Archeology and History of the Silk Road

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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Swat Museum gets ready to re-open 6 years after militant attack

In the years since the Swat Taliban militants were defeated, various aspects of tourism and culture have been returning to the once-volatile area.


SWAT – As another sign that cultural activities are returning to the area, Pakistani officials are making arrangements for the Swat Museum to re-open more than six years after militants attacked it, forcing it to be closed.
"The situation is normal, and the general public are taking interest in all activities," Faiz-ur-Rehman, the museum's curator, told Central Asia Online of life in the area today.
The museum is still closed but will re-open after a proper ceremony, he said.
"The days are gone when the Taliban virtually ruled the valley," he said, predicting the re-opening will bring back hundreds of foreign tourists. "They were enemies of culture, but now the evil forces have been defeated."

The process of re-opening the museum

Swat was part of the Gandhara Kingdom, which existed from 530 BCE to 1021 CE, and boasts a rich archaeological heritage, including unique stone Buddha statues and stupas, many of which were housed in the museum.
During the Swat Taliban's reign of terror in 2007-2009, residents witnessed numerous atrocities, including attacks on government installations, schools and health facilities.
The museum, inaugurated in 1963 by then Pakistani President Ayub Khan, was among those institutions that were attacked. Militants bombed it, damaging more than 150 items and forcing the museum's closure in 2008.
Since the military's victory over the Swat militants in 2009, though, life has gradually returned to normal and culture is returning to the area.
Officials had moved the artefacts to Taxila, Punjab Province, to preserve them after the 2008 attack; now that the museum's reconstruction – which took several years and was funded by Italy – is complete, archaeologists are bringing back the antiques.
"All of the objects belong to Swat and are placed in chronological order from the Stone Age to the British era," Rehman said.

Archaeology, tourism return

The return to peace is also giving the economy a needed boost.
"Archaeological activities, with the help of the Italian mission [that rehabilitated the museum], have restarted in the area and so far we have preserved six sites," Rehman said. "The Italian archaeologists have started repairing the face of the Jehanabad Buddha [a 7-metre-tall 7th-century CE statue that the Taliban defaced in 2007], and we are hopeful very soon it will be brought to its original position."
Other activities related to the conservation, exploration, reconstruction and training of workers are in progress, he added.
"It was a great source of income for us," 18-year-old Swat resident Akhtar Ali said of the Jehanabad Buddha.
"Before the Taliban damaged the face of the rock engraved with the Buddha's image, many tourists from Japan, Thailand, Nepal and many other countries came to the site, but the militancy ruined our business," he said.
Ali said he was optimistic tourists would return.
"We hope that the good times will come again ... and our business will start again," he said.
Already, there is an indication of that as tourists, especially from Punjab, have started visiting the area again.
"We enjoyed the summer festival in Kalam [August 4-7] and also visited the archaeological sites that show the Gandhara civilisation," Allah Ditta, a resident of Bahawalnagar, Punjab Province, said. "We will come again next year for the summer festival and hope by that time the museum will be open too."

Silk Road explorers from Kazakhstan: Minarets of Xinjiang

From: Tengrinews.kz   30 August 2014

Silk Road explorers from Kazakhstan: Minarets of Xinjiang
The tomb of Abakh Khoja ©Vladimir Prokopenko
The expedition from Kazakhstan Following Shoqan Walikhanov’s Caravan Routehas immersed itself into the spiritual life of ancient and enigmatic city of Kashgar.
The expedition dedicated to the 180th anniversary of birth of the great Kazakh ethnographer Shoqan Walikhanov had a chance to visit several historical and spiritual sites in the cultural center of Xingjian, China, Tengrinews correspondent reports.
They visited the Grand Bazaar of Kashgar, which, in ancient times, was the largest market in Central Asia. It consisted of several thematic market sections: a market for wood, for carpets, textiles, livestock and so on. Shoqan Walikhanov surely visited it more than once.

