The link below is to an article that looks at the discovery of a Viking drinking hall in Orkney.
The link below is to an article that looks at the discovery of a Viking drinking hall in Orkney.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at new monuments discovered in Ireland.
In spite of the gore, I sit completely transfixed by the deft movements of Sarah’s hands as she butchers a young spotted seal laid out on a strip of cardboard on the floor. “Can I help with anything?” I ask. She laughs as she separates out the meat from the fat and the fat from the skin and suggests that I can do the dishes if I like.
This is my third trip to the village of Quinhagak on the western coast of Alaska, surrounded by a landscape of vast expanses of tundra and an intertwined tangle of lakes and rivers which feed into the Bering Sea.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska is home to the Yup’ik people, who practise a largely subsistence lifestyle characterised by seasonal hunting, fishing and gathering. An archaeological dig happens here each year over the brief summer season between July and August, although seasonal changes, once like clockwork, are becoming less distinct because of climate disruption.
The dig, which goes back nearly a decade, was initiated by the local community with the aim of rescuing the remains of an old sod house in a nearby area known as Nunalleq, or “the old village”, before it is lost to permafrost melt and a crumbling coastline. The site dates from between 1570 and 1675, decades before Yup’ik first came into contact with Russian and European traders.
The excavations, led by a team from Aberdeen University in Scotland, were well underway by the time I joined in 2017. The project has recovered some 100,000 artefacts which were put on public display for the first time in August 2018 at the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Centre in Quinhagak.
As a reconstruction artist, it is my job to translate archaeological findings into renderings of life in the past. In Quinhagak, I was tasked with collaborating with the local community to co-design a digital resource for schoolchildren. It tells the story of the excavations in a way that makes space for the traditional Yup’ik worldview and contemporary parallels in subsistence, dance and crafts.
Within this resource, 3D-scanned artefacts and animated reconstructions of village life at Nunalleq can be explored on a computer screen, accompanied by soundbites, videos and interactive content co-curated by the Quinhagak community and the archaeologists. It will be available to the public here from July 2019.
The purpose of my trip in April 2019 was to test the resource on school computers in the village. This trip was outside the usual dig season so I stayed with a local family. My host was schoolteacher Dora Strunk, who was raised in Quinhagak and whose children belong to a generation in the village who grew up with the archaeology project.
Whether it was bouncing across the tundra on Dora’s four-wheeler to collect kapuukuq greens, or sitting in her daughter Larissa’s bedroom listening to her explain the meaning behind her traditional dance regalia, these friendships have gradually reshaped my own understanding of what it means to be Yup’ik in the 21st century.
I’ve heard objections to the collection being housed in the village: shouldn’t it be in a big museum in Anchorage or New York where more people can see it, “for the greater good”?
What I have learned during my visits here is that there is a need to maintain heritage within a community – and to allow it to be part of the here and now. Heritage is often seen as being focused on fragmented artefacts and ruinous buildings, but for many people, particularly indigenous and descendant communities, it can be intrinsically connected to a sense of social identity and cohesion.
Like many indigenous communities across the world, Yup’ik are still dealing with the effects of deep historic trauma from centuries of colonisation, exploitation and misrepresentation. Yet unlike the majority of Native Americans in the lower 48 states, Alaska Native land isn’t compacted into Indian reservations. People still traverse the vast expanse of tundra and coastline like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
That said, maintaining this connection to land and tradition does not constitute a bygone era. Yup’ik is a living culture fully part of the modern world, with Snapchat and drum dances, microwave pizza and walrus ivory carving, snow machines and subsistence practices – even Facebook feeds filled with Yup’ik memes. Culture persists.
Establishing the Nunalleq centre in Quinhagak and helping to create the digital resource with the Yup’ik community is part of the same mindset that is prompting a handful of museums to repatriate artefacts and remains to descendant communities – while others come under mounting pressure to do so.
My latest trip coincided with the district’s annual dance festival, which brought together schools from across the region. I had worked with young people from the local group the previous summer, who had chosen to interpret the excavation of dance regalia from Nunalleq by writing a new traditional drum song or yuraq about the site. They performed it again at this year’s festival.
During the festival, many youngsters came to the museum to see the artefacts. I witnessed teenagers pulling open drawers containing wooden dance masks, drum rings, ivory earrings, bentwood bowls and harpoons with trembling hands. Big kids lifted little kids up to peer into the cabinets and gasp, asking: “These all came from down there? From our beach?”
