The Journey to Setup an Archaeological Excavation at Beiram Kurgan

April 11-21, 1999


Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball


Although I had surveyed the Beiram Kurgan in 1996 and make extensive arrangements with Dr. Tseevendorj, the director of the Department of Archaeology in Ulaanbaatar when he visited Berkeley last November, I decided to make a quick trip to Mongolia for reconnaissance. I also wanted to make sure that the local people in Uvs and Bayan Ulgii aimags knew that we were coming to excavate and understood what we were doing.

Location of Beiram Kurgan in Northwestern Mongolia

The Discovery Channel was very interested in filming the Beiram excavation and had chosen FilmOasis, a film production company located in Hollywood, to produce the film. Jim McQuillan, producer for FilmOasis, Russ Oquist of the Mongol Tour Company, and I set off for Ulaanbaatar on April 11, 1999. It was storming in California and although I had three hours between the time my United flight left San Francisco until my Air China flight left for Beijing, the most harrowing moment was not knowing if I would make that connecting flight. If I didn't, I would miss all my other flights. I was aboard Air China with only minutes to spare. But my suitcase with everything I needed for the trip to the high Altai Mountains and all my paperwork for the Mongol archaeologists had not made the transfer to the Air China flight! I filled out a report with explicit instructions that it should be sent on to Ulaanbaatar, knowing that it would not arrive there until after I was already in the Altai Mountains.

We overnighted in Beijing and the next morning caught the Air China flight to Ulaanbaatar, arriving about noon. Dr. Tseevendorj had e-mailed me that he would be in Novosibirsk, so I was quite surprised when he met us at the airport. He had taken the train from Novosibirsk, arriving only the night before. We were also met by our translator, Oyuna, and her husband, Zorig.

While still at the airport we checked on the size of helicopters for shipping our equipment, which includes a large, specially built freezer to Beiram.

Helicopter at the Ulaanbaatar airport


The reason we will need the freezer unit at Beiram is because any frozen material we excavate must be sent to the Panum Institute in Copenhagen still frozen for detailed medical examinations. The freezer unit had to be quite large and we hoped to get a type of cargo container used for shipping frozen foods, adding a compressor to it to bring the temperature below freezing. The size of this kind of container is 3.20 m x 2.28 m. x 1.64 m (one meter is about 39 inches).

The film crew also wanted to use the helicopter to take aerial shots of Beiram. After calculating the weight of the cargo, 10 people­American and Mongolian archaeologists and the film crew­­and an extra tank of gas in case of an emergency landing, we discovered the helicopter could hold all the equipment but our combined weights were right at the weight limit for the helicopter. But, it might be possible. Then we went to inspect the helicopter and take measurements again.

The helicopter was much smaller than I had expected. When I was in Mongolia previously, I had seen larger ones that probably belonged to the military.

The extra gas tank was about three feet in diameter and attached to the side of the helicopter in the cargo area.

Interior of the cargo area. The orange object at the right is the gas tank.

A few quick measurements determined that with the gas tank in place there actually was not enough width for the freezer unit; without the gas tank, we could not fly to Beiram. Now I had to find another method of transporting the freezer unit to Beiram.

Our 8:25 AM flight for Ulaangom, capital city of Uvs aimag, meant I had better shop for some extra clothing so, with Jim accompanying me, we went to the local department store­­ three-stories high, built on the Soviet model that was so familiar. There I found some leather lace-up boots, a pair of cashmere socks, mittens, and a cashmere tam. A pair of sweatpants replaced my long johns that were languishing in Beijing. Interestingly enough as the right pocket turned forward, the left pocket backward. But it didn't matter, I would wear them under my pants.

Oyuna and Zorig accompanied us on our four-hour flight to Ulaangom which went well. As I had expected, we stopped at Moron to refuel. Here the wind was blowing and, although dry and cloudless, the wind-chill factor was severe. The distant mountains were midnight blue capped with sparkling white glaciers.

The Miat turbojet refueling at Moron.

Oyuna had called Governor Baatar to inform him that we would be coming to meet with him, but nevertheless, I was surprised when he sent two jeeps to meet us at the airport. After checking into our hotel rooms (mine was a suite with two bedrooms, a living room, and two partial bathrooms cost about $5.00) we had lunch, checked out the local "telefonica," where one makes long-distant phone calls.

Then we met with Governor Baatar. During his introductory remarks to us, the governor told us about Uvs aimag (an aimag is the equivalent to one of our states), and the people that live there. Five different tribes of Mongols make up the total population of about 99,000 people.

Governor Baatar, Uvs aimag, in his office



Most of the Uvs people are nomads and are now beginning to move to spring pasture. They will go to summer pasture about June 15 and then begin moving down to fall pasture August 20. When the snow begins to fall, they will migrate to their winter pasture.



Mongols we encountered near Uvs who are moving to spring pasture.