“Merchant Alimbai (that was Shoqan's disguise) lived in Kashgar and spent most of his time at the market. The market of Kashgar was a special world, where people not only bought and sold goods but also talked, learnt the news, had lunches or breakfasts, where poets and scholars shared their thoughts, read poetry. Artisans also worked at the bazaar, and the Kazakh traveler liked to chat with them,” the head of the expedition Following Shoqan Walikhanov’s Caravan Route Smaylzhan Iminov said.



However, the market with all its attractiveness was not the major interest of the expedition that arrived from Kazakhstan in August. The group visited ritual and religious buildings of Kashgar as well.

In the ciy's suburbs, the urban county of Artush, the explorers from Kazakhstan were planning to visit a large mosque. Shoqan Walikhanov wrote about the places, when exploring the areas adjacent to Kashgar. Unfortunately, the group was not allowed to enter the building because of strict local rules.



Artush is the administrative center of Kyzylsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture. According to the National Census of 2000, the foliowing ethnic groups are represented there: the Uighurs - 63.98 percent of the population, the Kyrgyz - 28.32 percent and the Chinese - 6.41 percent.



The Central Asian influence stands out very clearly in the layout of the central square of the city, where a monument to kokpar – a popular game characteristic for Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmens, and Uzbeks – is located. The sport is played by horse-mounted players, whose goal is to drag a goat carcass towards a particular 'gate'.

Having returned to the historical center of Kashgar, the expedition visited one of the major landmarks of the ancient city - the tomb of the rulers of Kashgar, the mausoleum of the religious and political leader of Eastern Turkistan Abakh Khoja.
Walikhanov so described this place: "The tomb of Abakh Khoja is the finest building in the entire Kashgar Prefecture, it is six versts north-east from the center of the city, on the right bank of the Tumen River."



The tomb is the holiest Muslim site in Xinjiang and, perhaps, the finest example of Muslim architecture in the entire region. This is the only complex consisting of a mazar (mausoleum of Abakh Khoja), a mosque – Juma – and a madrasa, an educational institution.

This complex was built by Kashgar craftsmen in 1633-1665. In the center of the mazar there is a majestic dome with four towers at the corners, which are richly decorated with beautiful patterns of green and blue tiles. Gold crescents are shining above the dome.
Inside the mazar, on an elevated platform, rest 72 people. Among them is Abakh Khoja himself and his close relatives.
There is an old madrasa near the mazar. A number of famous poets, scholars and theologians used to study there.



After the Kazakh team explored the entire complex, they headed towards another holy place for Muslims – the Id Kah mosque, which is the largest mosque in Xinjiang and one of the three most respected mosques in Central Asia. Its other name “Aitigaer” translates from Uighur as "festive".



There are 18-meter minarets at each side of the gates of Id Kah. After the central arch there is a large courtyard, the place of worship. The yellow-white mosque can accommodate more than ten thousand people. However, the locals say that during religious holidays it attract Muslims from around the region and this number reaches as high as eighty thousand. In this case the prayers stay right on the square in front of the mosque.

Next, the project participants from Kazakhstan visited the mausoleum of Turkish writer and thinker of the 11th century Yusuf Khass Hajib Balasaguni. He was born in one of the capitals of Kara-Khanid Khanate, the city of Balasagun, but spent most of his life in Kashgar, the other capital. Here he received his education and became widely known in the community as a person with encyclopedic knowledge. In addition to his native language, he mastered both Arabic and Persian.



Balasaguni completed a poem called “Kutadgu Bilig” (“Knowledge of Grace”) at the age of fifty and presented the work to the ruler of the Empire. For this, he was awarded the title Khass Hajib, an honorable title meaning private chamberlain, a person close to the Khan.



Walikhanov did not write about seeing the mausoleum. Nevertheless, the head of the expedition Ordenbek Mazbayev believes that the Kazakh traveler visited it.



Master student of Nazarbayev University Dzhalija Dzhaydakpayeva suggests that Walikhanov deliberately omitted mentioning some of the cultural and religious sites. "After all, he had other goals. He collected information about the region, wrote a lot about its military. It is quite possible that he just thought it irrelevant to mention the site," she said.

