The Dorno-Altai Excavation

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2004 Dorno-Altai ‘Excavation’

and subsequent Baga Gazyryyn Chuluu field season

Dorno-Altai ‘Excavation’ and subsequent Baga Gazyryyn Chuluu field season, 2004 The 2004 season presented early on what seemed to be an opportunity to explore a reported cave in the south of Mongolia, holding the interred remains of numerous mummified individuals. Over the course of an initial mission to locate the site and perform a brief survey, it was discovered this site had been the locality of local plundering for some time. The cave apparently was well known to locals who would evidently take their visitors there to ‘see the mummies’ and take some souvenirs. It was determined at that time as well, that in all likelihood the mummified individuals dated to as recently as the Communist purges of the late 1930’s. The possibilities of getting a recovery team into the site were closed by the site’s location only a few kilometers from the Chinese border, and the status of the area as a military secure zone. Given those factors, which were not at all apparent when this site was advertised, the reconnaissance team, consisting of Drs. B Naran of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and Bruno Frohlich of the Smithsonian Institute, quickly became the recovery team. They brought the mummies to Ulaanbataar and put them into storage while making arrangements to have them shipped to the Smithsonian for study. Consequently our project was forced to scramble, and look elsewhere for fieldwork opportunities.

An opportunity actually presented itself immediately. As physical anthropologist for the Joint Mongol American expedition, headed up by William Honeychurch and Amartuvshin (Mongolian Institute of Archaeology), I, along with Naran, have worked with the excavated human remains from nearly a decade of the Expeditions’ sampling digs. As Honeychurch had moved his survey operation from the Egiin Gol to Baga Gazyryyn Chuluu, (also Photos from the 2004 Season), an area very rich in archaeological features, he and Amartuvshin invited us to work in that area, as an excavation adjunct project to their broader scale survey work. They presented us with a number of Bronze Age and Xiongnu features and we realized immediately it would be an opportunity to contribute to an ongoing project, and that we would have a viable project for our volunteers and be able to get the most out of our grant support. In addition, owing to time and manpower constraints (as we found out later), the Institute had denied a proposal to excavate for two weeks on sites near Ulan Bator, then go to the north and excavate another two weeks at a different locality.

While this turn of events presented us all with challenges in the land where Murphy’s Law reigns supreme, it did put us in an archaeologically rich region where the month field season was spent excavating Bronze Age and Xiongnu features. While the three Bronze Age slab tombs all proved to be empty, the Xiongnu feature at a cemetery site called Alag Tolgoi produced abundant finds. These included bone and metal artifacts, and preserved fabric, in addition to the remains of a robust male individual who would very likely have been a warrior or leader among his people. Addition time was spent exploring Medieval (Mongol Period) exposure burials, and mapping and recovering a surface scatter of human remains pulled out of what we believe to be a Turkic period tomb by a marmot digging a burrow. On weekends we were able to explore around the BGC region, looking at rock art as well as meeting locals for horseback riding and learning about aspects of nomadic life. Among these, the volunteers were able to participate in sheep shearing with one family, get up close to young camels and look at wild plant curation (for winter feed) with another. The abundant wildlife in the area always made for interesting photographic opportunities.

We were able to make occasional trips in the region as well to Mandalgov, the aimag capital, and Adaatsig, the local sum center, or county level government. The four individuals recovered by our team, in addition to two recovered by the survey and sampling teams from Honeychurch’s project brought the collections of human remains from the project to six individuals for the 2004 season. Given this number of recoveries from last year, and projected number of at least this many for next year, we anticipate a reasonable sample from which to extrapolate some demographic information, at least for the Xiongnu people inhabiting this area following the Bronze Age. In addition, information gained from both the fruitful excavations as well as the exploratory digging that resulted in sparse finds have given us a knowledge base to proceed from for next year. In the upcoming season we will likely narrow our focus to the Xiongnu feature group at Alag Tolgoi. In addition we will plan to salvage the remainder of the burial disturbed by the marmot. The exploration of the Xiongnu feature group at Alag Tolgoi should provide opportunities for volunteers interested in learning, or experienced hands, to get a full measure of experience for archaeological recovery work in this beautiful, if remote part of the world.

Russell Nelson

November 1, 2004