Archaeologists Discover Ancient Cemetery in Mongolia

Last summer, research teams in central Mongolia began excavating a newly discovered cemetery associated with the Xiongnu, a powerful confederacy of nomadic pastoralists in the region two millennia ago. The cemetery was found and surveyed in July 2001 and includes what appears to be the largest Xiongnu tomb found anywhere to date.From Earthweatch:Archaeologists Discover Ancient Cemetery in Mongolia

The Mongolian-American collaborative excavating Bronze Age burials in the Khanuy Valley find a significant cemetery from the Xiongnu period.

Last summer, Earthwatch teams working with Dr. Francis Allard (University of Pittsburg) in central Mongolia began excavating a newly discovered cemetery associated with the Xiongnu, a powerful confederacy of nomadic pastoralists in the region two millennia ago. The cemetery was found and surveyed in July 2001 by Allard and his colleagues, and includes what appears to be the largest Xiongnu tomb found anywhere to date.

Allard and colleagues in the Khanuy Valley International Collaborative Project on Early Nomadic Pastoralism reported the find, representing one of the largest Xiongnu cemeteries yet discovered, in a recent article in the journal Antiquity.

They named the site Gol Mod-2, following on the earlier work done by a French team at Gol Mod-1, a Xiongnu cemetery in a nearby valley.

“The proximity of Gol Mod-1 and Gol Mod-2 suggests that the Xiongnu held an important presence in this part of Mongolia at this time,” said Allard, principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Ancient Nomads of Mongolia project. Although materials from Gol Mod-2 have not been dated yet, the archaeologists suggest that it may date to the first century a.d.

The Xiongnu were a confederacy of nomadic pastoralists that held sway over a large portion of present-day Mongolia from the third century b.c. to the second century a.d. They were particularly troublesome to China’s Han dynasty to the south, and while the Xiongnu did not have a written language of their own, Chinese texts from the period immortalize their military power.

Gol Mod-2 is located 12 kilometers east of the Khanuy Valley, at the base of the Bugatiin Nuruu Mountains, and measures 2.2 kilometers by 1.3 kilometers. It is made up of 98 large tombs, each comprised of a ramp leading up to a level platform. The largest of these tombs has a 3-meter-tall platform and measures 83 meters in length. There are also about 335 smaller burials at the site, marked by stone circles, either associated with the tombs or located independently.

Although Earthwatch teams that worked with Allard last summer focused on Bronze Age sites in the Khanuy Valley, they also began excavating several of the small, “satellite” burials associated with the large tombs at Gol Mod-2. They found the remains of children, animals, and artifacts, including silk. The latter may have originated in the gifts of silk known to have been made to the Xiongnu by the Han dynasty in exchange for their allegiance to the Chinese emperor.

“In one child burial, we found large numbers of sheep anklebones, some of them with never-before-seen symbols carved into them,” said Allard. “These bones are still used today as a game in Mongolia, indicating wonderful continuity. What we have found so far makes clear the archaeological potential of not only the large tombs, but also these satellite burials.”

The Bronze Age burials and ritual sites excavated by Earthwatch teams on Ancient Nomads of Mongolia date to a much earlier period, from the mid-second millennium to mid-first millennium b.c. Although the cultural relationship between these sites and Gol Mod-2 is unclear, they each represent important stages in the development of nomadic pastoralist societies in Mongolia and may hold clues for the sustainable future of the region.

For more information, see Allard, Francis, et al. “A Xiongnu cemetery found in Mongolia.” Antiquity 76 (2002): 637-8

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