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date: 17 February 2020

Bronze Age Mongolia

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the Bronze Age in Mongolia, a period when pastoralism, mobility, and interaction between regional communities increased dramatically. It also corresponds to the heyday of monumental construction and to the development of societal complexity in this region. After briefly discussing the local Bronze Age chronology, the discussion then turns to the topic of the transition to animal husbandry and to the development of mobile, equestrian pastoralism in particular—a phenomenon that seems to have taken place during the Late Bronze Age. Following this, I examine the monumental landscape as well as what is known from “settlements” before discussing the nature of Late Bronze Age social organization and societal complexity. The article ends with a brief exposé on bronze metallurgy before highlighting what are thought to be the critical issues that continue to challenge research on the Bronze Age in the region.

Keywords: Mongolia, Bronze Age, pastoralism, horses, mobility, monuments, societal complexity

The Bronze Age in Mongolia corresponds to a time in Eurasian prehistory when pastoralism, mobility, and interaction between regional communities increased dramatically. It also corresponds to a time when horses became an integral part of ceremonies at impressive ritual and mortuary monuments throughout the region—monuments that index complex social organizations. A recent growth in the number of international collaborative projects in this region and many recent publications have offered a variety of new perspectives on this period. Despite this, Mongolia, and its Bronze Age period in particular, often still figures only in a very peripheral way in the literature on the archaeology of the Eurasian steppes (but see Hanks 2010; Honeychurch 2015). This is regrettable because the latest research from this region is debunking and unpacking many long-held notions about the role that this region played in the early historical developments of this part of the world. It is also offering new perspectives more broadly on important issues such as the development of mobile pastoralism and the advent of societal complexity among so-called nomads. Given space limitations, a comprehensive reporting of all deserving fieldwork and interpretive study is not possible. Instead, I have elected to provide an overview of recent data and interpretations that have rewritten or nuanced long-held “truths” about this period and region and to survey a limited number of issues that continue to stir debate. Another specific aim of this article is to highlight what are probably the most fruitful areas of current research, as well as some of the critical issues that continue to challenge research in the region.

Situating Mongolia’s Bronze Age

One of the more mundane but important issues that continues to affect our understanding of social processes during Mongolia’s Bronze Age is its lack of a clear periodization. The term “Bronze Age” was originally adopted as part of a chronological system based on assumptions about successive changes in the use of raw materials, but as in many other regions of the Eurasian Steppes, it has often lost any precise meaning in relation to technology. The fact is that there are still few radiocarbon dates for this period and most of the chronology, which varies from region to region, is based on similarities between monuments, burial practices, and pottery styles. Based on these, it is possible to tentatively break down the Bronze Age into an early/mid-phase (ca. 2500–1500 BCE) and a late phase (ca. 1400–700 BCE). This latter phase is the best known and is sometimes subdivided and extended to include both a Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400–700 BCE) and a Terminal Bronze Age (ca. 700–400 BCE), although this distinction does not always find a satisfactory chronological and material definition. Generally, however, the Bronze Age in Mongolian archeology is a term used informally for the period covering the mid-second to the mid-first millennium BCE. Similar to other regions of the Eurasian steppes, it corresponds to a period of greater social interaction and to a period when important transformations are taking place in terms of local politics. It also corresponds to the heyday of monumental construction and to the development of societal complexity in this region. Debates still surround the social processes underlying these major changes, but archaeologists agree that these are generally connected with the widespread development of mobile, equestrian pastoralism within the Eurasian steppe zone.

The Adoption of Mobile, Equestrian Pastoralism

The earliest data thus far concerning the transition to an animal husbandry economy in Mongolia date somewhere between the fifth to early second millennium BCE (Okladnikov and Derevianko 1970; Volkov 1995; Séfériadès 2004, 2006). Though the dates and the evidence for domestication are provisional, this transition is suggested at the site of Tamsagbulag (Dornod province) in far eastern Mongolia as well as in the northern and western regions of Mongolia. At Tamsagbulag, inhabitants lived in rectangular semisubterranean dwellings some 30–40 square meters in size with storage pits and burials inside the houses. The subsistence economy is said to have been based on cattle-breeding and agriculture, though the latter is only based on the presence of hoe-like instruments, grinders, and pestles. No actual domesticated plants have been found. In addition to this, inhabitants here engaged in hunting, fishing, and gathering (millet, large fish, bird, cattle, pig, and horse) (Dorj 1969, 1971; Okladnikov and Derevianko 1970; Séfériadès 2004). The presence of both domesticated cattle and wild species together with permanent dwellings highlights the fact that not all hunters and herders in Mongolia were itinerant.