Nadaam, which will be held July 11 and 12, is the largest of all Mongol celebrations.. Shortly after Naadam, in a tradition practiced since ancient times, the Mongols will cross the Ulyasta Mountain by foot or only on camel or horseback (no motorbikes or jeeps allowed). The mountain is a tremendous challenge because it is very high, covered with rocks and glaciers. Once the climbers have reach the other side, they celebrate their victory with feasting. Another festival in Uvs is Oovotaighe in honor of the oovo. Lamas, the religious leaders, set the date for this celebration using the moon calendar and Governor Baatar did not think it had been determined for this year. Later, as we climbed the Altai toward Beiram, we saw several oovos.

The governor was very interested in our archaeological project and asked many questions. This is the first time that any archaeology has been done in the Altai Mountains; the only other excavation in Uvs aimag was in the 1970s at Chandamane Mountain, an outcropping only a few kilometers from Ulaangom. After I had recited the list of things we might need from Uvs (food, jeeps, gas [called benzine], lumber, and gers [portable houses called yurts by the Kazaks} Governor Baatar promised us complete support.

He had already assigned his Minister of Social and Cultural Policy, Lkagvasures, whom we soon called Lagva, to show us the petroglyphs on rock outcroppings about 13 kilometers from Ulaangom.


An Early Iron Age hunter with a recurved bow and arrow carved on a slate outcropping not far from Ulaangom. The outcropping is above a river that flows to Uvs Nur, a large lake to the northeast of the city.

In addition to studying archaeology and petroglyphs, learning about the people who now live in these remote areas is also important. This helps us to understand how people lived here in ancient times.

Two Mongol ladies going to the bazaar in Ulaangom.


The next morning while waiting for the jeeps to arrive, I saw a wagon loaded with sheep pelts, drawn by a horse, pass along the main street of Ulaangom on its way to market.

Wagon filled with sheep pelts in Ulaangom

Ulaangom, capital of this large aimag seemed mostly deserted, but I noticed a great pall of smoke to the east and could make out a large encampment of gers, the Mongol portable housing. These people today are living very much as the earliest nomads must have lived, tending their flocks in sheltered river valleys in the winter and, as spring approaches, preparing to move out to spring pasture. The smoke was from the many fires that were started to warm the ger and make tea for breakfast.

The road to Beiram Kurgan is steep and rocky, and we crossed one mountain pass before reaching the kurgan that we will excavate at the top of the second pass. Each pass is marked by an oovo, a man-made stone monument. When a passerby reaches the summit, he or she finds three stones, walks around the oovo clockwise, and adds them to the pile for good fortune. The Mongols also put other votive items on the oovo such as car parts, money tied to a branch with a strip of cloth, the head of a bull, or just a piece of beautiful blue satin fabric.

An oovo at the top of the first mountain pass from Ulaangom to the Beiram Kurgan



In the valley beyond the second mountain pass we stopped to record an ancient cemetery that had kurgans similar in configuration to the Beiram Kurgan and other burials, later-dated burials that belong to the 6th­9th century Turkic period are marked by beautiful balbals, a stone sculpture guarding the square burial marked by stones. The balbal holds a cup, has a belt and a dagger suspended from the belt. The white material that we see on this balbal comes from libations of milk poured by Mongols to honor the statue.

Balbal, a stone stele, used to mark a Turkic grave in the Altai Mountain


Byambadorj, who was particularly interested in this cultic burial site, had wonderful drawings of the balbals, petroglyphs (rock carvings), the burials, and artifacts from the Chandamane Mountain excavation, where he had participated



As we continued into the Altai Mountains, the weather became cooler. Along the way we encountered two men with camels, who, in answer to my question where were they going, replied, "To Ulaamgom, on personal business." Oyuna had never ridden a camel before but one of the drivers was very obliging. The camel didn't like the idea of being asked to lie down on stones, screaming in mock outrage until the driver led it to the dried grasses. Then it knelt obligingly and Oyuna took her ride.

Oyuna about to take a camel ride


This scene was taken not long after we had arrived at the Beiram Kurgan. We took accurate measurements with the 50 m take I had purchased in Ulaanbaatar. Jim wanted to try an experiment: How many rocks can seven men (the number of men on this excursion to Beiram) remove from the kurgan in five minutes?

Beiram Kurgan in mid-April 1999. The Mongols had removed more stones so that the snow had piled into the depression. Here the men were experimenting to find out how many stones they could remove in five minutes? Answer: Not very many!




The seven lined up and began passing rocks (Oyuna and I took photographs), stacking them along the large oovo built from the rocks taken from the kurgan. They removed about 60 rocks of various sizes­­one measured almost three feet long and weighed perhaps 100 pounds. Russ dropped this one Jim's ankle but fortunately the damage was not great!

