The Xiongnu Settlements of Egiin Gol, Mongolia

By Wright, Joshua; Honeychurch, William et al. | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Xiongnu Settlements of Egiin Gol, Mongolia

Wright, Joshua, Honeychurch, William, Amartuvshin, Chunag, Antiquity

'[W]andering from place to place pasturing their animals. The animals they raise consist mainly of horses, cows and sheep ... They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture ... It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems their inborn nature' (Shiji 110, Watson 1961: 155-6).

These oft quoted words of the historian Sima Qian (2095-2040 BP) have come to define the iconic steppe nomads of eastern Eurasia and to contrast them in every way with the settled farmers of the river valley based empire of Han China (2152-1720 BP). The people whom Sima Qian was describing were the ancestors of the Xiongnu, an ethnic group and a political formation (of 2159-1857 BP) that formed a major focus of Han imperial foreign policy and military campaigning throughout the history of both polities (Lattimore 1940; Watson 1961; Barfield 1981, 1989; Lewis 1990; Sinor 1990; Di Cosmo 2002). At its height, the Xiongnu polity is thought to have directly or indirectly controlled the entire steppe belt of north-east Asia, a region now encompassed by the nation of Mongolia, eastern Kazakhstan and the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

The histories of the Han Dynasty provide important details on the structure of Xiongnu economic and political systems. There is little doubt from the textual sources that Xiongnu subsistence and culture was centred on mobile pastoralism. However, as has been emphasised by Di Cosmo and others, the historical sources also mention agricultural production and storage, specialised craft industries, and the presence of large-scale settlements among the Xiongnu (Di Cosmo 1994). Unfortunately, the historical sources provide only scant means by which to discern how pastoralism, mobility, agriculture and sedentism might have been articulated on the landscape and organisationally inter-woven into a regional political economy. Finally, based on archaeology, ethnographic analogy and historical accounts, the Xiongnu are traditionally described as pastoral nomads much like the historic and modern pastoral nomads in north-east Asia (Ishjamts 1994; Khazanov 1994).


In this article we present data from the Egiin Gol Survey (EGS), a full coverage, intensive archaeological survey in the Lower Egiin Gol Valley of northern Mongolia (Figures 1 and 2) that offers new data on settlement patterns, residential material culture and mobility during the Xiongnu period. The Egiin Gol Survey covered a 40km stretch of the Lower Egiin Gol Valley, and intensively examined 246[km.sup.2] of valley, terraces and ridges along the river and its tributary streams. In most of the survey area, the survey was bounded by natural topographic breaks or thick forest and stretched beyond currently inhabited land. In unbounded areas, less intensive survey methods where used to explore the limits of cultural landscapes (Honeychurch et al. 2007). In total the EGS recorded 572 sites from the Upper Palaeolithic to the early twentieth century, materials and sites from the Xiongnu period were among the most common remains recorded (Turbat et al. 2003; Honeychurch 2004; Wright 2006; Honeychurch & Amartuvshin 2006).

Our work allows us to assess the historical and ethnographical constructs used to describe the historical Xiongnu, their identity as iconic nomads that the long standing focus on mortuary archaeology has reified, and the contrasting view of Xiongnu as pastoral-agriculturalists. These topics form the necessary foundations for a discussion of the economic and political nature and organisation of the Xiongnu polity.


Xiongnu archaeology

To date, the vast majority of archaeological work on the Xiongnu period has been the excavation of burial sites, and it is mortuary data that provide evidence of the scale and complexity of the Xiongnu polity as well as establishing their place in history as pastoral nomads (Kozlov 1927; Trever 1932; Voskresenskii & Tikhonov 1932; Erdelyi et al. …

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