Eurasian Archaeology

By: Fredrik T. Hiebert

Originally Published in 2001

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Map of Eurasia, showing areas discussed in text. (1) Black Sea maritime world; (2) Kalmkia steppe; (3) Oka River Basin forest zone; (4) Kopet Dag foothill plain; (5) Central Asian desert oasis of Khorezm; (6) Central Eurasian steppe; (7) Tarim Basin desert oases; (8) Djungaria steppe; (9) Altai Mountains. Map by Ardeth Abrams

This issue of Expedition highlights recent research in three distinctly different en­vironments of Eurasia: the Black Sea coastal region, the treeless steppe region of Kalmykia north of the Black Sea in southern Russia, and the forest zone of Russia still further north. In­creased access to research areas in the former Soviet block, new access to museum collections, and more open communications with foreign colleagues allow us a broad perspective on Eur­asia and an opportunity to rethink our approach to these areas on an interregional scale.

The huge landmass of Eurasia challenges us to create a framework that encompasses the development of various cultures across these vast expanses. Wide bands of forest, steppe, and desert run roughly east and west, punctu­ated by mountain ranges and large bodies of water; these different environments have each left their distinctive marks on Eurasian cul­tures. Interactions between these zones must be understood beyond the confines of customary geographical terms such as “Europe,” the “Mid­dle East,” or “China.”

We can see two major axes of human in­teraction and culture contact from Mongolia to the Black Sea. First, there is a primary east-west axis of interaction within similar ecological zones and settlement types across Eurasia. For example, several cases of mass migration from one part of the steppe to another took place with little shift in economic or cultural behavior. But the east-west corridor provides more than simply room to expand—it has been a con­duit of goods and ideas. These connections are not, however, either predictable or persistent through time, in contrast to the interaction along north-south corridors.

Eurasian interaction on a north-south axis has received much less attention from archae­ologists and anthropologists than that along the east-west axis. This may be because the north-south axis crosses political boundaries and ecological zones. Though perhaps of low in­tensity, north-south movements in many areas took place in a regular and predictable fashion, as groups searched out seasonally available food and pasture resources. The nature of north-south interactions may be a critical element underlying cultural connections within Eurasia.

In the east, for example, in modern western China, the desert farming cultures of the Tarim basin, the steppe herders of Djungaria. and the mountain hunters and foragers of southern Si­beria developed in relationship to each other during the Bronze and Iron ages (Map: cultures 7-9). This relationship between three ecolog­ically distinct regions was a key factor in the emergence of each culture.

Further west, we are investigating another set of north-south aligned regions and the rela­tionships between them (Map: cultures 4-6). The foothill cultures of southern Turkmeni­stan, on the northern margin of the greater Near East, developed during the 4th through 2nd millennia BC in relation to sparse deserts to their north. Foothill cities such as Anau spawned colonies in desert oases in Bactria, Marginal, and Khorezm, so these two regions need to be evaluated in terms of each other. Further to the north, in the steppes of the southern Urals, large-scale settlements oc­curred for the first time in the 3rd millennium BC. We do not completely understand this devel­opment on the steppe, but it is important to include the broader context of the persistent Eurasian interaction between environmental zones as we attempt to understand the changes that are visible to us as archaeologists.

This special section of Expedition presents three case studies that in the same way are ar­rayed along a north-south axis (Map: cultures 1-3): the maritime world of the Black Sea (see Hiebert, this issue); the pastoral world of the Caspian steppe (see Shishlina, this issue); and the hunter-fishermen of the forest zone to the north (see Ernel’yanov, this issue). These areas are not contiguous. but the populations in these settlements clearly were aware of the other regions, their resources, and their cultural tra­ditions. These case studies offer a forum for understanding the mediating attributes that help different groups interact.

These papers also demonstrate the rewards of international collaboration. Working in Eur­asia necessarily involves working with Russian and other former Soviet archaeologists. It is es­sential to build an infrastructure that permits this. The University of Pennsylvania Museum, as one of the largest archaeology museums in the United States, finds a comfortable informal partnership with the State Historical Museum in Moscow, the largest archaeology museum in Russia. This collaboration allows scholars and students to work on field projects and with mu­seum collections from each institution. UPM has also participated in an American Associa­tion of Museums’ exchange program with the Historical Museum of Kazakhstan in Almaty. As the home institution for the American Re­search Institute in Turkey (ARIT) for the last twelve years, UPM has long been dedicated to facilitating international exchange and re­search. It is only within the context of such fruitful collaboration that we can move beyond the geographical boundaries of research areas such as Europe, the Middle East, and China, and take a “Eurasian” perspective.

Cite This Article

Hiebert, Fredrik T.. "Eurasian Archaeology." Expedition Magazine 43, no. 1 (March, 2001): -. Accessed February 27, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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