We know we'll have our work cut out to get all the rocks out of this burial mound which is oval shaped and measures 22 m x 17.7 m (72 feet x 59 feet).

From this point onward to our next stop for the night, I knew the road­­it was the same one I had traveled in 1996 to find the Beiram Kurgan.

After we left Beiram Kurgan, we began the long ride downhill to Ulgii, the Bayan Ulgii aimag center more than four hours away. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and we were starved. The lunch of bread, cheese, sausage, fresh fruit (all from the market in Ulaanbaatar) was delicious.

Lunch along the road. From left to right: Russ Oquist (Mongol Tour); Byambadorj (Uvs Aimag Museum Curator); Jim McQuillan (FilmOasis producer); one of our Mongol jeep drivers; Oyuna (our wonderful translator); Zorig (our camp master, charged with building the camp at Beiram Kurgan); and Lkagvasures, nicknamed Lagva, (Uvs Aimag minister of Social and Cultural Policy). Byambadorj will come work with us this summer during the excavation.

As we drove downhill along a now-dry river-bed, we had wonderful luck to encounter several groups of Mongol nomads with all their camp gear loaded on their camels, slowly migrating up the mountainside to spring pasture. Although the grass is still dry, it makes good feed. Soon these hills will look like lush green velvet far up the mountain sides. We expect that when we return to excavate, we will see more camels loaded with gers as they begin their move to summer pasture higher up in the mountains near the glacier lines .

Mongols moving to spring pasture in the Altai Mountains. The camels still have long, shaggy fur, which has protected them throughout the winter.



Soon we spotted three gers off in a side valley and being reluctant to leave the beautiful mountains, we drove over to say hello. The older Mongol lady was the aunt of our driver (small world here). We were invited into another ger for tea. We promised to come visit them when we returned; however they said by then they would be further up the mountain, almost to Beiram.

Young mother and her child at spring pasture.

Our next stop was a planned one, to pay a courtesy call on the mayor of Hotgor, a small village 20 kilometers below the kurgan. Here Kazak coal miners live. We found city hall, and after inquiring, found the mayor, Mirvai Rakhmet. My most important question for was: Could get some supplies from the village. By the end of our conversation, we were assured a constant source of water­­a tank on a truck that could be left at camp and refilled when necessary. We can also get coal to cook with, jeeps, and workers to help clear the rocks out of the kurgan. Rakhmet, whose name means "Thank you" in Kazak language, was very enthusiastic about our excavation.

By now it was after 5:00 PM, we still had four hours of traveling over rough roads before we would reach the hotel in Ulgii. Rakhmet invited us to supper. I told our crew that it might be very late before we reached our destination if we were to stay for supper with the mayor. We probably wouldn't leave Hotgor until at least 7:00. Then I thought, Oh, the poor drivers! They had not had any rest or proper food all day, so the decision should really rest with them. They conferred and said, "We want to stay for supper."

With that we all went to Rakhmet's house, where his wife had called in two neighbor women to help prepare food for seven, extra-hungry people. Several of the officials from Rakhmet's office also joined us, including one very tall, blue-eyed young Kazak who looked at Jim and in perfect English said, "Sit down!" Jim sat.

Rakhmet and his wife pose after dinner in front of a colorful carpet that hangs on their wall. The Kazaks incorporate many of their nomadic customs into their life after they become sedentary, as this family has done.

The differences in Kazak and Mongol philosophy came out during dinner when Rakhmet shared that he was allowed to have four wives although he loved his wife and would never take another. It seems that Oyuna had never heard of this Islamic edict and could hardly contain herself. She was alternately astonished, incredulous, and then teasing, asking Zorig if he would like to have four wives.

About 7:00 PM after thanking Rakhmet and his wife for a wonderful dinner, we began the last leg of our journey to Ulgii. The road seemed rougher than usual. Once after it became dark our drivers swerved the jeeps to a sudden stop and the headlight illumination died into a black void. They swung the jeeps to the right, back onto the rocky roadbed. We had narrowly averted going over a small cliff (Russian jeeps are not equipped with seat belts either). On schedule, about 11:00 PM we arrived at our hotel. Someone from the mayor's office had called to let them know we were coming, so we had rooms. My room again was sort of a suite. I entered into a large banquet site with a sitting room at the end. Off that area was my bedroom and bath. Fortunately at the Ulgii hotel, which now is being privitized, we had hot water. Good for the beat up-body!

The following morning, we met with Governor Meiram, an old friend. When I was in Ulgii in 1996 before he was elected governor, he had been my host. I had written an e-mail letter to him which had been delivered a few weeks earlier when the aimag governors met in Ulaanbaatar, so he was expecting us. I outlined our project and he also gave us his support for equipment, jeeps, yurts (about the same as a ger), and said he would inform the governor of Noogon Nur soom (county center) to give us whatever help we needed.

