Professors blog from Kazakhstan

Claudia Chang Taking Notes
Claudia Chang takes notes at the excavation site in Kazakhstan. Photo by Perry Tourtellotte.

Sweet Briar College professor of anthropology Claudia Chang and her husband, Perry Tourtellotte, are spending the fall 2015 semester excavating an Iron Age site in the Talgar region of Kazakhstan, a settlement dating as far back as 400 B.C. Their blog documents their scientific research and travels, which will take them to India, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in November.

The couple arrived in Kazakhstan on Sept. 9, but actual fieldwork didn’t start until almost two weeks into their stay. First, they had to get all the required paperwork done.

“The life of an archaeologist is full of surprises, but it also involves hard work, patience to work through official channels, knowledge of the local language and customs, and the ability to contrast the new Kazakhstan with its ancient cultures,” Chang writes in her first blog post on Sept. 12.

On Oct. 7, they are three weeks into their research. “Our main hypothesis is that the common lives of the Iron Age people in the Talgar area were based on an economy of both herding and farming,” Chang writes, noting that they’re not expecting to find gold or silver, “and very little metals at all.”

But no matter what they’re digging up, there’s always a story to be found.

“Today we found a tiny bronze bead or fragment,” Chang writes. “Imagine excavating an old cellar house in rural Virginia. You might find a lot of broken bottles, tin cans, some remains of past dinners, and old pieces of wood, nails, etc. Yet if carefully recorded, those remains can tell an interesting story about the past inhabitants. So every day we photograph the animal bones, ceramic sherds, and pieces of discarded mud brick found in the fill of the house or on its floor surfaces. Have we found any whole ceramic pots this season? No. Have we found an entire carcass of a sheep or a cow? No. What we have found instead are part of a leg joint of a young cow (probably a high status meat item), a scapula fragment of a camel (who eats camel you may ask?). Our local friends say you probably have to boil a camel a long time to make the meat edible. As for pot fragments … just today we found a large piece of painted or red-slipped bowl. I can imagine the meals eaten in that bowl … meat and grains such as wheat, millet or barley.”

Chang began teaching at Sweet Briar in 1981 and has conducted field research in Kazakhstan since the mid-1990s. She visited the region most recently in 2012 as the principal investigator on a collaborative research project funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

“I hope someday soon, one or two of our Sweet Briar students will join us in the field!” she writes.

To read more about Chang’s and Tourtellotte’s research in Kazakhstan, follow their blog or visit their Facebook page.