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Nomads and Networks in the Field: Introducing Tuzusai

Sod removed from new excavation, Tuzusai, 2012

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view through November 12, Claudia will share her ongoing field work with us on Bento.

Yesterday, our 17-year-old neighbor Nazerke came to our dig site to practice her English. In school Kazakh students have learned about the crude stone tools found in Kazakhstan dating back to the period of Homo erectus (1.8 million to 400,000 years ago). “Wouldn’t it be great to find actual fossil evidence of early humans in Kazakhstan?” Nazerke exclaimed.

Through our archaeological work, our research team expects to learn more about the history of human culture in Kazakhstan. This is important to understanding the context of the objects on display in Nomads and Networks, now on view in Washington, DC.

We are working in Tuzusai. Meaning “salty place” in Kazakh, Tuzusai is an Iron Age site that dates from 400 BCE to 100 CE. In 1991, the year Kazakhstan became independent from the USSR, local archaeologist Feydor P. Grigoriev began excavating the settlement. Our team began excavations here three years later. In 1995, when Feydor worked with us on the Kazakh-American Archaeological Expedition, we spent hours discussing our childhood memories of the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. Now American and Kazakhstani citizens can work on an archaeological dig together. How times have changed!

Over the years, more crew members have joined our dig, often through word of mouth, and taken on a variety of roles. Alec, one of the workmen on the site, also drives the 1994 four-wheel-drive Uhas. Lyuba is responsible for keeping track of the finds, especially the diagnostic pottery fragments: rims, bottoms, handles, and spouts. She writes down the coordinates for each special find and its depth. Perry, my husband, is the transit man, taking all the elevation readings of the excavation units. He uses a thirty-year-old Leitz mountain transit, a surveying instrument for measuring, and reads the elevations from a stadia mark. I take the notes and direct the dig.

To communicate, our team has gained a solid command of “dig Russian.” Last year the Tuzusai dig was multilingual: Kazakh, Russian, and English. This, of course, reflects the nature of language use in Kazakhstan. Kazakh, a Turkic language, has been the national language since Kazakhstan declared independence. Russian is the language of international communications, and English is taught in schools. At our excavations, there is no telling when different languages, cultures, or conceptual ideas may lead to confusion. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Digging an archaeological site is always challenging. This week began slowly. We started by removing the weeds and backfill on last year’s pit houses, storage pits, and a tandoor. We also laid out a grid of 2 m x 2 m square units in an area north of our old excavations. We take down each of our grid units layer by layer, recording the depths for each level. We have now almost finished opening our old excavation units and removing the upper sod levels from our new excavation units.

Our team hopes to learn the history of everyday men and women living on the edge of the Tian Shan Mountains, as well as of the elite, horse-riding warriors who controlled vast regions of the Eurasian steppe. We would like to know what connections exist between the nomadic elite buried in the kurgans and the herders and farmers who lived in the Talgar area during the first millennia BCE. Nomads and Networks is thus not only an appropriate title for the exhibition in the Freer|Sackler, but also could be a motto for our summers in the field.

Next up: Everyday life in the Iron Age.

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Inspired by … Light

In honor of Inspired by India and Worlds within Worlds, Nirupama Rao, the Ambassador of India to the United States, leads a traditional lamplighting ceremony as an auspicious start to this family festival.”India is not easy to embrace in a moment,” she told the overflowing crowds, “You need a lifetime.” Today, I’m sure, is a good place to start…

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Inspired by…Bollywood!

Learning how to dance Bollywood style.

Bollywood dancing literally kicked off our Inspired by India Family Festival. Ever want to dance like a Bollywood star? You’ll get another chance at 4pm when Nepalese performer Bhim Dahal teaches dance sequences seen in musical films from Mumbai, the Hollywood of India. Lights…Camera…Bollywood!

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Nomads, Networks, and Bloggers: Live from Kazakhstan

Claudia Chang recording sherds in an irrigation ditch, wearing what she calls her “characteristic garb”: Waldo hat, pocket T-shirt, gray dig pants, and bandana.

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. She has been a Fulbright Teaching Fellow at Kazakh State University and wrote an article in the catalogue for Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler August 11–November 12, 2012. Throughout the exhibition, Claudia will share her field work with us on Bento.

In late May, the temperature in the region of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, can range from the 50s in the early morning to the high 80s by noon. The winter wheat is a foot high and sways in the gentle breeze. Outside our little village 21 km (13 miles) from Almaty, large fields of soy crop have been seeded. The seedlings are about 2 inches in height. For a survey archaeologist the conditions are ideal; we can still walk between the rows of soy crop looking for ancient ceramics, sheep and cattle bones, broken river cobbles, and grinding stones. As we walk transect after transect in fields that are almost a kilometer (0.6 miles) in length, we inspect the soft, crunchy topsoil known as “loess” for ancient artifacts. Loess is wind-blown glacial mud that was deposited millennia ago and covers the gently sloping valley just below the foothills of the Tian Shan mountain range, which along with the Hindu Kush, Himalayas, and Pamirs form the highest peaks in Eurasia. This thick layer of loess is pay dirt for today’s farmers as it was for the Iron Age farmers and herders of the first millennium BCE. It is rich in nutrients and in this semi-arid climate is excellent for crops or pastureland.