During the afternoon, we met with the director of the local theater for an interview, took Polaroid records shots, and video-taped the local actors. Some sang beautiful folksongs during the taping.

This visit was going beyond the scope of a usual archaeological excavation. But since we wanted to include some reinactments of nomadic customs, we decided the best place to do them would be their own local setting. We went through the theater's wardrobe, and I selected some of the more simple costumes that I though we could use.

We met Governor Meiram at 5:30, then drove to a soom center within 10-12 kilometers of Ulgii, so Jim could see a hunting eagle.

Kazak hunting eagle. They have powerful talons and beak, and are kept masked when not hunting.


Later we drove to the nearby Hovd River which was small, with iceledges along the edges. I knew that by July the river would be raging as glaciers at the higher elevations began to melt. Jim McQuillan was a great hit with everyone we met along the way when he presented them with Polaroid pictures.


Two daughters and the son of the soom governor were transfixed as Jim showed them their Polaroid photograph.




We had one task to do before we caught the flight back to Ulaanbaatar the following day­­the aircraft flies in, arriving about 11:00 AM and leaves as soon as it disgorges its passengers and their luggage, and refuels. Jim, Oytuna, and I dashed off across the town square to the Bayan Ulgii Museum where, the day previously, we had negotiated filming a wonderful yurt on display. I had seen this yurt in the past, but did not realize the very fine quality of the artifacts until I examined each one and explained their use while Jim recorded them with his digital camera. I also found an object I had never seen before. The museum director indicated that it was used for protection­­a long staff with a thick knob at the end. If an enemy were to enter the yurt uninvited, as he bent to go through the door, the yurt master could heave a powerful and fatal blow to the base of the intruder's skull.

Zorig and Russ had were at the airport. With Zorig's negotiations, we were fortunate to get seats this Saturday's flight which reserved 20 passengers for Ulgii and 20 for Altai city to the southeast in the Gobi. This day it left Ulgii with 25 passengers.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar late in the afternoon which left us with little time to meet with many of the people that we needed to. Sunday morning we arranged a meeting with the director of the Ulaanbaatar theater. He said he he would have actors for us to film on Monday. We visited the open bazaar, called the "wholesale market" so I could note what foods and staples would be available for us. We drove to Genghis Khan Campground as Russ thought this would be a good place for filming. Although interesting from a tourist point of view, Jim quickly rejected it: we want ancient lands for any reconstructions. The carved images of the Mongol royalty was interesting­­particulary the khagan's (queen) headdress.

Carved images of the Mongol royalty at the Genghis Khan Campground on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

Later I discovered in the Mongolian History Museum that the khagan wearing this unusual headdress was Alan-Goo, a tenth generation descendant of Temujin (Genghis Khan).

A likeness of Alan-Goo in the Ulaanbaatar History Museum.

After leaving the campground, we headed for the mountains surrounding the city, driving high into a now-deserted summer pasture that the film crew could use if they needed to do recreations in Ulaanbaatar. The wind was very strong and bitterly cold at the summit, and although the view was spectacular, we did not linger.

Monday morning brought us a series of meetings, scurrying across the city from one side to the other. We videotaped some of the most prominent actors in Mongolia at the theater. Next dashed to an important meeting with Dr. Ochir and Dr. Tseevendorj to discuss the excavation plans, contracts, and health issues of the Mongol students who would join us in late June (after they had excavated on a Paleolithic site in the Gobi [southern Mongolia]. They would go from very hot to less than warm weather within a few days. Then we dashed off to pay our respects to the American Ambassador, and as there is now a Peace Corps worker in Uglii, to introduce ourselves to the Peace Corps director (there I saw big Honda generators sitting on their office porch, confirming that we could, in fact, buy this item in Mongolia and not have to ship it from San Francisco). At 5:30 we discovered that the freight forwarder we had just heard of not only owned the hotel we were staying in but also had his offices on the fourth floor. We made an impromptu appointment by phone, then dashed up the stairs to get information. Later that night, we met with our camp director and the film fixer, after dashing off for a second supper at Selenge's resturaunt. She was the soft-spoken Mongol cook that I had interviewed the day before. She has cooked for foreigners at the Genghis Khan campground and now has a tiny eatery in the back of a shopping mall. Her sons and their friends also joined us for dinner, all too happy to eat what we couldn't. Back at the hotel about 10:30 PM, I collected a package from a young Mongol archaeologist to hand carry to the States.

By midnight we had nearly completed our list. Time was running out as we had an early plane to catch the next morning to Beijing.

My last adventure, and the most frenzied, was retrieving my languishing suitcase from the Ulaanbaatar airport baggage storage. I snatched the brown envelope marked "Dr. Ochir," handed it to Zorig, zipped and locked the bag, and pushed it through the x-ray machine. This time, no suitcase of dirty clothes when I arrived home!