The final place visited by the expedition in Kashgar was the mazar of eminent Turkic philologist and lexicographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, know as the Tomb of the Holy Teacher. The Kashgari is best known for the dictionary-directory of various Turkic languages he created in 1072-1974.



He lived in the heyday of Turkic Muslims, when the Turks were conquering various lands. Diwan lughat at-Turk, which in Arabic means "Compendium of the Languages of the Turks", was the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages. 
The mazar is surrounded by trees. One of the trees, the legend goes, has grown from Kashghari's walking stick.



This was the last site explored by the group in the old and fascinating city of Kashgar. It it left the team in meditations about the brevity of life and importance of knowledge.
Thereafter, the expedition of the Kazakhstan National Geographic Society headed on to Kyrgyzstan along their route.

Reporting and photos by Vladimir Prokopenko, writing by Dinara Urazova

For more information see:http://en.tengrinews.kz/science/Silk-Road-explorers-from-Kazakhstan-Minarets-of-Xinjiang-255199/
Use of the Tengrinews English materials must be accompanied by a hyperlink to en.Tengrinews.kz

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Por- Bajin: Fortress of Solitude

From:  Archaeology.org   November / December 2010

Archaeologists excavate unique medieval ruins at the center of a Siberian lake


(Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
University of Reading archaeologist Heinrich Härke has spent his career researching the European Dark Ages. But at the invitation of the Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation and archaeologist Irina Arzhantseva, Härke and a team of his students recently spent a season at a site in the mountains of the Russian republic of Tuva.
Russia's most mysterious archaeological site dominates a small island in the center of a remote lake high in the mountains of southern Siberia. Here, just 20 miles from the Mongolian border, the outer walls of the medieval ruins of Por-Bajin still rise 40 feet high, enclosing an area of about seven acres criss-crossed with the labyrinthine remains of more than 30 buildings.
Por-Bajin ("Clay House" in the Tuvan language) was long thought to be a fortress built by the Uighurs, a nomadic Turkic-speaking people who once ruled an empire that spanned Mongolia and southern Siberia, and whose modern descendants now live mainly in western China. Archaeologists conducted limited and inconclusive excavations at the site in the 1950s and 1960s, but Irina Arzhantseva of the Russian Academy of Sciences is now digging here for the Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation to find out just when the complex was built and why. The few artifacts unearthed at the site seem to date it to the mid-eighth century A.D. During this period, Por-Bajin was on the periphery of the Uighur Empire, which lasted from A.D. 742 to 848 and was held together by forces of warriors on horseback.
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A tile from Por-Bajin in the shape of a spirit protector, perhaps a dragon or a bat, shows Chinese influence. Roof tile and finial. Silver men's earring. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)


