Notes from Kazakhstan

| August 8, 2012

Professor of anthropology Claudia Chang is in Kazakhstan this summer and fall, leading an archaeological research project in the Talgar region.

Chang has been keeping notes on her fieldwork for the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, which began posting her writings on their blog, Bento on Aug. 6. Her blogs will appear 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.

Her current project in Kazakhstan is 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 are trying to reconstruct prehistoric climatic conditions through dendochronology — the scientific method for 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.

Chang’s Aug. 6 blog, the first in the series, describes how a survey archaeologist finds those sites by taking advantage of the plow.

“Tractors used to cultivate the fields have churned up the topsoil, and buried artifacts have been plowed up and exposed to rain and the elements,” Chang writes. “We often think that the richest scatters of artifacts, 50 or more pieces of ancient bones or sherds per 10-meter (33-foot) radius, are the places where the plow has dug into an ancient settlement or burial mound.”

Transecting crop rows stretching nearly a kilometer, she and her colleagues use handheld GPS devices to record precise locations of each found artifact. 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 15 minutes or more to find a spot on a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map and triangulate the position by aligning a Brunton compass with a nearby mountain or streambed.

She marvels at how high-speed computing, satellite imagery and “good hard field work” can produce excellent results that 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.”

Upcoming blogs describe the work the team is doing at excavation sites at Tuzusai, where there is evidence of later Mongols and other historic periods in addition to Iron Age artifacts. Kurgans, or burial mounds, are prominent here. They reveal intriguing details about the nomadic elite of the vast Eurasian steppe, but there is also much to learn about the everyday lives of the herders and farmers who shared that time and place, Chang suggests.

Back in the present, her blog offers a few tidbits about the everyday lives of those who study them, too.

— Jennifer McManamay

 

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