The “greater good” is right here: not only the collection being housed in Quinhagak, but also the work the village is doing to take charge of its story and share it with the wider world through outreach like the Nunalleq Educational Resource.
For Quinhagak, the past is not a place which is independent from the present. For the younger generation especially, the past is becoming a space for engaging with their heritage which they are continually transforming and reimagining in the present.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the latest finds in Pella, Jordan.
Chris Urwin, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Monash University
It has long been assumed that Indigenous Australia was isolated until Europeans arrived in 1788, except for trade with parts of present day Indonesia beginning at least 300 years ago. But our recent archaeological research hints of at least an extra 2,100 years of connections across the Coral Sea with Papua New Guinea.
Over the past decade, we have conducted research in the Gulf of Papua with local Indigenous communities.
During the excavations, the most common archaeological evidence found in the old village sites was fragments of pottery, which preserve well in tropical environments compared to artefacts made of wood or bone. As peoples of the Gulf of Papua have no known history of pottery making, and the materials are foreign, the discovered pottery sherds are evidence of trade.
This pottery began arriving in the Gulf of Papua some 2,700 years ago, according to carbon dating of charcoal found next to the sherds.
This means societies with complex seafaring technologies and widespread social connections operated at Australia’s doorstep over 2,500 years prior to colonisation. Entrepreneurial traders were traversing the entire south coast of PNG in sailing ships.
There is also archaeological evidence that suggests early connections between PNG and Australia’s Torres Strait Islands. Fine earthenware pottery dating to 2,600 years ago, similar in form to pottery arriving in the Gulf of Papua around that time, has been found on the island of Pulu. Rock art on the island of Dauan further to the north depicts a ship with a crab claw-shaped sail, closely resembling the ships used by Indigenous traders from PNG.
It is hard to imagine that Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG’s south coast were not connected.
The trade itself was quite remarkable. When British colonists arrived in Port Moresby (now the capital of PNG) in 1873, some 130 kilometres from the start of the Gulf of Papua to the west, they wrote in astonishment of the industrial scale of pottery production for maritime trade by Indigenous Motu communities.
Each year, Motu women would spend months making thousands of earthenware pots. Meanwhile the men built large trading ships, called lakatoi, by lashing together several dugout hulls. The ships measured 15-20 metres long and had woven sails in the shape of crab claws.
In October and November, Motu men would load the pots into the ships and sail west towards the rainforest swamplands of the Gulf of Papua. The trade on which they embarked was known as hiri. The voyages were perilous, and lives were sometimes lost in the waves.
When the men arrived – having sailed up to 400 kilometres along the coast – the Motu were in foreign lands. People living in the Gulf of Papua spoke different languages and had different cultural practices. But they were not treated like foreigners.
Sir Albert Maori Kiki, who became the Deputy Prime Minister of PNG, grew up in the Gulf of Papua in the 1930s. He described the arrival of the Motu in his memoirs:
The trade was not conducted like common barter […] the declarations of friendship that went with it were as important as the exchange of goods itself […] Motu people did not carry their pots to the market, but each went straight to the house of his trade relation, with whom his family had been trading for years and perhaps generations.
In exchange for their pots, the Motu were given rainforest hardwood logs from which to make new canoes, and tonnes of sago starch (a staple plant food for many people in Southeast Asia and across the island of New Guinea).
The Motu would stay in Gulf villages for months, waiting for the wind to change to carry them back home.
Pottery has been traded into the Gulf of Papua for 2,700 years, but the trade grew larger in scale about 500 years ago. Archaeological sites of the past 500 years have much larger quantities of pottery than those before them. The pottery itself is highly standardised and either plain or sparsely decorated, in contrast with older sherds that often feature ornate designs.
In the past 500 years it seems that pottery makers valued quantity over quality: as greater quantities of pottery were traded into the Gulf of Papua, labour-intensive decorations gradually disappeared.
We think this is when the hiri trade between the Motu and rainforest villages of the Gulf of Papua began in earnest.
The coming decades promise further findings that will help unravel the forgotten shared history of PNG and Indigenous Australia across the Torres Strait. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Indigenous Australia was not isolated from the rest of the world.
Chris Urwin, Researcher, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Deputy Director for Science Research and Consultancy Division at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Professor, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Cultural Coordinator, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Archaeologist, Monash University
It’s our experience that most people think archaeology mainly means digging in the dirt.
