She is taking notes on her fieldwork on Bento, the blog of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. Her writings appeared weekly during the exhibition of “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan” in the Sackler Gallery from Aug. 11 to Nov. 12. She also contributed an article for the “Nomads and Networks” catalog.
Chang’s project in Kazakhstan was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. She is a principal investigator on the collaborative research, titled “Bronze and Iron Age Prehistory on the Margins of the Eurasian Steppe,” with Irina Panyushkina of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona.
The researchers were trying to reconstruct prehistoric climatic conditions through dendochronology — dating trees through ring analysis — and palynology and geomorphology, disciplines related to earth science. The archaeological component involves studying ancient plant and animal remains, prehistoric ceramics and architecture at Iron Age sites circa 400 B.C. to A.D. 100.
Recently plowed earth is good hunting for archaeologists. Transecting endless crop rows, the team used handheld GPS devices to record the precise location of each artifact they found. Nowadays the process is quick and easy, says Chang, who began teaching at Sweet Briar in 1981 and has conducted field research in Kazakhstan since the mid-1990s. It used to take up to 15 minutes with a compass and map.
She marvels at how high-speed computing, satellite imagery and “good hard field work” reveal landscapes used by ancient people, the size of their settlements, and the nature of their ceremonial and burial practices.
“After a long day of walking amongst the soy plants, there is nothing better than being able to come home, plot our artifact scatters or kurgan locations on a Google Earth map, and see the pieces fit together,” Chang says.