In northern Mongolia and in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, this transitional period is essentially typified for the moment by the emergence of Early Bronze Age Afanasievo-like cultures, the earliest of which dates to the first half of the third millennium BCE (Volkov 1995; Kovalev and Erdenebaatar 2009). Bones of wild and potentially domesticated animals (sheep/goat and cattle) have been found, suggesting a subsistence economy possibly based on a combination of hunting and herding. Horses have also occasionally been found in Afanasievo-like burials, though it is not clear if these were wild or domesticated. A claim for the discovery of “new Early Bronze Age cultures” in the Altai region has also recently been made by Alexey Kovalev and Diimaajav Erdenebaatar (2009, 2014). These are known as the Chemurchek culture (2500–1800 BCE) and the Mönkhkhairkhan culture (ca. 1800–1600 BCE). However, because they are only known from a couple dozen of excavated burials, little is known about these cultures beyond their mortuary behaviors. Bones of sheep have been identified in these burials, though it is not clear at all if these are domesticated or not. Because no domestic sites have yet been found in association with these burials, little to nothing is known about the lifeways of these people, including their subsistence and mobility patterns.

The adoption and spread of equestrian pastoralism in particular is an important issue that has received little attention to date in Mongolia. Since the earliest evidence for domesticated horses comes from the western regions of Inner Asia (Hanks 2010), it is believed that it made its way to Mongolia through a gradual eastward transfer either via the Altai region of western Mongolia or through Tuva in southern Siberia. Given the dearth of horse remains before the Early Iron Age in the Altai region of Mongolia, especially from ritual and burial contexts (Houle 2015), it is unlikely that early domesticated horses came in from this region. However, as one travels east from far western Mongolia, Uvs province (near Tuva in southern Siberia) is the first area where domesticated horses are encountered at Late Bronze Age ritual sites. Thus far, it is also in the adjacent northerly provinces of Khovsgol and Arkhangai that we have the earliest radiocarbon dates for domesticated horses from such ritual contexts. These date to between 1300 and 1000 BCE (Fitzhugh 2009a, 2009b; Fitzhugh and Bayarsaikhan 2011). Accordingly, the best estimate right now for where and when mobile, equestrian pastoralism might have first been introduced into Mongolia is via Tuva in southern Siberia and sometime during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BCE). At the moment, this is uniquely based on the fact that the preceding Eneolithic (mid-third and initial second millennium BCE) was populated by hunter-gatherers (Jacobson-Tepfer 2015; also see Janz 2012: 185), while faunal remains of clearly domesticated sheep, goat, cattle, and horses are only regularly found at both ritual and habitation sites from 1300 BCE onward (Houle 2010; Broderick and Houle, 2012). That being said, sheep/goat and cattle bones have recently been found together in an Early Bronze Age burial (1925–1691 cal. BCE) in the Darkhad Depression of northern Mongolia (Clark 2014: 103), while horse bones may have been found in a nearby burial that dates to the same period (Fitzhugh and Bayarsaikhan 2008: 33; also see Tsybiktarov 2002: 111, 116). That still leaves us with several hundred years during which mounted pastoralism may have been introduced. Moreover, the scarcity of finds dating to the Eneolithic and its uncertain chronological position make it difficult to understand the social and economic changes that were taking place during this period—especially because it varies from one region to another. This issue deserves much more attention and right now the provinces of Uvs, Zavkhan, and Khovsgol in northern Mongolia are the most promising regions to investigate the transition to mounted pastoralism.