Admit to strangers that you are of the archaeological persuasion, and the follow-up question is invariably “what’s the best thing you’ve found?”.
Start to tell them about a fantastic ink and watercolour plan you unearthed in library archives, or an old work site you stumbled upon in thick eucalypt bush, and their eyes glaze over.
People invariably want to hear about skeletons, pots and bits of shiny metal. It’s this type of stuff that you will often see in the media, giving the misleading impression that archaeological process is only about excavation.
While the trowel and spade are an important inclusion in the archaeological toolkit, our core disciplinary definition – that of using humanity’s material remains to understand our history – means that we utilise many ways of engaging with this past.
Of course, there’s nothing like a tidy hole in the ground to get people’s attention. Yet what often gets lost in the spotlight’s glow is that excavation is the last resort; it’s the end result of exhaustive research, planning and design.
In the research environment, excavations are triggered by having no, or only a low level of, other streams of evidence.
This similarly applies in mitigating the impacts of development, where the threat of an historical site’s partial or complete removal adds an element of evidence recovery.
Should the excavation be ill-thought out, or divorced from proper research goals, the results – and therefore the net benefit of the whole exercise – are lessened, if not completely lost.
This is particularly so for historical archaeologists, where the availability of documentary archives, oral testimony and the remaining landscape itself can reveal so much – before trowels meet dirt.
For the historical archaeologist, a huge amount of work must take place before an excavation can even be planned, with invasive investigations sometimes not even considered.
In our particular field, the historical archaeology of Australia’s convict system (1788-1868), there is a vast amount of documentary evidence that requires interrogation before any archaeological process can begin.
As an example, in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, 35 metres of shelf space is taken up just by the official correspondence records for the period 1824-36.
Correspondence, reports, tables, diaries, newspapers, maps, plans, illustrations and photographs contain a wealth of information about the convict past. These can be used to query how people interacted with each other and the places, spaces and things that were created and modified as a result.
We are currently over a year into a research project (called Landscapes of Production and Punishment) that uses evidence of the built and natural landscape to understand the experience of convict labour on the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania (1830-77).
At its peak, nearly 4,000 convicts and free people lived on the penal peninsula. Their day-to-day activities left traces in today’s landscape that we locate and analyse using historical research, remote sensing and archaeological field survey.
LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, a form of 3D mapping) has been used to great effect, mapping large areas in high detail, which have then been surveyed to find the sites of convict labour. These include quarries, sawpits, charcoal-burning stands, brick pits, tramways, roads and paths, cultivated fields and boundaries.
Without turning a sod, we have recreated historic landscapes that have long lain dormant.
These have then been brought to life through the records of the system, which were historically used to account for the convicts and their labour. These include records about the lives of convicts whilst under sentence, as well as statistics on the products and processes of their labour.
This raw data shows us the outputs of industrial operations carried out by the convicts, like brick making, sandstone quarrying, lime burning and timber-getting, as well as the manufactories that produced leather, timber and metalwork goods by the thousand.
The records also locate convict and free settlers back into time and space, reconnecting them to the places and products of their labour.
As the project develops, excavation may be one of the archaeological methods used to retrieve our evidence – but only once we have exhausted all other avenues of enquiry.
As archaeologists, we have a responsibility to ensure that the controlled process of destruction that is an archaeological investigation has the greatest possible research return.
Without this due process, our work becomes unhinged from research frameworks. The excavations devolve into expensive and directionless treasure hunts from which little research value can be extracted.
The archaeologist’s profession – be it as an academic or working in the commercial and government sector – is more than excavation. It encompasses a diverse range of skills and techniques which can be deployed to aid in our central task of understanding the lives of those who came before.
The authors would like to thank Caroline Homer (Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office) and David Roe, Jody Steele and Sylvana Szydzik (Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority).
Peat bogs, which cover 3% of the world’s land surface, are special places. While historically often considered as worthless morasses, today they are recognised as beautiful habitats providing environmental benefits from biodiversity to climate regulation. However, they are threatened by drainage, land reclamation for agriculture and peat cutting for fuel, which has significantly reduced the extent and condition of these ecosystems on a global scale. Bogs are fragile and sensitive to change, whether by human hands or by processes such as climate change.
