Mongolia was a significant cultural hearth in the Palaeolithic Period and was a major stage for the emergence of North Asian pastoralism in the pre-Bronze Age period and its spread in the Bronze Age. And three main waves of nomadic tribes rode their horses across Mongolian Plateau and across the great Central Asian plains to challenge the world – the Hunnu, the Turks, and the Mongols. Each produced its own distinctive influence. But Mongolia only offers a hint at the flow of history, people, and culture that existed here. So we decided to spend a day with a Mongolian archaeologist to help us understand more about the history and archaeology.
Mongolian Deer Stones
From Mongolia’s Late Bronze Age (c.1300-700 BC) and known as Bugan Khoshoo in Mongolian, deer stones are found mainly in central, northern and western Mongolia. Mostly of granite, these standing rectangular stones (up to 4.8m tall) typically occur in small groups or are concentrated in larger groupings and are often in association with stone burial mounds, called khirgisuur. They are named for the beautiful stylised deer which are typically engraved on one or more sides of the standing stones together with a shaman’s mirror and various ancient weapons. They face east – towards the rising sun. You can find out more in this article.
We spent the day with archaeologist Erdene Ochir Nasan Ochir – a Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, a co-author on over 30 research publications connected, and an expert on the Bronze, Early Iron Age, and Xiongnu period (Hunnu in Mongolian) of Mongolian history.
We spent the day in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia’s capital city) and its surroundings discovering the different layers of history including the Bronze Age rock paintings and slab graves found on Bogd Khan Mountain and also the royal tombs of the Hunnu. Ulaanbaatar was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre, it settled permanently at its present location, in 1778. However, human habitation from the area dates from the Lower Paleolithic – with sites on Bogd Khan and Songinokhairkhan Mountains (two of the four mountains that surround Ulaanbaatar) revealing tools that date from 300,000 years ago to 40,000–12,000 years ago.
The history and archaeology of Mongolia are of global importance. Although Mongolia has good laws protecting its cultural heritage, unfortunately, a lot of archaeology surrounding UB – as well as elsewhere in the country – has been disturbed by climate change, unregulated construction, or by looting. (Looting has been taking place for centuries but continues in the 21st Century with any grave having the potential to contain valuable goods that can be sold on the illegal antiquities market. One major issue is the size of the country. It is very difficult to enforce the protection of cultural heritage in a country the size of Western Europe with very limited budgets.) Erdene Ochir Nasan Ochir is desperately trying to get funding to aid the protection of these antiquities.
Slab graves are named for the main typology of the graves – the vertically set slabs with stone kurgans. The most recent graves date from the 6th century BC, and the earliest monuments belong to the 2nd century BC. The slab graves are both individual and collective in groups of 5-8 and there are a few large burial sites as well.
If you would be interested in spending the day with Erdene Ochir Nasan Ochir please get in touch. We highly recommend combining such a day with a visit to the National Museum of Mongolia. One of the original museums in UB, it provides a general overview of the various stages of Mongolian history including its revolutions and its independence in the 90s. Exhibits are in English. And then combine it with a visit to the new-kid-on-the-block, the newly opened Chinggis Khaan Museum. (Although their website link doesn’t always work so you can also use their FB page –https://www.facebook.com/chinggiskhaanmuseum.mn/.) It is a remarkable addition to Ulaanbaatar with over 11,000 artifacts covering 2,000 years of history. (The displays are in Mongolian and to access the information in English, you will need to scan a QR code with your phone.)
Found throughout most Turkic areas of Central Asia (including Mongolia) are Hun Chuluu or Man Stones – memorials dating back to the Turkic era of Mongolian history. Little is known about them. However, there is a ritual significance in the fact that nearly all face east and most are carved holding a sword, bowl and wearing a belt and an earring.
Spending a day with Erdene Ochir will help you to explore and understand Mongolia’s past. And, Mongolian archaeology holds the keys to understanding who modern Mongolians are and where they have come from. If you would like to spend a day with Erdene Ochir please get in touch. Such an experience can easily be combined with our other Mongolian experiences.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes