasuren (Бямбасүрэн, the grandmother) and Davaanyam (Давааням, the grandfather).  Like most Mongolians, our hosts go by shortened versions of their names: Бямбаa and Даваа.  As my elders and gracious hosts, I refer to them as Бямбаa эгч ("egch"), meaning 'aunt/big sister' Byambaa, and Даваа ах ("akh"), meaning 'uncle/big brother' Davaa.

Some of the 2013 BMA team and members from the extended family pose for a group photo on the last day of the field season.  From right to left: Davaa akh, Dr. Batsaikhan, Byambaa egch (seated), Buhuu (2013 team member), Emma, Сарангэрэл (Sarangerel, their daughter-in-law), Батаа (Bataa, their eldest son), Шижирбаатар (Shijirbaatar, Sarangerel and Bataa's son), and Byambaa egch's brother (who was just visiting for the day).  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.
Our 2013 team rented a ger from Byambaa egch and Davaa akh for the majority of the field season.  The new living arrangement was a major improvement from tents, given the cold snap that came upon us and stayed for the entire season, and it allowed us ample opportunity to get to know the friends and many members of their large extended family.  This in turn organically provided us with opportunities to talk about our research with the local community, to solicit their opinions and experiences with the archaeological landscape in a friendly domestic setting, and to hopefully demonstrate that we are worthy of their trust.

Separating sheep and goat with Bataa, Shijirbaatar, and Byambaa egch.  While living at their ail/айл, we had the good fortune to purchase their mutton and sample their home-made fermented mare's milk (айраг/airag). BMA and the surrounding areas are famous for producing the most delicious airag in Mongolia (although there is a major debate about whether the best airag is produced in this province or its rival).  Lucky for us, we happened to be in this part of Bulgan province at optimum airag season.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Zagd Batsaikhan.

I very much look forward to renewing our connections with Davaa akh, Byambaa egch, and their extended family during the summer of 2014, as well as forging new relationships with other members of the local community.
Including friendly animals, like our buddy Bankhar (Банхар) from Byambaa egch and Davaa akh's ail.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.
  For a longer discussion of our 2013 fieldwork at BMA and that fieldwork in the broader context of my dissertation and our planned long-term research project, take a look at my brief mid-term report on the University of Chicago's Social Sciences Division research blog.  While I am pleased with what my Mongolian colleagues and I were able to accomplish in the field in 2013, there is still a tremendous amount of survey and excavation that we need to undertake in order to produce the kind of robust and meaningful archaeological data that will address our research questions.  To that end, my colleagues and I are in the process of organizing future archaeological fieldwork at our project site in Mongolia, starting with plans for survey and excavation of habitation and mortuary contexts this summer.

So much landscape to survey, so little time!  Photo courtesy of Dr. Zagd Batsaikhan.

Those interested in volunteering this summer or just interested in what the BMA Archaeological Project has planned for the summer of 2014 may wish to check out the links described below:

The most exhaustive information about this summer can currently be found on the BMA 2014 main page at CSEN (Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads).

A mixed herd of sheep and goat graze across burial surface features in the main BMA cemetery.  Photo courtesy of Galdan Ganbaatar.

The BMA 2014 listing on AIA AFOB provides a briefer synopsis of the project and this summer's volunteer opportunities, as well as a link to the CSEN page and a downloadable volunteer application packet. BMA 2014 also has listings at Past Horizons and a listing coming out in the spring edition of Archaeology Abroad.  Check back here over the course of the spring for more news about the BMA Archaeological Project.  Feel free to ask questions by commenting on this post!

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