Although the timing and context surrounding the initial adoption of equestrian pastoralism in Mongolia is still unknown, it is clear that sheep, goats, horses, and to a lesser degree cattle, become herded economic mainstays in most regions of Mongolia by the Late Bronze Age. The importance of horses is especially clear in the changing relationship between people and these animals. It is during this period that horses feature heavily in the rituals at monumental sites throughout Mongolia. This connection between monuments, horses, and new shared ritual and belief systems throughout Mongolia also indicates the growth of long-distance, intercommunity networks.

The Monumental Landscape

The Late Bronze Age corresponds to the heyday of monumental construction in Mongolia—monuments that speak of the important social and religious changes taking place in Inner Asia during this time. They also speak of increasing social interaction over greater areas, as indexed by their shared architectural vocabulary and ritual practices across vast regions. In the western and central parts of Mongolia, these monuments include khirigsuur stone mounds, “slope” burials, and deer stones, while in the eastern and southern regions of Mongolia are mostly found shaped burials (aka shorgooljin bulsh and khelbert bulsh in Mongolian), Ulaanzuukh burials, and slab burials. That being said, there is some overlap between these types of monuments in the central regions of Mongolia.

Khirigsuurs (aka khereksur) are communal ritual and mortuary complexes that vary greatly in size and architectural complexity. They occasionally occur individually, but mostly in large groups that mark “central places” (Houle 2010). Although most measure 10–50 meters on a side, a few large ones in central, western, and northern Mongolia measure over 400 by 400 meters and are built of over half a million stones. Khirigsuurs consist in a central burial cist (or a simple shallow pit) covered by a massive mound of unconsolidated stones. This central mound is surrounded by a square or circular “fence” of surface stones, as well as by satellite features with complex deposits of remains of domesticated horses in small stone mounds and/or calcined sheep, goat, and sometimes cattle remains in surrounding stone circles (Allard and Erdenebaatar 2005; Broderick et al. 2014a, 2014b). Some monuments have dozens of these, whereas a few large ones have thousands. These are thought to be remnants of sacrifice and feasting events associated with monument building and seasonal gatherings and thus suggest some form of complex social organization (Allard and Erdenebaatar 2005; Allard et al. 2007; Houle 2010). Although it has been determined that the horses associated with these monuments are domesticated, there is still no clear evidence that horses were mounted. However, the average distance between clusters of khirigsuurs corresponds to what can be comfortably ridden in a day, that is, about 11–17 kilometers, and recent osteological analysis on horses from khirigsuur contexts also suggests the possibility of harness technology (Taylor et al. 2015a, 2015b). It is thus most likely that at least some horses were ridden.

Often associated with these monuments are what have been termed “slope” or “class 3” burials (Frohlich 2006; Frohlich et al. 2008). Though these are commonly called “khirigsuurs” in Mongolian because they resemble the ritual and mortuary monuments described earlier, these are smaller graves that do not usually have prominent tumuli or animal ritual deposits. They also tend to occur in cemetery groupings along hill slopes (Frohlich and Bazarsad 2005; Houle 2010: 14) and, contrary to khirigsuurs, are usually directly associated with habitation sites, thus suggesting household/encampment burials (Houle 2010). This distinction has been noted in high-resolution survey work in central Mongolia, in the Mongolian Altai, and in northwestern Mongolia. Not all researchers recognize this important distinction, whereas others downplay it (and concomitant social differences) by highlighting the variability that exists within these broad types (Wright 2007; Johannesson 2011). However, this tiered burial tradition suggests that social distinctions, at least in death, were drawn in space.

In addition, because of the lack of grave goods in these monuments and the fact that some of them lack human remains (but see Frohlich et al., 2008, 2009; Littleton et al. 2012), debate still continues about the function and significance of these monuments in terms of social differentiation and inequality (Wright 2014). That being said, most agree that the distribution of khirigsuurs as well as the important ritual activities and significant labor required to build these monuments suggests a relatively complex social organization and social integration on a fairly large scale—characteristics that are found in many transegalitarian societies.

