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Mysterious Mongolia Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
By Eric A. Powell

Seeking clues to ancient nomadic life at the edge of the Arctic

[image] Bronze Age nomads erected hundreds of megaliths in northern Mongolia, many featuring a mysterious motif that seems to depict flying deer transforming into birds. (Thomas L. Kelly) [LARGER IMAGE]

When Genghis Khan set out to unify the Mongolian tribes in the thirteenth century, the man whose ruthless ambition would bind most of Eurasia into the greatest empire in history began with the tribes of an obscure northern valley, the Darkhat. Today lying near the border with Siberian Russia, the Darkhat Valley marks the boundary between the vast central Asian steppe and the forested Siberian taiga. From the earliest times, this region has been a crossroads, a place where the worlds of Central Asia and the Arctic met. The result is a landscape littered with dramatic archaeological monuments, especially huge rock burial mounds known as khirigsuurs and upright stones carved with mysterious symbols.

It's likely that Bronze Age nomads erected these graceful and mysterious megaliths throughout the northern regions of Mongolia and southern Siberia around 1000 B.C., though some scholars think they may be the work of later, Iron Age peoples who appeared by 700 B.C. Known as deer stones for their carved depictions of flying deer, the monuments rival Europe's megaliths in their intricate designs and careful craftsmanship. Just why they were created and what role they played in ancient nomadic cultures are two of the many puzzles in Mongolian archaeology.

Since the early 1990s, scholars from all over the world have gravitated to Mongolia. Turkish archaeologists come to learn more about the ancient Turks, who are believed to have originated here around A.D. 500. French and German expeditions are excavating medieval sites. And since 2001, a multidisciplinary team from the Smithsonian, coordinated by archaeologist William Fitzhugh, has worked here in the largely overlooked Darkhat Valley of the Hovskol Aimag, or administrative region. Fitzhugh is drawn to this remote region of Mongolia because it is at the very southern edge of the Arctic world, which as the director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Program he knows quite well.

[image] The Tsaatan summer camp at Mendebulug offers plenty of lichen, fodder for large reindeer herds. (Thomas L. Kelly) [LARGER IMAGE]

The world's southernmost reindeer herders, a nomadic people known as the Tsaatan, still raise hundreds of reindeer in the tundra of the Hovksol's mountains. (Tsaat means "deer" in Mongolian, which most Tsaatan speak, though some elders still speak Tuvan, a branch of the Turkic language family that is also spoken by their ethnic cousins across the Russian border.) The average Mongolian learns to ride a horse before age 10, but here in the mountains, Tsaatan children all of three years old are as comfortable on the backs of reindeer as an American child might be on a tricycle.

In an effort to understand this slice of the Arctic world, Fitzhugh has put together a large team of specialists, including Bruno Frolich, a Smithsonian archaeologist and physical anthropologist with a particular interest in khirigsuurs, and Paula De Priest, a Smithsonian ethnobotanist. A specialist in lichens, De Priest has spent several summers with the Tsaatan studying their traditional botanical knowledge, especially as it relates to reindeer herding. The Tsaatan's way of life may be dying out thanks both to rapid modernization and global warming, which threatens the lichens the reindeer depend on. A team of Smithsonian conservators headed by Harriet "Rae" Beaubien is studying ways of preserving the region's deer stones, and this summer used a 3-D laser scanning system to make extraordinarily detailed records of the monuments.

Dubbed the Deer Stone Project, the expedition's goals are ambitious. Fitzhugh hopes to find evidence of cultural links to a circumpolar artistic tradition that could stretch from Mongolia all the way to the Pacific Northwest. "Most people think about Mongolia in terms of East-West connections," says Philip Kohl, an archaeologist at Wesleyan University who has worked on Bronze Age nomadic cultures in Central Asia. "Bill brings a whole different perspective by looking at northern connections. He's also working within a broad anthropological tradition, looking at archaeology in the context of ethnography, for instance." As early as the 1950s, American anthropologists have theorized that Mongolian Bronze Age art influenced Eskimo death masks and ivory ornaments with shamanistic and animal motifs. Fitzhugh's work in Mongolia is aimed in part at looking at these possible links.

Eric A. Powell is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

* To learn more about the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center visit

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America