NMNH Khoton 2011 Project produces valuable archeological data

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH, a member of the NAMBC, last summer successfully completed  the first year of its two-year Mongolia-US “Khoton Project” at Khoton Nuur in the northern edge of the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. The Mongolian and American team led by NMNH excavated 15 sites, which produced a large trove of data from a variety of settlement, ritual, and mortuary sites dating from Paleolithic to modern times. Hundreds more sites were located and described. The extensive data from Khoton provides archaeological context for the huge corpus of rock art in the surrounding hills. Mapping data will provide broad environmental context for archaeological excavations and rock art documentation.

Included in this year’s excavations were an Early Bronze Age ritual structure dating circa 2000 BC, a large Late Bronze Age khirigsuur burial with an associated deer stone dating circa 900 BC, a burial of an old toothless man and his sumptuous last meal circa 300 BC, and a Pazyryk warrior with gold medallions dating 20 BC. . For further information, contact Dr. William Fitzhugh at the NMNH, [email protected]

The Khoton Project is a two-year joint effort by the Smithsonian Institution, East Tennessee State University, and the Mongolia National Museum. Funded by the National Endowment for Humanities and directed by Richard Kortum, William Fitzhugh, and J. Bayarsaikhan, the Khoton project seeks to connect the area’s long history of human occupation with its rich record of petroglyphic art.

Lying in a trough in the northern edge of the Altai Mountains, the Khoton region has a series of large freshwater lakes whose waters are fed throughout the summer by melting snow cover and glaciers. During the summer the region receives copious rainfall, making it a highly desirable area for both forest animals and steppe grazers and, after animal domestication ca. 5,000 years ago, for animal husbandry. The Mongolian and American archaeology team conducted excavations and surveyed the north shore of Khoton Nuur.

Research on rock art produced a long record of carving spanning the past 10,000 years since the Altai glaciers retreated, leaving beautifully-polished rock surfaces. While no definitive Paleolithic age carvings have been found, the joint Mongolian-American team documented more than 6000 thousand of images including Archaic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, and Turkic and Medieval periods. The image history begins with large roughly-carved wild animal figures and proceeds with evolving artistic technique and the use of metal engraving tools to subjects of domestication and herding, social interaction, shamans and spirit figures, warriors and chariots.

Direct connections between the rock art and archaeological sites are documented with images of the Mongolian deer on deer stones, images reflecting the Pazyryk, Saka, and Scythian art, and Turkic mounted warriors. The richness of the finds suggests that Khoton and the western Mongolian Altai, often thought of as a peripheral cultural region, was an important center of cultural development and distant connections. Surprisingly, its cultural traditions, especially its burial rituals, persisted with relatively little change despite the comings and goings of empires nearby. 

Pasyryk grave mound and pit being excavated

Khirigsuur excavation at Khoton nuur

Early Bronze Age rectangular structure