Were some of those warriors once garrisoned at Por-Bajin? The Uighurs also might have built the site on an island for reasons other than defense. Perhaps the island was the site of a palace or a memorial for a ruler. Por-Bajin's unique layout, more intricate than that of other Uighur fortresses of the period, has led some scholars to suggest that it might have had a ritual role.
States ruled by nomadic peoples often had symbiotic relationships with neighboring civilizations. In the Uighurs' case, China exerted a strong influence on their culture. The Uighurs even eventually adopted Manichaeism, a religion popular in China at the time that combined elements of Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. The site is highly reminiscent of Chinese ritual architecture of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), so it's possible Por-Bajin might have had something to do with Manichaean rites.
Determining how the site was used might also help archaeologists understand why it was abandoned. There is some evidence of a great fire at Por-Bajin, but could there be other reasons the Uighurs eventually left?
These questions are central to the work of the Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation, and in the second season of excavations in 2008, when my students and I were lucky enough to join Arzhantseva's team, some 200 students, archaeologists, and local workers got closer to unearthing the answers.
The excavations at Por-Bajin are on a scale almost unheard of in modern archaeology. That's thanks to Sergei Shojgu, Russia's Minister for Emergencies and the only Tuvan native in the country's cabinet. In his youth, he worked on digs in the Altai Mountains, a range west of Por-Bajin. Ever since, he's dreamed of excavating a major site in his native republic, so in 2007 he set up the Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation to fund the work of archaeologists, geologists, geographers, and other specialists at the site.
The paramilitary forces of his ministry have given extensive support to the excavation, building the infrastructure of the dig camp and the bridges linking the site to the lake's shore. They even provide the archaeologists with helicopter transport. Arzhantseva believes that this may be only the second instance in history that military troops have been involved on this scale in archaeological work, the first being the archaeological investigations Napoleon sponsored in Egypt from 1798 to 1801. During the first field season at Por-Bajin, Vladimir Putin, then still president of the Russian Federation, even interrupted a hunting trip in Tuva with Prince Albert of Monaco to visit the site. Apparently, the organization backing such a large undertaking impressed him greatly.
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Small yards (left) running along Por-Bajin's walls each had a building in the center. A digital reconstruction (right) based on excavations shows that each building could have functioned as a dwelling, perhaps for monks if the site were a monastery. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
As an archaeologist, I was most impressed with both the scale of the excavations and the site itself. During my first assignment at Por-Bajin, I worked in a trench cut through the outer perimeter wall, which rises up on either side of the excavated area almost to its original height of four stories tall. At its base, the wall measures 40 feet thick. If Por-Bajin was a fortress, these ruins suggest it would have been nearly impregnable.
In the trench I worked with a small team of Russian students collecting wood samples for dendrochronological dating, which could prove key in the final interpretation of the site. The wood we extracted was from the framework supporting the compacted clay fabric of the wall—a Chinese building technique called hangtu. After seeing hangtu up close, I had to wonder if Chinese architects and builders were directly involved in the construction of this complex. Arzhantseva says it is possible, but hangtu is not necessarily the strongest evidence for that. She points, instead, to the Chinese layout of the site, and the wooden remains of a Chinese roof construction called dou-gun, as even stronger indicators of Chinese influence. I found myself surprised at how pervasive that influence seems to have been.
When I joined in the excavation by the walls of the complex's main gate, I was surprised a second time by finding permafrost less than three feet below the current surface. I should have expected frozen soil here, 7,000 feet up in the Siberian mountains, but I had simply not thought of it while sweating in the warm summer temperatures. Although I had never come across permafrost before on an excavation, it is easy to recognize: It looks much like the soil above, but is bone-hard and quickly rims with frost when exposed to warm air. We had to expose the permafrost surface repeatedly and then let it thaw for a couple of hours before we were able to go deeper.
As hard as the permafrost is, the lake's water has a warming effect, meaning that the permafrost is periodically thawing. This is causing the gradual erosion of the island's banks. Project geologists and geomorphologists, led by Moscow State University scholars Igor Modin and Andrej Panin, believe that the main walls will collapse in about 150 years if the erosion of the banks continues at the current rate. This makes work at Por-Bajin even more important.
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Illustrator Elena Kurkina (right) draws a plan of a room at Por-Bajin while conservator Galina Veresotskaya (kneeling) stabilizes fragments of a wall painting in situ. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)Russia's Minister for Emergencies Sergei Shojgu (far right) and then-president Vladimir Putin (second from right) listen to archaeologist Olga Inevatkina (center) as she explains the layout of Por-Bajin. Prince Albert of Monaco (in sunglasses) stands to her right. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
One of the keys to that work is the investigation led by Modin and Panin. They have shown that there is permafrost under the lakeshore and under the island, but not under the lake itself. In other words, the complex is standing on a permafrost plug. But whether it was built on an island or if the lake were a later feature that formed around Por-Bajin is still an open question. The geologists now tend to think the lake existed when Por-Bajin was built, in spite of the logistical problems this would have posed for the builders, though the lake is less than two feet deep around the island. If Por-Bajin was a fortress, the lake would not have played much of a role in its defense.