A less well known aspect of bogs is their remarkable archaeological potential. In their undisturbed state at least, bogs are anoxic (oxygen-free) environments due to their saturation. These conditions are hostile to the microbes and fungi that would normally decay organic material such as the remains of plants, which are the principal constituents of the peat. The same anoxic conditions also offer protection from decay for organic archaeological remains. The vast majority of objects and structures used by our ancestors were made from organic materials (in particular wood). These are normally lost on dryland archaeological sites but can be preserved in peatlands.
The saturated conditions mean that even soft tissue can survive, including both skin and internal organs. Probably the best known archaeological finds are the remains of “bog bodies” such as the famous prehistoric Tollund Man in Denmark, Lindow Man in the UK, or the more recent Irish discoveries of Clonycavan Man, Old Croghan Man and Ireland’s oldest known bog body, Cashel Man, dated to the Bronze Age.
But archaeology is only part of the story these environments have to tell. They are important archives of the past in other ways: the layers of moss and other vegetation that make up peat are themselves immensely valuable as archives of past environments (palaeoenvironments). The manner in which peat accumulates means that the deposits have stratigraphic integrity, meaning that contained within each layer can be found macroscopic and microscopic remains of plants and other organisms that shed light on landscape change and biodiversity on timescales ranging from centuries to millennia. The high organic content of peat means that these records can be dated using the radiocarbon method.
The best known such records are probably pollen grains which provide evidence of past vegetation change. But evidence from other organic material can be used to reconstruct other past environmental processes. For example, single-celled organisms called testate amoebae, preserved in sub-fossil form, are highly sensitive to peatland hydrology and have been extensively used in recent years to reconstruct a history of climatic changes. Meanwhile, fossil beetles can tell us how the biodiversity and nutrient status of a peatland has altered over time.
The potential of bogs to preserve both environmental and archaeological records means that they can be regarded as archives of “hidden landscapes”. The accumulating peat literally seals and protects evidence of human activity ranging from the macroscopic (in the form of archaeological sites, artefacts and larger plant and animal remains) through to the microscopic (pollen, testate amoebae and other remains) material that provides contextual evidence of environmental processes.
Through detailed integrated analyses these records can provide evidence of past human activity ranging from the everyday exploitation of economic resources of peatlands, through to the ceremonies associated with prehistoric human sacrifice and the deposition of the so-called bog bodies. The associated palaeoenvironmental record can be used to situate these cultural processes within long term patterns of environmental changes.
There has been extensive study of the palaeoenvironmental record from bogs and notable archaeological excavations of sites and artefacts, but there have been relatively few concerted attempts to integrate these approaches. In part this is because generating sufficient data to model the development of a bog in four dimensions (the fourth being time) is a formidable research challenge. But some peatlands have seen relatively extensive archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research over the last few decades, providing an excellent starting point. Hatfield and Thorne Moors, situated primarily in South Yorkshire, are two such peatlands.
These two largest surviving areas of lowland bog in England are located within a wider lowland region known as the Humberhead Levels. After decades of industrial peat extraction, these bogs are now nature reserves managed by Natural England, and are becoming the “wild” bogs they once were. We are attempting to reconstruct the wildscape and bring the complex histories of this vast and dynamic boggy landscape to life.
These moors are just two surviving parts of a once rich mosaic of wetland landscapes. In the past, this landscape was famed for its wildness – a remnant of an extensive complex of mires, rivers, meres and extensive floodplain wetlands. Antiquarians such as John Leland visited the area in the 16th century, and his descriptions provide a “window onto what must have been a truly fabulous ‘everglades-like’ landscape”, as described by local historian Colin Howes.
Now largely drained, tamed and converted to farmland, it’s hard to imagine the vast wetland landscapes that once characterised these areas. Following large-scale land reclamation in the 17th century, many of the traditional practises such as fishing, fowling, grazing and peat-cutting (turbary) rights were no longer available to commoners. Consequently, the connections between people and place became increasingly defined by a new, dryland landscape and disconnected from its former wetlands that were once so central to people’s lives.
We are investigating and reconstructing this dynamic and changing wildscape throughout its history, reconnecting communities to these wetland landscapes. Drawing together previous research alongside targeted archaeological fieldwork and palaeoenvironmental analyses, we are combining these with newly available digital data and sophisticated modelling techniques to reconstruct their interwoven landscape and human histories. Together, for the first time, we are beginning to see the complexity of the dynamic and changing landscape that once characterised the Humberhead Levels.