Other enigmatic Bronze Age monuments in Mongolia are the famous anthropomorphic deer stones. Deer stones are found in western, central, and east-central Mongolia, as well as in the Russian Altai Mountains, Tuva, Xinjiang, and Transbaikal. There are three main variants of deer stones. The better known variant of these stelae consists of pecked designs usually organized in three distinct horizontal bands along the body of the stelae. The artwork on the upper part of the stelae often includes parallel slashes in groups of two or three (possibly in place of a face [Fitzhugh 2009a: 186]) or very rarely a human face, a “necklace,” and circles on either side of the “head” area that are interpreted as sun/moon motifs or earrings. The central part is decorated with stylized flying deer, while the bottom part depicts tools and weaponry (including daggers, knives, quivers, battle axes, and occasionally recurved bows) hanging from belts. Chevron motifs, interpreted as a shield or shamanistic skeleton emblems, also often appear on the mid to bottom section. The social function of deer stones remains an enigma, but the variable belt styles, chevron motifs, and toolkits depicted on the stelae suggest reference to a particular individual, possibly a warrior or a chief. The imagery also parallels tattooed shamanistic elements or components found in shaman’s ritual clothing (Bayarsaikhan 2005). Like the satellite features surrounding Khirigsuurs, these too have stone mounds with horse skulls and/or stone circles with cremated animal bones. Their chronology and distribution also conforms greatly to the chronology and distribution of khirigsuurs (Volkov 1981: 123), together forming closely related components of a single ceremonial complex (Fitzhugh 2009a) that might be linked to the spread of mounted pastoralism.

In addition, while khirigsuur complexes and deer stones cover a fairly large territory over the western half of Mongolia, they are mostly concentrated along major river valleys located between the Khangai mountain range in central Mongolia and the regions of Gorno-Altai, Buryatia, and particularly Tuva in southern Siberia (Volkov 1981: 123; Tseveendorj et al. 1999; Tsybiktarov 2003), or located in geographical focal points such as “oases”—for example, the khirigsuurs found in Baga Gaziryn Chuluu in south-central Mongolia. This may not be a coincidence because there are many lines of evidence, for example, the depiction of Karasuk-style bronze knives found on deer stones, that suggest that the Late Bronze Age societies of Mongolia may have had some type of connection with the contemporary specialized metal-producing Karasuk culture of southern Siberia (Volkov 1967, 1995; Gryaznov 1969: 98; Askarov et al. 1992)—including the fact that Mongolia could have been a possible path for the diffusion of Karasuk-type bronze artifacts toward China (Legrand 2004).

Though contemporary with khirigsuurs and deer stones, very different forms of monuments and mortuary practices characterized the Late Bronze Age in the eastern and southern regions of Mongolia. For one, burials in these regions more consistently contain human remains and grave goods. One such type, known as “shaped burials” (or shorgooljin bulsh in Mongolia) because of their hourglass-like shape, contain interred individuals who were placed face down in a shallow earthen pit. Grave goods include domestic fauna (sheep/goat and cattle/horse), ceramics, ground stone artifacts, animal-style decorated objects made of gold, and so on (Amartuvshin and Jargalan 2008; Kovalev and Erdenebaatar 2009; Tumen et al. 2011). Although distinct from the khirigsuur/deer stone complex tradition, large-scale interaction is also indicated here by the occasional presence of Karasuk-style bronze knives similar to those found depicted on deer stones and from finds from the Transbaikal region north of Mongolia. Despite this, social distinctions in the mortuary treatment of the interred individuals have not yet been identified.

This is not the case for Terminal Bronze Age (ca. 700–400/300 BCE) slab burials (or dorvoljin bulsh in Mongolian), which cover mostly the eastern half of Mongolia. These are burial pits covered with stones and surrounded by large vertical stone slabs whose protruding sections above the ground surface define the burial’s perimeter. They vary in size from about 1 to 10 meters in length and width, and in some cases subadults received more labor-intensive burial treatments and more prestige items than older individuals, suggesting hereditary status (Honeychurch et al. 2009: 350–352). Inhumations in these burials are also occasionally accompanied by domesticated animal remains (sheep/goat, cow, and horses in particular), long-distance trade items (e.g., cowries and mother-of-pearl), ornaments, bronze tools, weapons, and helmets, as well as horse trappings (Ishjamts 1994: 151–152; Volkov 1995: 321; Erdenebaatar 2002: 151–203, 239–252; Erdenbaatar 2004). As such, they are the first to have yielded unequivocal evidence for early horse riding in Mongolia. The nature of the material in slab burials also suggests that these groups ascribed to what can be loosely termed a warrior ethos, though there is little to no bioarchaeological evidence for warfare and interpersonal violence. That being said, several slab burial sites in central Mongolia are frequently located in close proximity to khirigsuurs, sometimes within the confines of these larger structures. Some even have fragments of older deer stones as part of their construction, which suggests some form of cooption on the part of the peoples associated with these monuments. Accordingly, it may well be that monument reuse was used as a legitimizing strategy (Wright 2012).