The excavation of the site's central complex could be key to answering the questions of just how the site was used and why it was abandoned. Russian archaeologist Olga Inevatkina of the Museum of Eastern Art, Moscow, leads the work here and I joined her for the last couple of weeks of my stay at Por-Bajin.
The central area consists of two large courtyards surrounded by a series of small yards along the walls. In one of the large courtyards lies a complex consisting of two pavilions. The larger pavilion was likely used for ceremonial purposes, while the smaller one could have been a private residence. Each of the small yards in turn has a building in the center, a layout that was typical of Chinese religious or ritual sites of the period.
As we dug, I was puzzled that we couldn't seem to find an occupation layer, or a level that would contain artifacts that date to when Por-Bajin was actually used. In fact, there was a surprising dearth of artifacts overall. The only finds so far from two seasons have been a stone vessel, an iron dagger, one silver earring (probably a man's), several iron tools, iron balls from a warrior's flail, lots of iron nails, and a handful of pottery sherds from the site's main gate. During my time there, I did not manage to add to that tally, nor did I find a proper occupation layer while cleaning three rooms in the complex. But I did uncover destruction debris left behind by a fire, and helped reconstruct the sequence of the building's construction and collapse.
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Excavations at the southwest bastion of the site have revealed signs that an earthquake struck Por-Bajin, perhaps causing the fire that destroyed the site. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)Earthquake crack. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)At the site's center are the remains of elaborate Chinese-style pavilions. Roof tiles (foreground) have been stacked by archaeoloists as they excavate. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
The walls were made of a sophisticated type of wattle-and-daub covered with a high-quality plaster painted with a red and black strip along the base. At some point, they were repaired with a layer of plaster of inferior quality, less regular and less decorated. The debris on the floor suggested to me that the walls and roof must have burned for some time before the roof collapsed on the floor, and the walls then collapsed onto the roof debris. But this only leads to more questions: What caused the fire? And why was the site not rebuilt or repaired?
Geologist Modin and geomorphologist Panin added another twist to the story here. They have identified traces of an earthquake in slipped layers in sections of the perimeter walls and the central complex. They also have found there are large cracks in the walls and bastions in the southeast and southwest corners of the enclosure, also probably caused by an earthquake. It's possible an earthquake even caused the fire that ultimately destroyed it.
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Director Irina Arzhantseva (left) and the author (right)
(Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
Whether a fortress, a ritual site, or something else altogether, before the 2008 field season Por-Bajin appeared most likely to have been built under the Uighur emperor Moyun-Chor, who reigned from A.D. 747 to 759. However, the wood that I uncovered during my first few days at the site gives us a much more solid date range than the previous finds. The timber for the wall framework was cut between the 770s and 790s, meaning that Por-Bajin was probably built under Moyun-Chor's son Bö-gü, who converted to Manichaeism.
Uighur rulers sought strong political ties to China, and on occasion they were powerful enough to be given Chinese princesses in marriage—Moyun-Chor's wife Ningo was one of them, which explains why their son Bö-gü believed in Manichaeism and even made it the official religion of the Uighur Empire. Both marriage links and shared religious beliefs seem to have led to an influx of Chinese architectural concepts and builders into the Uighur Empire under Bö-gü.
This link to China is sensitive politically, because Por-Bajin has also become important for the modern-day Uighurs, who are spread across the border areas of China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. This is a particularly volatile issue in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where Uighurs make up the Muslim majority of the population. To Uighurs, Por-Bajin symbolizes the beginnings of their history and the state they no longer have (See "Battle for the Xinjiang Mummies," July/August). For them, Por-Bajin is a site that shows the advanced development of Uighur culture in an early period of their history. Some Uighur scholars even dismiss Chinese traits at medieval Uighur sites as not being "pure Chinese." For their part, Chinese archaeologists are keenly interested in Por-Bajin because of the high level of preservation at the site, especially the wooden construction, which is in better condition at Por-Bajin than at similar Chinese sites from the same period.
Por-Bajin is also a sacred site for the local Tuvans, who feel kinship with the ancient Uighurs. A Turkic-speaking people, like the Uighurs, Tuvans follow shamanic practices and regularly visit a small "holy tree" within Por-Bajin's enclosure. Tuvan shamans performed a ritual here seeking the blessing of the gods before the first season started, and many Tuvans have worked at the site.
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Por-Bajin 3-D plan. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)Por-Bajin reconstruction seen from east. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
No further fieldwork seasons are planned for the foreseeable future at Por-Bajin. Arzhantseva and her team are concentrating on analyzing the data they have recovered so far, and have already learned much that was not known before. The team has found extensive evidence of Chinese building techniques, whereas earlier excavators believed that the walls were simple mud-brick constructions. And we now have precise dating evidence for the building of the enclosure wall, which is about a generation later than originally thought. This new dating is giving rise to a fresh theory about Por-Bajin.