Soybean field west of Tseganka

During the Soviet period, which ended in the early 1990s, many of these fields were planted by collectives; now the land is privatized or managed by cooperatives. Soviet period and contemporary agriculture have been a boon to the survey archaeologist. Tractors used to cultivate the fields have churned up the topsoil, and buried artifacts have been plowed up and exposed to rain and the elements. We often think that the richest scatters of artifacts, 50 or more pieces of ancient bones or sherds per 10-meter (33-foot) radius, are the places where the plow has dug into an ancient settlement or burial mound.

In uncultivated patches of land, it is still possible to see large Iron Age burial mounds, or kurgans, constructed of layers of earth and rocks that cover the burial pits or shafts where elite members of society were buried. In groups of 3 to 9, these burial mounds line old stream beds near the scatters of sherds and bones found on surveys. The Iron Age kurgans were treasure troves of valuable artifacts before they were robbed in antiquity and in the recent past. Today, they are visible markers of the graves of important members of Iron Age society, the aristocratic elites. Who were these elites and how did they earn their wealth and status?

Many of the hundreds of kurgans located in the Talgar region where we work have been destroyed by modern development of roads, construction, and large-scale industrial agriculture. But even though it has been flattened by modern farm machinery, a destroyed kurgan can sometimes be found as a tiny rise in a plowed agriculture field, and it is possible that the grave shaft is still intact.

When we find traces of kurgans or scatters of artifacts, we record their locations using a GPS device. Nowadays we can accurately pinpoint the location of a single ceramic sherd using satellite readings from our handheld GPS. When we return from six hours of field walking, these points can be plotted on Google Earth images that show the exact contours of the fields. By recording even a single grinding stone or ceramic fragment, we have traced out the boundaries of settlements that might lay buried below the plowed surfaces. The combination of field walking with the use of contemporary technology allows us to reconstruct how the ancient nomads and farmers of the Iron Age altered the natural landscapes of our study region.

More than 35 years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I learned how to find sites in the American Southwest by looking for artifact scatters on the desert and mountainous terrain of Arizona. In those days each site location had to be located on US Geological Survey topographic maps, using a Brunton compass to triangulate our position by aligning it with mountain peaks or stream bends. It could sometimes take 15 minutes or longer to pinpoint an exact location. These days we can just walk along with a notebook, a GPS unit, and some collection bags.

I find it astounding that new high-speed computing, satellite imagery, and good hard field work can produce excellent results that tell us more about the landscapes used by ancient people, the size of their settlements, and the nature of their ceremonial and burial practices. As an old school friend tells me, “It seems to me that doing archaeology is like solving a big puzzle that requires detective work.” After a long day of walking amongst the soy plants, there is nothing better than being able to come home, plot our artifact scatters or kurgan locations on a Google Earth map, and see the pieces fit together.

Next up: a look at the Iron Age excavation site at Tuzusai (“salty place”).

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | 7 Comments

Encounters with the Golden Deer: Kazakhstan 101

Horned Deer with Folded Legs

Horned Deer with Folded Legs, Two-Sided; Zhalauli (Kegen district, Almaty region), 7th–6th century BCE

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house curator of the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, opening August 11.

For me, Kazakhstan is first of all a beautiful and stunning landscape: wide open, green grasslands; glittering, crystal-blue rivers and lakes; and high mountains in the east and the Caspian Sea in the west. A country four times bigger than Texas and almost the size of India, Kazakhstan is rich with history and home to wild tulips, oil, nomads who still hunt with golden eagles, and more than one hundred nationalities. Bordering Russia to the north and China to the east, Kazakhstan is today the world’s ninth largest country and has emerged as one of the most fascinating places in Central Asia.

East Kazakhstan, Lake Markakol, © Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington, DC

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler from August 11 through November 12, 2012, features spectacular finds from recent excavations that provide a unique window into the archaeology and cultures of Kazakhstan. The exhibition invites viewers to think about the ways nomadic and more sedentary cultures lived together. How did members of the elite represent themselves through burials of their leaders? Why was the horse so elaborately dressed and valued as a friend and partner?

The exhibition was conceptualized, developed, and organized by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in collaboration with the Ministries of Culture and Information and of Science and Education, Republic of Kazakhstan, and four major national museums in Kazakhstan and the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, DC. It marks the first time that ancient artifacts from the very heart of Asia will be displayed in the nation’s capital. We will complement it with related special programming including gallery talks, lectures, a concert, ImaginAsia family programs, and films.