In essence, Mongolia’s Late Bronze Age built landscape can be defined archaeologically on the basis of large-scale cultural complexes of mortuary and ritual monuments seemingly created through the interconnection of large spheres of interaction. Underlying these, we can imagine, based on the distribution of these monuments, multiple small-scale networks of interlocking regional interaction at work east and west as well as north and south. However, the stylistic regularity of monuments produced throughout either the western or eastern zones suggests that at least some cultural and social values may have been common to these specific geographical areas. That is, whereas there is some overlap, there are also clear regional identities within fairly well-defined boundaries. These have yet to be explored in any detail, in great part because almost all that is known about these cultures is based on mortuary data alone.

Bronze Age Settlements and Subsistence

The conventional wisdom has it that at the beginning of the Bronze Age the people inhabiting Mongolia and adjacent regions had commenced a transformation from a sedentary, agricultural subsistence strategy to a “nomadic” (i.e., long-range) form of pastoralism, and that this transition was completed by about 900 BCE (e.g., Koryakova and Epimakhov 2007: 211). Different causes have been proposed to explain this drastic change, the most common one being linked to climatic changes—drought in particular—which in turn would have set off mass westward migrations and changes in basic economic activities (e.g., Koryakova and Epimakhov 2007: 211). Paradoxically, this is not what the monumental landscape discussed earlier suggests, and it is not what the data from habitation sites suggest either.

“Settlement” and subsistence data for Bronze Age Mongolia are sparse, but this is in great part due to an archaeology that has and often continues to focus almost exclusively on a dispersed ritual and mortuary monumental landscape. Accordingly, we still know very little about Bronze Age settlement patterns, subsistence practices, demographics, and how all of these may have varied geographically and according to local environmental conditions. However, the last decade or so has seen the development of a number of intensive regional studies in which systematic surface surveys have been combined with limited excavations designed to obtain information regarding settlement patterning and domestic practices (Honeychurch et al. 2007; Wright et al. 2007; Houle 2010; Clark 2014). The scale and intensity of this new archaeological research have now started to offer a variety of new perspectives on this period, though some regions have received much more attention than others. To date, the northcentral region of Mongolia has received the most attention.

In this region, as is seemingly the case in general, there is very little evidence for habitation sites prior to the Late Bronze Age. For the Late Bronze Age, however, settlement patterning and the appearance of more permanent domestic occupation areas seem to be accompanied by evidence for demographic centralization around monuments, which may in turn be related in part to improvements in the climate. Indeed, during this period of time, the climate here was warmer and more humid than previously, and grasslands were expanding, thus increasing the volume of grazing possible (Peck 2000; Peck et al. 2002; Prouse 2005; Strano et al. 2007). Interestingly, the intensity of occupation in this region as well as in the Darkhad Depression in northern Mongolia (Clark 2014: 184) concomitantly increases. Possibly, then, ritualistic activity (e.g., construction of khirigsuurs and deer stones) may have emerged as a means of countering the negative impact of an increasing population (e.g., resource stress, social tensions). Evidence of this is suggested in the Khanuy Valley region of central Mongolia, where every valley draw along the foothills (the location of winter campsites) has evidence of Late Bronze Age occupation, including locations that are not ideal according to local herders; and nowadays there is no reason to occupy some of these less favorable locations if other better suited places are available. In any case, known habitation sites take on a similar form in northcentral Mongolia and comprise small, open air sites with few to no permanent features despite their relative permanence (Honeychurch 2004; Houle 2010; Clark 2014). The actual distance between seasonal campsites in central Mongolia is only about 5–10 kilometers (and about 25 kilometers on average in northern Mongolia), a mobility pattern still prevalent today. In fact, Late Bronze Age habitation sites are located at or next to modern pastoralists’ seasonal camps. Despite this very restricted and tethered mobility pattern, Late Bronze Age inhabitants (like their modern counterparts) did not build any permanent domestic structures.

