Khirigsuurs, Ritual and Mobility in the Bronze Age of Mongolia

By Allard, Francis; Erdenebaatar, Diimaajav | Antiquity, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Khirigsuurs, Ritual and Mobility in the Bronze Age of Mongolia


Allard, Francis, Erdenebaatar, Diimaajav, Antiquity


Introduction

Spanning thousands of years, the broad emergence of mobile pastoralism across the vast Eurasian steppes encompassed the domestication, harnessing and consumption of the horse, the adoption of wheeled vehicles, animal sacrifice and burial, as well as the practice of inhumation under tumuli or kurgans (Khazanov 1994: 90-7; Anthony 1998; Levine 1999; Anthony & Brown 2000; Kuzmina 2000, 2003). Although marked by regional variation and still disputed on points of ultimate causes and chronology, this process is generally recognized as having been preceded by a settled and agricultural mode of life. Archaeological surveys and excavations have helped reveal the gradual expansion of forms of mobile pastoralism across Eurasia. By the early first millennium BC, much of the steppes appears to have been occupied by nomadic herding societies whose armed horsemen and migratory populations helped spread technological and stylistic innovations over large distances. Explanations for the transition to greater residential mobility have included increasingly arid conditions, population pressure from settled groups, and the demand for the products of a specialised pastoralist economy (Cribb 1991 : 12-4; Khazanov 1994: 85-90).

In its focus on the origin and transmission of cultural and economic features, the sweeping perspective favoured by studies of Eurasian steppe prehistory has until recently been inimical to the more detailed charting of developments at the regional level. Furthermore, although cross-regional studies often include discussions of developments in southern Siberia's Minusinsk Basin, Tuva and Gorno-Altai regions, they typically do not extend further east to take into account Mongolia's vast grasslands, an omission partly justified by the scarcity of accessible published research. Recent work in Mongolia by local and foreign archaeologists has helped bring into sharper focus the broad outline of its prehistory, revealing in the process the existence of regional trajectories within the territory itself. Neolithic sites in eastern and southern Mongolia have yielded ceramics as well as evidence of sedentary occupation, agriculture and, in the case of the Tamsagbulag culture of eastern Mongolia, animal domestication (Derevyanko & Dorj 1992:172-81). In contrast, although the remains of domesticated horse, sheep and cattle have been recovered from third and second millennia BC campsites and burials in north and north-west Mongolia, there is as yet no clear indication of agricultural settlements predating the establishment of a fully nomadic pastoralist economy in that area. Possibly, as one archaeologist has suggested, subsistence in that part of Mongolia at this early time consisted of hunting and a mobile form of cattle herding, with agriculture playing little or no role (Volkov 1995: 320).

What the archaeological record of Mongolia does make abundantly clear is the dramatic cultural transformation of much of the territory by the mid-late second millennium BC. From this time until the mid-first millennium BC, a period that is the focus of this article and that roughly corresponds to the region's developed Bronze Age, the landscape is marked by a profusion of stone built sites, graves and stelae that are found in large numbers along the valley bottoms, hill slopes and hill tops. Visible settlement traces have not been detected in association with this Bronze Age landscape, neither within the perimeter of the sites nor in association with them, while various lines of evidence point to the ritual and funerary nature of the sites, as well as the possibility that they were built and used by mobile populations who left only ephemeral traces of their settlements behind.

Monuments of the Mongolian Bronze Age

Mongolian archaeologists generally recognise three distinct types of Bronze Age structures, whose spatial distributions overlap with one another (Volkov 1995; Erdenebaatar 2004). …

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