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In 2007, Tuvan shamans performed a blessing ritual asking the gods for permission to excavate Por-Bajin. Local Tuvans would not work at the site before the ritual. (Copyright Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation)
If the site were built during the reign of Bö-gü, perhaps Por-Bajin was a Manichaean monastery. In this region of Siberia, Uighurs were defeated by local tribes shortly after the conversion to Manichaeism and were expelled from the region. If the monastery was completed just before the Uighurs were forced to leave the area, it could explain why we have found so few artifacts or evidence of sustained occupation.
It's an intriguing theory, but the truth is that even now, after archaeologists have excavated one-third of the site to exacting standards, Por-Bajin remains a mystery. Perhaps a new generation digging here will be able to test not only the theory that Por-Bajin was an abandoned monastery, but all the ideas scholars have had about just what Por-Bajin was.
For me, of course, the unanswered questions only make Por-Bajin even more fascinating. Before we departed the site, I gave my Wellington boots to Rustam Rzaev, the site manager, to keep in his storeroom in the lakeside camp, just in case I have another opportunity to dig there.
Heinrich Härke is a research fellow in archaeology at the University of Reading and an honorary professor at the University of Tübingen.

For more information, go to Por-Bajin Cultural Foundation

Friday, 29 August 2014

Archaeology at the border: Survey and excavation in Xinjiang (continued)

