News from the Mongolian steppe: latest campaign sheds further light on nomadic societies and pastoralism 

During late May and June, we conducted new excavation and exploration work in Züünkhangai, as part of the project that aims to investigate Bronze Age nomadic societies and pastoralism in Mongolia. 

ZK513: A 4000-Year-Old Winter Camp Still in Use Today

The objective of the 2023 archaeological campaign was multifaceted. The team primarily excavated the site ZK513, a semi-nomadic winter camp that has been continuously occupied for the past 4000 years and is still in use today by local herders. During our stay at the steppe, we also shovel-tested new archaeological camps and ritual monuments dating back to the Bronze Age (c. 2600-1700 BCE) that were first documented during the exploration work carried out in 2022. 

General view of the archaeological pastoral campsite ZK53

The site ZK513 is unique throughout the Asian steppe because it presents a documented stratigraphic continuity up to the Bronze Age, and it likely extends to the transitional phase with the Neolithic, a chronological period that has been seldom investigated in Mongolia. The archaeological site was first documented in 2018 and immediately caught the attention of researchers due to the high concentration of well-preserved ceramic fragments as well as bone, lithics, and botanical remains, as reported in a first study published in 2022 in the journal Archaeological Research in Asia.

Expansion of Excavation Area and Abundant Findings

This year’s campaign expanded the excavation area by opening two new spaces, allowing for spatial correlation of the site’s continuous use. The excavation also recovered abundant archaeozoological and archaeobotanical remains and ceramic fragments. Additionally, the team excavated up to four well-defined combustion structures with abundant charcoal. One of these hearths, of domestic nature, contained a lower level of well-preserved ovicaprid excrement. The charcoal, seeds, and other plant remains from the sediment of these hearths were recovered using sediment flotation techniques and will be sent to the BioGeoPal laboratory at IMF-CSIC (Barcelona) for further analysis to obtain new data about the type and use of fuel and its provisioning in the local environment.

Arnau Carbonell (GIAP) and Pablo Suárez (ULL) during the excavation work of the domestic hearth

Micromorphological and Archaeological Biomarker Analysis

The excavation was complemented by the collection of intact soil and sediment blocks for micromorphological analysis, and samples of animal excrement, sediment, and ceramic fragments for lipid and isotopic analysis. These analyses will be carried out in the coming months at the AMBI Lab, the Laboratory of Micromorphology and Archaeological Biomarkers at the University of La Laguna. Through these analyses, we obtain precise markers that allow us to understand the processes of site formation, and learn about the environment, the composition of animals present in the livestock enclosures and their diet, as well as how the herders who occupied the site for millennia also fed themselves. Lipid and isotopic analyses on sediments will be also applied in samples from a new paleoenvironmental sequence that will provide a more detailed understanding of the dynamics of local vegetation cover over time. 

Confirmation of Bronze Age Camps in Züünkhangai

In parallel to the main excavation, the team conducted a series of sondages and small-scale excavations in another domestic site that presented significant surface archaeological scatters and had been documented during the previous year’s campaign. This work confirmed the presence of new pastoral camps continuously occupied since the Bronze Age in Züünkhangai.

Detail of a Turkic burial (c. 6-8th centuries CE) with its characteristic balbal or line of erected stones. 

In addition, we also conducted systematic landscape surveys in the region that were complemented by intensive use of drones and the automated documentation of archaeological features and structures in 3D using LIDAR sensors on iPads. This tool saves considerable time in the field while providing reliable and georeferenced digitization of the excavation layers, objects, and even large-scale structures for their rapid inclusion in inventories and heritage catalogs. 

Check past news to learn all about the project:

Funding & the team

This year’s campaign is part of the “Archaeology of Nomadic Pastoralism in Western Mongolia” project led by Dr. Natalia Égüez and generously funded by the Palarq Foundation and the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sports. The team comprises researchers and students from the Catalan Institute of Classical Archaeology (including Francesc C. Conesa and Arnau Carbonell-Puigventós), the University of La Laguna, the Universty of California-Davis and the Milá y Fontanals Institution of the CSIC (Barcelona). This initiative is part of the international project “Western Mongolia Archaeological Project” led by the National Museum of Mongolia and the University of Western Kentucky (USA), in collaboration with the University of Oulu (Finland) and the above-mentioned Spanish institutions.

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