Archaeological work at habitation sites in this region has also determined that the economic strategy during this period was primarily based on the herding of sheep and horse and, to a lesser degree, goat and cattle, with only minimal supplementation of wild plants and animals. There is also very little evidence for economic differences between campsites (Houle 2010). Inhabitants in the Darkhad Depression of northern Mongolia also seem to have relied upon a similar mixed economy of both domestic and wild species (Clark 2014: 137). Missing from all of this is evidence for the cultivation of domesticated grains. Claims for the evidence of agricultural production in some parts of Mongolia have been made based on the discovery of stone querns and so-called hoe ring-weights from Bronze Age contexts (Erdenebaatar 2002: 239; Tsybiktarov 2003: 83), but to date no botanical evidence of this has been discovered anywhere, even where soil flotation has been done (Houle 2010: 115; Clark 2014: 172). The absence of domesticated grains in the diet of Late Bronze Age people is also supported by stable isotope analysis of human remains (Machicek 2011: 117–132). In fact, increasing evidence suggests that agricultural activities did not develop in Mongolia until the Iron Age/Xiongnu period (third century BCE—second century AD) when agriculture is well attested for (Davydova 1995; Wright et al. 2009). This reinforces the growing hypothesis that the transition to pastoralism in Mongolia may have been brought about by hunting and gathering groups rather than by agriculturalists (Wright 2006; Janz 2012; Clark 2014). It also upends the long-held idea that mobile pastoralists were dependent upon the products of agricultural societies (Khazanov 2003).

In contrast, the little evidence that exists to date on habitation sites in the Altai region of western Mongolia—another region that has received a lot of attention given its rich rock art and monumental landscape—suggests a somewhat different pattern of occupation, though subsistence practices are similar to that found in central Mongolia. In this region, and just like today, many of the spring habitation sites are built more permanently with evidence of stone foundations. They are also located in the same locals where modern-day campsites are situated. Counterintuitively, however, very little archaeological material is found at these sites, suggesting generally very ephemeral occupations—a pattern that finds echoes in the ethnographic present where herders only spend a month or two at these sites during the late spring/early summer (Houle 2015). And despite the evidence from regional settlement data which suggest that monuments also marked important occupation areas here, archaeological, zooarchaeological, and ethnoarchaeological data suggest much more extensive mobility patterns than what are found in central Mongolia. Although only part of the Late Bronze Age settlement system is currently known, today seasonal movement in this region can exceed 200 kilometers between winter and summer campsite areas (Foggin et al. 1997). Accordingly, architectural remains (or lack thereof) may provide a poor indicator of the degree of sedentariness among Bronze Age Mongolian pastoralists. Similarities in the ritual landscape are thus most certainly masking other types of variation between different regions.

Even less is known right now about herd composition and subsistence practices in the Altai region. That being said, faunal remains from two habitation sites indicate that sheep/goat, cattle, and horses are present as a package here as well (Broderick 2014/n.d.). Interestingly, the only evidence for horses here comes from domestic contexts. They are not found at khirigsuur or deer stone sites in this region. Given the recent suggestion that the deposition of horse heads at khirigsuurs and deer stone sites in central Mongolia might be a late fall/early winter ritual and that the deposition of sheep/goat cremated remains in stone circles at these same sites might be a spring ritual (Broderick et al. in press), then the presence of stone circles and the absence of mounds with horses at monumental sites in the Bayan Olgii region of the Mongolian Altai might reinforce the idea that this area was only occupied temporally during the spring/early summer in Late Bronze Age times. The seasonality of rituals and their links to mobility patterns and permanence of occupation is one of those areas that merits much more attention. For one, it has consequences on our understanding of the nature and scale of human social communities, and therefore on our understanding of the nature of Bronze Age social organization.