From: Penn Blog

As we approach the end of the field season, with 2 weeks remaining, the cold weather  also begins to settle in. Since I last wrote, the grass has yellowed, leaving flocks of sheep and cow to scavenge from what is left from a summer much drier than prior years. The rainmakers had to be called in to induce precipitation by dispersing silver iodide into the clouds.
Up goes the rocket and down comes the rain.
Up goes the rocket and down comes the rain.
We are currently excavating the twenty graves we exposed at the site of Adonqolu this season. The site lies on the gentle south-facing slopes between two mountain ranges (please refer to my previous post for description). The graves are all oriented east-west with their capstones arranged generally in a north-south direction. They are lined with, most commonly, erect stone slabs on all four sides of the grave, and they sit inside quadrangular structures outlined by either erect stone slabs or flat-lying stones. Graves in the same enclosure may be dated to different time periods, and this chronological gap can be discerned by observing the stratigraphy as well as structural configurations. To understand their spatial arrangement and chronological relationship, we are also creating 3D reconstruction models using a photogrammetry software. All archaeological findings are shot in with a total station and the distribution of finds will be correlated with the structures in three dimensional space.
DSCF2912Besides gazing at human crania with Europoid features, the other highlight of my fieldwork has been the bronze objects I excavated in one of the graves, which include bronze beads, bronze bracelets/anklets, small bronze ornaments that might have been affixed to clothing, and what look like bronze mirrors (see picture at left). What is also interesting is that the bronze objects are mixed in a concentrated deposit of burnt human bones. Unlike this grave, most other graves yielded flat bottomed ceramic pots with incised patterns (picture below) that can be attributed to the Andronovo Culture of Central Asia, bronze objects are limited to one or two pieces if not absent. Where the bones of the deceased have been preserved, they are usually placed in a fetal position with the head facing north in the western end of the grave. Secondary burials have also been found.
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Since our day is long, starting normally at 9am when the moon still hangs high in the sky, and ending at 8pm when the evening sun is still above the horizon, we take a siesta in our Mongol yurts with a pot of traditional milk tea. In the month of August, the weather has varied from tank top and shorts to thermal wear with fleece and wind jacket. The strong winds in the mountains are unrelenting at times, leaving us covered  completely in dirt at the excavation site. Teamwork is one of the most paramount aspects of archaeological fieldwork, and I am privileged to have worked with a team that has held its own through rain and shine.
Lifting the capstones with a pulley.
Lifting the capstones with a pulley.
While I find the hospitality of the herds equalling endearing as their owners, my companions beg to differ – we often find cows and camels roaming near our site, finding their way into our latrines and once, through our kitchen. They are also the most unperturbed pedestrians, they would stroll into the middle of the road at the most inopportune moments. But to be fair, this vast area of grassland is their home and we are the trespassers. They are the livelihood of many Mongols and Kazakhs who practice pastoralism in the area today, and most of whom I met have enthusiastically showed me their lifeways. I learnt how they make milk products including yoghurt, butter, hard cheese, and what they call milk wine (you add a dollop of butter and drink it hot!), all products derived from animal husbandry. They also showed me how to felt by hand. With increased industrialization, these traditional skills are gradually losing their limelight; it is also difficult for the pastoralists to keep making these products once they move into the urban environment, these processes require communal effort, an outdoor setting, and tools that cannot be found in stores. As I made these observations, it became more apparent to me the importance of documenting these activities before the skill sets are completely forgone by future generations.
[My summer fieldwork is supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS and the Penn Museum.]
Making milk wine from fermented milk by distillation.
Making milk wine from fermented milk by distillation.
Making cheese
Making cheese 
Preparing the wool for felting.
Preparing the wool for felting.
Laying the felt
Laying the felt
The kids love kicking and rolling the felt roll.
The kids love kicking and rolling the felt roll.