Henry Chapman, Professor of Archaeology, University of Birmingham; Ben Gearey, Lecturer in Environmental Archaeology, University College Cork; Jane Bunting, Reader in Geography, University of Hull; Kimberley Davies, Research Assistant, Wildscape Project, Plymouth University, and Nicola Whitehouse, Associate Professor (Reader) in Physical Geography, Plymouth University
For an aerial archaeologist 2018 has been a bumper year. The long, hot summer has revealed ancient landscapes not visible from ground level, but easily recognised in fields of growing crops from the air.
The principle behind the appearance of cropmarks is simple. If, for example, an Iron Age farmer dug a ditch around his field, over time this ditch will fill up with soil and other debris and will generally retain more moisture than the soil or bedrock it was cut into. Centuries later, a cereal crop sown over this earth will grow for a longer period and ripen more slowly, appearing greener as the surrounding crop ripens to a golden colour. Conversely, a crop planted in soil covering the remains of a stone building or roadway will ripen more quickly and parch, again appearing a different colour to the rest of the crop.
What has made the summer of 2018 so remarkable is that the winter and spring was so wet that plants grew relatively shallow roots, having no need to search deeply for water. So when the drought came this summer, those plants that grew over buried features such as ditches and pits benefited from the greater store of water retained in the infilled soil. Well-drained sandy soils and those over chalk are particularly conducive to revealing features through cropmarks.
Recognising archaeological sites by cropmarks is noted as far back as the antiquarians of the 17th century, although it was William Stukeley – who pioneered the study of Stonehenge and Avebury – who provided the clearest early explanation in his description of features in the Roman town of Great Chesterford in Essex in 1719. In the modern era, at first using balloons, then aeroplanes and, most recently, drones, aerial archaeology photography has become a standard reconnaissance technique.
One area where this has been used widely is the Yorkshire Wolds, among the first to be covered in the National Mapping Programme undertaken by the former Royal Commission on Historical Monuments England, begun in 1908, now part of Historic England.
Compiled from thousands of aerial photographs by Cathy Stoertz and published as Ancient Landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds in 1997, this remains one of the most detailed studies of an archaeological landscape in the UK. From the River Humber at Hessle to Flamborough Head, Stoertz’s mapping revealed a network of prehistoric and Romano-British enclosures, burials mounds, ceremonial monuments and linear earthworks.
My own research has examined many of these sites on the ground through geophysical survey and excavation, and further aerial sorties, and this has greatly expanded our knowledge of the region. Flying from Hull Aero Club’s airfield near Beverley, I have focused on the western escarpment of the Yorkshire Wolds and the eastern fringes at the Vale of York, a region I have studied for many years.
For example, the picture above shows the square barrow cemetery at Arras, in East Yorkshire. Here, burials were placed on the ground and a mound was built over them with soil dug out from a surrounding ditch. The barrow ditches show as green squares. Dating from the Middle Iron Age, probably around 300 BC, this site gave its name to the internationally recognised Arras Culture of East Yorkshire.
A portion of the massive later prehistoric earthworks of Huggate Dykes has survived since the banks and ditches were built in around 1000 BC, probably as territorial boundaries or as a means to control access to springs and streams.
Impressive from ground level, an aerial view reveals faint green stripes in an adjacent cornfield – all that is left of the buried ditches after centuries of ploughing.
This year I have discovered hitherto unknown sites and, in other places, greater detail at already recorded sites. These include Bronze Age round barrows, apparent as rings in the crop, the characteristic square barrows of the Iron Age Arras Culture, and linear features running across the landscape from Iron Age and Romano-British farmsteads and other settlements.
Collaborating with Tony Hunt of Yorkshire Aerial Archaeology and Mapping, for the first time I have also used drones. Although these are subject to altitude restrictions, a good quality camera on a drone guided along pre-programmed tracks by GPS can gather precise images. The hundreds of overlapping images can be combined to provide a huge two-dimensional mosaic image, or processed to create 3D imagery, an elevation model, or to colourise the images in order to make the hidden archaeological features more visible.
This technique is truly revolutionary as mapping was tricky and time-consuming in the past, particularly aerial photographs taken at oblique angles, requiring hours peering through a stereoscope, mapping sites by hand using geometry.
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While the drought of 2018 has seriously affected crop yields, it has provided a rich harvest of a different kind, one that will take a considerable time to digest. An opportunity to do so will be as archaeologists meet to discuss finds from across Europe at the Aerial Archaeology Research Group annual conference, held this year in Venice, September 12-14.