Bronze Age Sociopolitical Organization

One of the enduring issues in Mongolian archaeology is explaining how and why signs of societal complexity appeared fairly suddenly during the Late Bronze Age, as exemplified by its monumental landscape. The monumental landscape does indeed provide evidence for complex rituals and funerary behavior that occasionally included group ceremonies at a fairly large scale. However, the fact is that the burials and the monumental structures are ambiguous in terms of evaluating the nature of the social and economic organization at this time. They do suggest a complex social organization; and the size and elaboration of some of these monuments do suggest fairly large labor investments and social differences, but they have yet to produce the more direct kinds of data, such as grave goods, that correlate specifically with social status. Accordingly, it may well have been the ceremonies at these sites that played an active role in social change. In nonstratified societies, order often depends more on integration and cooperation than on force; and rituals—especially above the household level—are often essential to social integration. Moreover, while some aspects surrounding the function of khirigsuurs and deer stones still elude us, these monuments likely served several purposes, some of which may have been more important for some members of the society than for others. Feasting, community integration, and possibly even aggrandizement are all possible functions, perhaps all working at the same time through the events associated with their construction. Although not entirely different from this perspective, an alternative interpretation focusing even more on consensus is offered by Wright (2014), who argues that monuments were built for integrating activities over the short and long term, without assuming a chiefly elite. The action of khirigsuur construction itself may have made statements of group power, ancestry, and alliances. Yet, along with these group-oriented integrative activities, there is also some visible emphasis on symbolism relating to individuals such as single interments in the central mound of khirigsuurs and deer stone imagery. The presence of both group-oriented and individualistic symbolism—maybe related to both achieved and ascribed status—has been documented in many transegalitarian societies in which political leadership exceeds the boundaries of kinship and the immediate locale, but in which there are also neither institutionalized forms of power nor clear political centralization.

What this suggests in terms of social organization, therefore, is actually very interesting and important for understanding the nature and development of societal complexity in this region. The archaeological evidence seems to reflect the first stage in the emergence of political organization operating beyond the descent group. Given the lack of grave goods, it also seems to reflect differential social relations based on the control of nonmaterial resources (such as ritual-based polities) rather than hierarchical social relations based on economic variables. There can be little doubt that ritual played a prominent role in Late Bronze Age social integration.

However, the catalyst for all of this activity during the Late Bronze Age is yet unknown, though the social ramifications of increased interactions over greater distances enabled by horseback riding could certainly have played an important role. In fact, there can be little doubt that the increase in contact during this time had a major impact on the organization and outlook of Mongolian Bronze Age societies. But this was certainly not the sole impetus. The fact is that there is little archaeological evidence in the “core” region of Mongolia for earlier developments. Many have sought southward to China for possible influences, though this has been recently dismissed (Houle 2010; Honeychurch 2015). In recent years, however, some archaeologists have been looking at interactions with foragers of the northern forests—the other implied border of Eurasia—and are working to move beyond simply debating the provenience or inspiration for Late Bronze Age monuments (e.g., Clark 2014). Instead, regional-scale analyses that embrace the full range of material and animal remains have led to new questions about the mechanisms by which societal complexity emerged. It is by investigating the whole spectrum of funerary and settlement data at different analytical scales and in different regions that archaeologists can hope to identify the seeds of later developments and to sort out intra- and interregional dynamics.

Bronze Technology

Before concluding this article and discussing the future goals and challenges facing the archaeology of Bronze Age Mongolia, a word must be said about bronze technology. The fact is that information currently available for Mongolian bronze metallurgy is quite limited and comes mostly from Terminal Bronze Age/Early Iron Age contexts (Park et al. 2010, 2011; Janz 2012: 198).

Some studies based on common alloy formulas and stylistic similarities suggest links between some Mongolian bronze artifacts and the Karasuk bronze tradition of southern Siberia (Volkov 1967). More recent studies based on compositional variability, however, suggest the possibility of several independent metal production centers within the borders of Mongolia as well. At the present day, three main subzones have been identified: the Mongolian Altai region, the southern Gobi desert-steppe region, and the Khangai forest-steppe region (Erdenebaatar 2004: 218). That being said, limited evidence of smelting also suggests low-level local production in the forest region of northeastern Mongolia (Tsybiktarov 2002; Séfériadès 2006).