Archaeology at the border: survey and excavation in Xinjiang

Penn Museum Blog

As far as archaeological fieldwork goes, there are certainly far less accommodating places than where I have fortunately found myself for three consecutive field seasons. My summer fieldwork in Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, a picturesque area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region less than 30 km from China’s border with Kazakhstan, has offered just the right balance of thrill and serenity (sans mosquitoes and creepy crawlies).
Looking north towards the Alatau Mountains.
Looking north towards the Alatau Mountains.
The view from the site where I am excavating.
The view from the site where I am excavating.
We are now four weeks into the field season and so far we have exposed eight slab graves* (see picture below) lying on the piedmont slopes flanking the Bortala River Valley running east-west between two mountain ranges of the Tianshan (45°N, 80°E). In an archaeological survey conducted by the local bureau of cultural relics in 2010, over 200 sites with stone structures including slab graves, stone cairns, habitation structures, and anthropomorphic statues were discovered in this area, making it a significant representation of the steppic stone monument tradition that extends beyond Xinjiang, to areas in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and southern Siberia. These archaeological remains delineate areas of past human activity and indicate territories of cultural and economic significance.
My fieldwork with the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences this season, comprises two modes of investigation – survey and excavation. I will talk about the excavation in my next post. Our work has been generously supported by the Bureau of Cultural Relics of Wenquan County. With their help, we have been able to locate and document many archaeological sites that would otherwise be difficult to find. Some sites are located in areas where access is obstructed by masses of rocks brought down by flash floods. Working in the mountains, we have learnt to deal with various temperaments of nature; packing up the survey equipment in time before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive has become part of the drill. Temperature could fluctuate anywhere between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun at above 2000 m (> 6500 ft) above sea level could be deceivingly mild in the presence of a strong gale. Although the weather occasionally makes it difficult for survey and excavation, watching the forces of nature in the vast expanse of the steppes is nothing but awe-inspiring.
Here comes the downpour…
Here comes the downpour…
Every now and then, we get a rainbow or two.
Every now and then, we get a rainbow or two.
Our survey focuses on structures dated to the early to late Bronze Age (late 3rd to late 2nd millennium BCE). The sites we currently survey are visible on the ground surface, in the form of stones arranged in geometric patterns indicative of either a burial, ritual or habitation structure. Preliminary observations in the previous field seasons (2012 and 2013) have identified a strong correlation between the location of these stone structures and features of the natural environment. For example, these structures are located on piedmont slopes between the altitudes of 1800m and 2500m, and most entryways of  large non-burial structures have an easterly aspect. Elsewhere in Eastern Central Asia, the distribution and purported functions of stone structures have been used in landscape analyses to delineate possible territorial boundaries or routes of communication. In the Bortala Valley, it appears that these stone structures are not standalone features but components of a well-curated landscape that are correlated with topographic features and the workings of natural phenomena.
Several site clusters have been selected from a preliminary survey in summer 2013. Given that distances between sites are too far for a total station to be operational and that it is not possible to obtain precise locations with a handheld GPS, we use a satellite positioning device, Real Time Kinematic (which consists of a base station and two mobile units), to obtain the exact coordinates of the archaeological remains and topographic features. These data will be used for terrain modeling and geospatial analysis to identify possible connections between the archaeological remains and the physical features. This year, we are also using aerial photography and 3D photogrammetry to supplement surface survey in hopes of creating a more dynamic and visually effective result.
Quadcopter in action, hovering over a walled stone structure.
Quadcopter in action, hovering over a walled stone structure.
Recording the outline of a stone cairn with an RTK mobile station.
Recording the outline of a stone cairn with an RTK mobile station.
Inhabited by multiple ethnicities of which the majority comprises Mongol, Han, Kazakh, Uyghur and Hui, the region of Bortala is also home to Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists and their bountiful flocks. This demography provides excellent opportunities for interesting ethnographic observations, some of which I shall detail below and in my next post. Due also to the ethnic diversity, the tranquil and rustic atmosphere is tainted by tightened security in response to recent violent attacks in Urumqi and other cities in China, which had resulted in alarming death and injury tolls. Checkpoints are installed in between counties and prefectures, bags have to be screened before entrance into grocery stores, barricades are put up even in front of primary schools. At our site, we are frequented by border patrol who have been on the lookout for fugitives hiding in the area, supposedly attempting to cross the border.
My companions.
My companions.
Hello there!
Hello there!
While the political reality may be uninviting, it is well compensated for by the locals’ overwhelming hospitality. We are often treated to a bowl of milk tea (freshly brewed with Kazakh red tea leaves and fresh milk) and a few hot dishes in the homes of pastoralists when we are out doing field survey. It felt like we were imposing but in fact it is considered rude by the Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists to not accept invitations into their homes. Once, we passed by at the end of a long day of surveying a home of a large Mongol family who had gathered in front of the corrals for their annual sheep-shearing event. As we approached with curiosity, we were immediately welcomed into a crowd of baaing sheep. I was asked to down two cups of beer from a makeshift halved coke bottle before I participated in the shearing, subjecting one poor sheep soul to my unskillful hands. I could feel the sheep twitching as I plunged the blunt edges of the shears into its thick greasy wool. I learnt later that sheep-shearing is to the pastoralists a sacred familial event, at which an outsider’s presence is considered a blessing and therefore must be honored. The guests are offered a bowl of hot mutton soup, and sometimes, even a feast of mutton-themed dishes.
The wool is sold by the kilogram to the middlemen who come to pick up the wool for resale to factories in other provinces in China. The price is 3-4 RMB /kg (which is about 50 US cents) this year, and a household with 200-300 sheep would make about 2000-3000 RMB (less than 500 US dollars) per harvest. I bought a sheep’s worth of wool for 10 RMB (less than 2 bucks) to try my hand at felting. If the result is any decent, I will share it here.
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Shearing season.
Shearing season.
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