Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. She has been a Fulbright Teaching Fellow at Kazakh State University and wrote an article in the catalogue for Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler August 11–November 12, 2012. Throughout the exhibition, Claudia will share her field work with us on Bento.
In late May, the temperature in the region of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, can range from the 50s in the early morning to the high 80s by noon. The winter wheat is a foot high and sways in the gentle breeze. Outside our little village 21 km (13 miles) from Almaty, large fields of soy crop have been seeded. The seedlings are about 2 inches in height. For a survey archaeologist the conditions are ideal; we can still walk between the rows of soy crop looking for ancient ceramics, sheep and cattle bones, broken river cobbles, and grinding stones. As we walk transect after transect in fields that are almost a kilometer (0.6 miles) in length, we inspect the soft, crunchy topsoil known as “loess” for ancient artifacts. Loess is wind-blown glacial mud that was deposited millennia ago and covers the gently sloping valley just below the foothills of the Tian Shan mountain range, which along with the Hindu Kush, Himalayas, and Pamirs form the highest peaks in Eurasia. This thick layer of loess is pay dirt for today’s farmers as it was for the Iron Age farmers and herders of the first millennium BCE. It is rich in nutrients and in this semi-arid climate is excellent for crops or pastureland.
During the Soviet period, which ended in the early 1990s, many of these fields were planted by collectives; now the land is privatized or managed by cooperatives. Soviet period and contemporary agriculture have been a boon to the survey archaeologist. Tractors used to cultivate the fields have churned up the topsoil, and buried artifacts have been plowed up and exposed to rain and the elements. We often think that the richest scatters of artifacts, 50 or more pieces of ancient bones or sherds per 10-meter (33-foot) radius, are the places where the plow has dug into an ancient settlement or burial mound.
In uncultivated patches of land, it is still possible to see large Iron Age burial mounds, or kurgans, constructed of layers of earth and rocks that cover the burial pits or shafts where elite members of society were buried. In groups of 3 to 9, these burial mounds line old stream beds near the scatters of sherds and bones found on surveys. The Iron Age kurgans were treasure troves of valuable artifacts before they were robbed in antiquity and in the recent past. Today, they are visible markers of the graves of important members of Iron Age society, the aristocratic elites. Who were these elites and how did they earn their wealth and status?
Many of the hundreds of kurgans located in the Talgar region where we work have been destroyed by modern development of roads, construction, and large-scale industrial agriculture. But even though it has been flattened by modern farm machinery, a destroyed kurgan can sometimes be found as a tiny rise in a plowed agriculture field, and it is possible that the grave shaft is still intact.
When we find traces of kurgans or scatters of artifacts, we record their locations using a GPS device. Nowadays we can accurately pinpoint the location of a single ceramic sherd using satellite readings from our handheld GPS. When we return from six hours of field walking, these points can be plotted on Google Earth images that show the exact contours of the fields. By recording even a single grinding stone or ceramic fragment, we have traced out the boundaries of settlements that might lay buried below the plowed surfaces. The combination of field walking with the use of contemporary technology allows us to reconstruct how the ancient nomads and farmers of the Iron Age altered the natural landscapes of our study region.
More than 35 years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I learned how to find sites in the American Southwest by looking for artifact scatters on the desert and mountainous terrain of Arizona. In those days each site location had to be located on US Geological Survey topographic maps, using a Brunton compass to triangulate our position by aligning it with mountain peaks or stream bends. It could sometimes take 15 minutes or longer to pinpoint an exact location. These days we can just walk along with a notebook, a GPS unit, and some collection bags.
I find it astounding that new high-speed computing, satellite imagery, and good hard field work can produce excellent results that tell us more about the landscapes used by ancient people, the size of their settlements, and the nature of their ceremonial and burial practices. As an old school friend tells me, “It seems to me that doing archaeology is like solving a big puzzle that requires detective work.” After a long day of walking amongst the soy plants, there is nothing better than being able to come home, plot our artifact scatters or kurgan locations on a Google Earth map, and see the pieces fit together.
Next up: a look at the Iron Age excavation site at Tuzusai (“salty place”).