University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Archaeology of Central Asia: Excavations in Xinjiang (Part 1) – Annie Chan


August 17, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.


August 7, 2015

Late last month, I took the eastward route to my fieldwork site halfway across the globe—traveling from Philadelphia, via Istanbul, across Central Asia to the Bortala Valley a stone’s throw away from China’s border with Kazakhstan. In the mid-summer heat, we opened excavations in two areas of the valley (60 km apart) with structural remains that represent human habitation and funerary activities in the mid to late 2nd millennium BCE.

Now that I am returning for my fourth field season (collaborating with the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), every bend and stretch of this morainic topography appears distinctly familiar, but what is glaringly unusual this year is the dearth of herds roaming the summer pastures. “There is just not enough [for the animals] to eat,” the pastoralists often grouse about the dwindling food supply. The air is so dry even the grass struggles to breathe, forcing the animals to feed on winter pastures at higher altitudes. A few of them allegedly fell prey to a pack of wolves that had descended from the high mountains; several large animal carcasses have been found in the past week. Whether wolves were the culprits, the eagles certainly got wind of the fresh kill, eagerly circling above their intended feast.

Frequent sightings of eagles in the valley.
Frequent sightings of eagles in the valley. Photo by author.

One of the two areas is situated on piedmont slopes at about 2,200 meters above sea level. Fieldwork is carried out in three areas of what was likely a ritual or ceremonial complex, comprising the investigation of a large quadrangular settlement structure, slab graves and cairns, and a rock shelter. In attribution to its vast array of stone arrangements, the locals call this place ‘Aduuchuluu,’ which means in Mongolian, stones like herds of horses. Building on results from previous seasons, which were collected mainly from the large settlement structure and multiple graves dated to different periods of burial, this season we are further exploring the variability of funerary practice in this area and examining how the settlement structure was used.

My happy place: excavating inside a rock shelter.
My happy place: excavating inside a rock shelter. Photo by author.

My task this week is to install a 2 x 1 meter test pit inside a rock shelter that has probable signs of past human activity. We often use test pits in lieu of a full excavation when we want to obtain a stratigraphical history of site formation either to find evidence to justify a comprehensive excavation or to obtain a reference depositional profile to validate existing hypotheses of site contexts. As we have not excavated rock shelters before in this area, I was excited about what this investigation would yield. The excavation was completed in 4 days and although there were no material finds, we uncovered a fireplace with ash deposits at a depth of 20 cm. Soil samples were taken for dating and other scientific analyses.

The other area of excavation is located on the lower valley floors below 1,500 meters above sea level, and it exhibits a different settlement pattern, with large conglomerations of stone structures spread across hilltops and valley floors, indicating the presence of organized communities. The topographic survey of the area was completed last year and aerial photography was used to document the archaeological sites. The goal this season is to conduct test excavations at multiple locations to determine the chronology of these structures and to discern the primary human activities. Based on the distribution pattern, architectural features, and ceramic finds to date, we speculate that these sites were occupied by people practicing mixed forms of agro-pastoralism in the late 2nd millennium BCE.

They come from places near and far…
They come from places near and far… Photo by author.

The density of sites, hidden in plain sight, stands in sharp contrast to the vast and unobstructed landscape. You can hear the sound of a motorcycle approaching from 2 km away, you can be drenched in sunshine while you watch rain clouds shower the mountain peaks nearby. You can walk a few miles with no company in sight but be greeted with yoghurt and cheese (and maybe even a full meal) when you find yourself in the home of a pastoralist. In my next blog post, I will share more of the experiences that have made doing archaeology in the steppes all the more interesting and dynamic.

After a thunderstorm.
After a thunderstorm. Photo by author.

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