The history and archaeology of Mongolia, most famously the sites associated with the largest land empire in the history of the world under Ghengis Khan, are of global importance. But they’re facing unprecedented threats as climate change and looting impact ancient sites and collections.
Climate change and looting may seem to be unrelated issues. But deteriorating climate and environmental conditions result in decreased grazing potential and loss of profits for the region’s many nomadic herders. Paired with a general economic decline, herders and other Mongolians are having to supplement their incomes, turning to alternative ways of making money. For some, it’s searching for ancient treasures to sell on the illegal antiquities market.
The vast Mongolian landscape, whether it be plains, deserts or mountains, is dotted with man-made stone mounds marking the burials of ancient peoples. The practice started sometime in the neolithic period (roughly 6,000-8,000 years ago) with simple stone mounds the size of a kitchen table. These usually contain a human body and a few animal bones.
Over time, the burials became larger (some over 400 metres long) and more complex, incorporating thousands of horse sacrifices, tools, chariots, tapestries, family complexes, and eventually treasure (such as gold, jewellery and gems).
For Mongolians, these remains are the lasting reminders of their ancient past and a physical tie to their priceless cultural heritage.
Mongolia has reasonably good laws regarding the protection of cultural heritage. But poor understanding of the laws, and the nearly impossible task of enforcing them in such a large space with relatively few people and meagre budgets keep those laws from being effective. And laws can’t protect Mongolia’s cultural heritage from climate change.
The looting of archaeological sites in Mongolia has been happening for a very long time. Regional archaeologists have shared anecdotes of finding skeletons with break-in tools made from deer antlers in shafts of 2,000 year old royal tombs in central Mongolia. These unlucky would-be thieves risked the unstable sands collapsing in the shafts above them for a chance at riches, not long after the royal leaders had been buried there.
But many recent pits dug directly into burial sites around Mongolia, some that are more than 3,000 years old, suggest modern day looting is on the rise. For the untrained looter, any rock feature has the potential to contain valuable goods and so grave after grave is torn apart. Many of these will contain no more than human and animal bones.
Archaeologists’ interest in these burials lie in the information they contain for research, but this is worthless on the black antiquities market. But to steer looters away from these burials would be to teach them which ones to target for treasure and so this strategy is avoided.
Archaeologists working in northern Mongolia in 2017 found hundreds of looted sites, including an 800 year old cemetery consisting of at least 40 burials. Each and every one of them had been completely destroyed by looters looking for treasure. Human remains and miscellaneous artefacts such as bows, arrows, quivers, and clothing were left scattered on the surface.
Having survived over 800 years underground, these priceless bows, arrows, cloth fragments and bones likely have less than a year on the surface before they’re gone forever. This is not to mention the loss of whatever goods (gold, silver, gems) the looters decided was valuable enough to keep.
Archaeological teams are currently working against climate change, looters, and each other for the chance to unearth rare mummies in the region that are known to pique public interest within Mongolia and abroad. A 2017 exhibit at the National Museum of Mongolia featured two mummies and their impressive burial goods – one of which had been rescued from the hands of looters by archaeologists and local police. Though they appeared not to have been particularly high ranking individuals, their belongings displayed incredible variety, artistry and detail.
The result of natural processes rather than intentional mummification as in ancient Egypt, some of these mummies are preserved by very dry environments protected in caves and rock shelters. Others are ice mummies, interred in burials that were constructed in such a way that water seeped in and froze – creating a unique preservation environment.
Both preservation environments produce artefacts that rarely survive such long periods of time. This includes human tissues like skin and hair, clothing and tapestries, wooden artefacts, and the remains of plants and animals associated with the burial.
As looters zero in on these sites, and climate change melts ice and changes the environmental conditions in other yet unknown ways, archaeologists are racing to locate, and preserve these finds. But with little infrastructure, small budgets and almost no specialised training in how to handle such remains, there’s some concern about the long term preservation of even those remains archaeologists are able to rescue.
Efforts to provide training opportunities, international collaborations with mummy experts, and improved infrastructure and facilities are underway, but these collections are so fragile there is little time to spare.
The situation in Mongolia could help us to understand and find new solutions to dealing with changes in climate and the economic drivers behind looting. Humans around the world in many different times have faced and had to adapt to climate change, economic strife and technological innovations.
There’s truth represented by a material record of the “things” left by ancient peoples and in Mongolia, the study of this record has led to an understanding of the impact of early food production and horse domestication, the emergence of new social and political structures and the dominance of a nomadic empire.