Archaeology at the border: survey and excavation in Xinjiang

As far as archaeological fieldwork goes, there are certainly far less accommodating places than where I have fortunately found myself for three consecutive field seasons. My summer fieldwork in Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, a picturesque area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region less than 30 km from China’s border with Kazakhstan, has offered just the right balance of thrill and serenity (sans mosquitoes and creepy crawlies).

Looking north towards the Alatau Mountains.

Looking north towards the Alatau Mountains.

The view from the site where I am excavating.

The view from the site where I am excavating.

We are now four weeks into the field season and so far we have exposed eight slab graves* (see picture below) lying on the piedmont slopes flanking the Bortala River Valley running east-west between two mountain ranges of the Tianshan (45°N, 80°E). In an archaeological survey conducted by the local bureau of cultural relics in 2010, over 200 sites with stone structures including slab graves, stone cairns, habitation structures, and anthropomorphic statues were discovered in this area, making it a significant representation of the steppic stone monument tradition that extends beyond Xinjiang, to areas in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and southern Siberia. These archaeological remains delineate areas of past human activity and indicate territories of cultural and economic significance.

My fieldwork with the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences this season, comprises two modes of investigation – survey and excavation. I will talk about the excavation in my next post. Our work has been generously supported by the Bureau of Cultural Relics of Wenquan County. With their help, we have been able to locate and document many archaeological sites that would otherwise be difficult to find. Some sites are located in areas where access is obstructed by masses of rocks brought down by flash floods. Working in the mountains, we have learnt to deal with various temperaments of nature; packing up the survey equipment in time before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive has become part of the drill. Temperature could fluctuate anywhere between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun at above 2000 m (> 6500 ft) above sea level could be deceivingly mild in the presence of a strong gale. Although the weather occasionally makes it difficult for survey and excavation, watching the forces of nature in the vast expanse of the steppes is nothing but awe-inspiring.

Here comes the downpour…

Here comes the downpour…

Every now and then, we get a rainbow or two.

Every now and then, we get a rainbow or two.

Our survey focuses on structures dated to the early to late Bronze Age (late 3rd to late 2nd millennium BCE). The sites we currently survey are visible on the ground surface, in the form of stones arranged in geometric patterns indicative of either a burial, ritual or habitation structure. Preliminary observations in the previous field seasons (2012 and 2013) have identified a strong correlation between the location of these stone structures and features of the natural environment. For example, these structures are located on piedmont slopes between the altitudes of 1800m and 2500m, and most entryways of  large non-burial structures have an easterly aspect. Elsewhere in Eastern Central Asia, the distribution and purported functions of stone structures have been used in landscape analyses to delineate possible territorial boundaries or routes of communication. In the Bortala Valley, it appears that these stone structures are not standalone features but components of a well-curated landscape that are correlated with topographic features and the workings of natural phenomena.

Several site clusters have been selected from a preliminary survey in summer 2013. Given that distances between sites are too far for a total station to be operational and that it is not possible to obtain precise locations with a handheld GPS, we use a satellite positioning device, Real Time Kinematic (which consists of a base station and two mobile units), to obtain the exact coordinates of the archaeological remains and topographic features. These data will be used for terrain modeling and geospatial analysis to identify possible connections between the archaeological remains and the physical features. This year, we are also using aerial photography and 3D photogrammetry to supplement surface survey in hopes of creating a more dynamic and visually effective result.

Quadcopter in action, hovering over a walled stone structure.

Quadcopter in action, hovering over a walled stone structure.

Recording the outline of a stone cairn with an RTK mobile station.

Recording the outline of a stone cairn with an RTK mobile station.

Inhabited by multiple ethnicities of which the majority comprises Mongol, Han, Kazakh, Uyghur and Hui, the region of Bortala is also home to Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists and their bountiful flocks. This demography provides excellent opportunities for interesting ethnographic observations, some of which I shall detail below and in my next post. Due also to the ethnic diversity, the tranquil and rustic atmosphere is tainted by tightened security in response to recent violent attacks in Urumqi and other cities in China, which had resulted in alarming death and injury tolls. Checkpoints are installed in between counties and prefectures, bags have to be screened before entrance into grocery stores, barricades are put up even in front of primary schools. At our site, we are frequented by border patrol who have been on the lookout for fugitives hiding in the area, supposedly attempting to cross the border.

My companions.

My companions.

Hello there!

Hello there!

While the political reality may be uninviting, it is well compensated for by the locals’ overwhelming hospitality. We are often treated to a bowl of milk tea (freshly brewed with Kazakh red tea leaves and fresh milk) and a few hot dishes in the homes of pastoralists when we are out doing field survey. It felt like we were imposing but in fact it is considered rude by the Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists to not accept invitations into their homes. Once, we passed by at the end of a long day of surveying a home of a large Mongol family who had gathered in front of the corrals for their annual sheep-shearing event. As we approached with curiosity, we were immediately welcomed into a crowd of baaing sheep. I was asked to down two cups of beer from a makeshift halved coke bottle before I participated in the shearing, subjecting one poor sheep soul to my unskillful hands. I could feel the sheep twitching as I plunged the blunt edges of the shears into its thick greasy wool. I learnt later that sheep-shearing is to the pastoralists a sacred familial event, at which an outsider’s presence is considered a blessing and therefore must be honored. The guests are offered a bowl of hot mutton soup, and sometimes, even a feast of mutton-themed dishes.

The wool is sold by the kilogram to the middlemen who come to pick up the wool for resale to factories in other provinces in China. The price is 3-4 RMB /kg (which is about 50 US cents) this year, and a household with 200-300 sheep would make about 2000-3000 RMB (less than 500 US dollars) per harvest. I bought a sheep’s worth of wool for 10 RMB (less than 2 bucks) to try my hand at felting. If the result is any decent, I will share it here.

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Shearing season.

Shearing season.

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  • mario

    wow,you did a great job ~~