Of the very few more detailed studies that exist, analysis of the Baga Gazaryn Chuluu (Middle Gobi/Dundgobi province) bronze assemblages indicates that the use of arsenic (without tin) is dominant in objects dated to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age period and that casting was the primary method of fabrication (Park et al. 2010: 10). However, there are also a few forged objects that are made with arsenic-free alloys—suggesting a different and specific technological tradition that is possibly associated specifically with the production of small knives that are found throughout the eastern steppe region during this time period (Park et al. 2010: 10; also see Legrand 2004).

In contrast, there is little actual evidence of bronze metallurgy associated with the preceding Late Bronze Age khirigsuur/deer stone culture—though these people were clearly well aware of it, given the detailed representation of bronze tools and weapons on deer stones. That is, despite the apparent absence of bronze objects or casting debris in the few regions that have been intensively surveyed to date, the various and finely crafted depictions of bronze items on the numerous deer stones found in these regions do suggest that these people were well aware of these bronze objects—to the extent that it is plausible that some of them were involved in the use or distribution of these items. Accordingly, it leaves the Late Bronze Age people living in these regions very much as participants of some kind in a society with craft specialization linked to metallurgy.

Given that the study of Bronze Age metallurgy has to date been done as an afterthought of excavations focused almost exclusively on objects retrieved from burials, it is not surprising that so little is known about ore sources and production centers. This information will only come from a problem-oriented research that focuses on this particular issue and on the full range of sites, as this information will surely not come from the monumental landscape.

Future Goals and Challenges

Archaeological research on Bronze Age Mongolia has come a long way over the last decade or so, though much more work is needed in different parts of the country. Mongolia is not a homogenous zone. One of the problems in trying to define generalized Bronze Age traditions, or a set of criteria applicable to all areas of Mongolia, is that each regional area also has its own character, probably due to its own internal stimuli, creating considerable diversity as well. In fact, the greatest contribution of the limited settlement archaeology that has been done to date in different regions is that it has demonstrated the great variation that exists in terms of settlement patterning and subsistence practices during the Bronze Age despite a shared ritual monumental tradition. In fact, a key contribution of the few regional-scale surveys to date has been to introduce variability in space to a landscape that looked fairly uniform not so long ago. That is, the similar monumental landscape masks more subtle, though important details about lifeways. While generally “mobile,” Early Bronze Age sites such as Khuiten-Bulag Nuur in eastern Mongolia and Late Bronze Age sites in Khanuy Valley and in Egiin Gol in north central Mongolia show that some groups were fairly sedentary or practiced a highly restricted form of mobile pastoralism (Dorj 1971; Honeychurch 2004; Tsybiktarov 2006; Houle 2010). On the other hand, archaeological research in the Bayan Olgii region of western Mongolia (Houle 2015) and in the Darkhad Depression of northern Mongolia (Clark 2014) has revealed greater mobility patterns, very different settlement practices, and variances in herd structure—characteristics that cannot be distinguished from the monumental landscape alone.

In other words, there was not cultural uniformity between Bronze Age communities, and similarities between them vary geographically and throughout the period. However, it is possible to define regional traditions during the Late Bronze Age. This is most clearly seen in the monumental landscape discussed previously, though even within these traditions a wide variety of stylistic types and interment practices have been accumulated and debated. This variability need not, however, result in claims for countless “new cultures,” as is unfortunately often the case.

Finally, implementing regional-scale research projects does not necessarily guarantee a better understanding of Mongolia’s Bronze Age and its place in a broader perspective. To date, most of the settlement pattern survey work that has been done in Mongolia has been through dissertation research. Given time and budget restraints, this has resulted in a patchwork of small surveys of different sizes that use diverse methods, thus hindering to some extent data comparability and ultimately the illumination of supraregional phenomena. Happily, there is an increasing concerted effort underway to address this in order that survey data can be utilized in comparative studies. It is eventually these comparative studies that will enable us to better understand the social processes underlying the major changes that were taking place during the Bronze Age—social processes that eventually led to the rise of the Xiongnu polity, the first Steppe Empire in Inner Asia (third century BCE to second century AD).


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