Iron Age Society and Chronology in South-East Kazakhstan. (Research)

By Chang, Claudia; Benecke, Norbert et al. | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Iron Age Society and Chronology in South-East Kazakhstan. (Research)


Chang, Claudia, Benecke, Norbert, Grigoriev, Fedor P., Rosen, Arlene M., Tourtellotte, Perry A., Antiquity


   For we live in the age of the iron race, when men shall never cease
   from labor and woe by day, and never be free from anguish at night,
   for hard are the cares that the gods will be giving. (The Poems of
   Hesiod, Translated with Introduction and Comments by R. M. Frazer,
   Stanzas 175-180. 1983. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press)

Introduction

Three cultural or ethnic designations have been distinguished among the Iron Age cultures of the eastern or Asiatic regions of the Eurasian steppe (Phillips 1957). The Yuezhi, linked linguistically to the spread of the Tocharian language into Xinjiang, are the Inner Asian nomadic groups that were pushed out of Bactria into the Ili River and areas of the Taklakman desert according to various readings of the Shi ji, a famous Chinese chronicle documenting the travels of Zhang Qian into Western Asia (Pulleyblank 1970; Di Cosmo 1994). The term Saka is used to denote Scythian populations of Kazakhstan and Central Asia and the term Wusun, is used as a designation for the later nomadic populations that conquered and subdued the Saka and agricultural populations in the Ili Valley at the end of the first millennium BC and during the first half of the first millennium AD (Di Cosmo 1994; Moshkova 1992).

The use of these ethnic designations to characterise the archaeological remains of Iron Age populations in regions such as Semirechy'e is naturally problematic, a fact that is well-recognised by the historians and archaeologists who study the ancient populations of the Iron Age in this region of the world (Di Cosmo 1994). During the Soviet period, the Iron Age archaeological cultures of Semirechy'e (the Seven-Rivers region includes the Ili River Basin and the seven rivers that flow north from the Tian Shan Mountains, bounded by the Chu River in the West) were placed into two roughly divided chronological periods based on burial chronologies put forth by Bernstam and Ageev (Istorii Kazakhskoi SSR 1977; 272; 310): (1) the Saka epoch (eighth century BC to third century BC) and (2) the Wusun epoch (third century BC to fifth century AD). The Saka period has been further divided into the early Saka period (eighth century BC to sixth century BC) and the later Saka period (fifth to third century BC) (Moshkova 1992: 75). Here we choose instead to lump our archaeological materials into the broader category of Iron Age cultures of the Eurasian steppe that date approximately from the eighth century BC to the fifth century AD and in the discussions of the radiocarbon sequence established for the Talgar Iron Age settlement sites, it will become clear why we have chosen to avoid the use of ethnic labels for designating chronological time periods, phases, or sub-phases.

Our main objective in this paper is to apply the principles of settlement archaeology to the study of Eurasian steppe communities in the first millennium BC. The theoretical thrust of our research has been to establish the nature of pastoral and agrarian adaptations during the Iron Age in this region of Kazakhstan. The Soviet archaeologists describing the Iron Age cultures of this region tended to refer to these cultures as 'Early Nomadic' cultures, a misnomer, since they had already recognised that the Iron Age nomadic populations also practised agriculture or at least had considerable interaction with settled agrarian populations (see Yablonsky 2000:3 for a critique of these terms). In fact, Di Cosmo (1994) provides archaeologists with a cogent discussion and argument for why the so-called nomads of the Iron Age in the Dneiper region, Mongolia, Siberia, Western China and Kazakhstan either practised agriculture or at the very least traded and interacted regularly with agrarian populations.

Archaeological surveys in the Talgar region

From 1994 to 2001, our international team conducted surface surveys and excavations in the Talgar Region of southeastern Kazakhstan, along the northern flanks of the Zailiisky Alatau Mountains of the Tian Shan Range and about 25 km east of the major city of Almaty in the Republic of Kazakhstan (Figure 1).

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