On Bento, we will cover some of the exciting discoveries made in Kazakhstan. Claudia Chang, professor at Sweet Briar College and one of the preeminent US archaeologists working in Kazakhstan today, has been exploring the sedentary places of the ancient people living in the Talgar region since 1994. This summer, Claudia excavates at the site of Tuzusai in eastern Kazakhstan, near the old capital of Almaty. Beginning next week, she will regularly blog her experiences in the field.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | 9 Comments

“Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” Closes July 8

Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples is for Western audiences a first look at the last great Japanese Buddhist painting ensemble before the onset of modern times. The series was initiated by artist Kano Kazunobu in 1854, the same year that Commodore Matthew Perry “encouraged” Japan to open its doors after a period of two hundred years of isolation (and interestingly, the year museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born). These paintings, as described by curator James Ulak in the video above, alternate between the fantastic and the everyday. A remarkable blend of traditional Buddhist iconography laced with then-contemporary references to theater, myth, and religious cult practice, the paintings depict the miraculous interventions and superhuman activities of the five hundred disciples of the Buddha. Hurry, the exhibition closes this Sunday—”Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” are needed elsewhere!

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It’s a Book: The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room Comes to America

The Peacock Room has had quite a few adventures since artist James McNeill Whistler painted the London dining room in 1876. From its journey to Detroit, where it was installed in Charles Lang Freer’s home in 1904, and then to Washington, DC, where it found its permanent home in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, the room has many stories to tell. The museum’s recent installation The Peacock Room Comes to America shows the Peacock Room as it appeared in 1908, when Freer used it to organize and display more than 250 ceramics that he had collected throughout Asia. As opposed to the blue-and-white wares favored by previous owner Frederick Leyland, Freer preferred to fill the shelves with pots with textured surfaces and subtle green and gray glazes from Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, and Korea.

In honor of the exhibition, we’ve just published The Peacock Room Comes to America, a 64-page paperback with more than 80 color illustrations. Curator of American Art Lee Glazer takes a fresh look at the Peacock Room’s many lives, while focusing on the recent reinstallation. The book also provides insight into Whistler’s Princess from the Land of Porcelain, the conservation of the room, and the curator’s perspective on the project. New photography, bolstered by archival images, makes the book a valuable—and handsome—treasure for the Peacock Room’s many fans.

Copies of The Peacock Room Comes to America are available in the Sackler gift shop for $16.

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Catch the Wave: Hokusai Closing this Sunday

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji is closing on Sunday, June 17. In celebration of the exhibition, this video shows exhibition curator Ann Yonemura discussing two of Katsushika Hokusai’s most famous prints: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (better known as the “Great Wave”) and Red Fuji. Both have become icons of the art world.

Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji became a landmark in Japanese print publishing when it was first published in 1831, incorporating innovative compositions, techniques, and coloration, and establishing landscape as a new subject. The images proved so popular that Hokusai continued the series and added another ten prints. The exhibition on view in the Sackler is a rare opportunity to see examples of all forty-six, culled from important collections around the world.

On Friday, June 15, from 4 to 5 pm, join Yonemura at the entrance to the exhibition for an informal conversation about Hokusai, Mount Fuji, and woodblock prints in Edo-period Japan. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to learn more about Japan’s most famous artist.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | No Comments

Monks at an Exhibition

At the welcoming ceremony for “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”; photo by John Tsantes

Monks from Tokyo’s elite Pure Land Buddhist temple Zōjōji came to the Sackler Gallery on the evening of Saturday, April 21. They performed a ceremony to protect the paintings in Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples and to ensure the success of the exhibition. A blessing and consecration typically occurs when Buddhist institutions lend works of art to secular institutions.

In the Pure Land tradition, the lotus (a primary Buddhist symbol), is the vehicle upon which souls are reborn in the Western Paradise. The image of lotus petals showering down from the heavens is a symbol of the blessings of the Amida Buddha. During the ceremony at the Sackler, Hasuike Koyo, chief secretary of  Zōjōji, scattered oversized and colorfully painted paper lotus petals around the exhibition space to indicate the temple’s fond prayers for our endeavors.

The out-of-this-world scrolls by Kano Kazunobu in Masters of Mercy were created from 1854 until the artist’s death in 1863. The Sackler exhibition marks the first time that the scrolls have been shown in the West. It runs through July 8, 2012. Learn more about Japan Spring at the Freer|Sackler.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Sackler 25 | No Comments

You Ask, We Answer: Why is it so Dark in Here?

Thirty-six Views: Hokusai at the Sackler

A visitor recently wrote in our Japan Spring comment book wanting to know why it is “so dark” in the Hokusai exhibit. We asked Richard Skinner, F|S lighting designer extraordinaire, to field this one.

RS: Good question. Many of the objects on display at the Freer|Sackler are made with materials that can react to light, so it is necessary to carefully control what kind of light, how much light, and duration of exposure on these materials. The Hokusai prints are made with pigments that could easily fade or shift in color if overexposed to light. Curator Ann Yonemura has carefully selected the best copy available of each print—and to preserve these objects in their current pristine condition, the light level is restricted to 5 foot-candles of visible light. We carefully measure the light level at each individual object with an illuminance meter and also monitor how long lights are on each day using a digital data logging system. Typically, prints of this nature can only be displayed for a limited length of time before they must go back into storage.

Any more questions for us? Let us know in the comments!

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | 3 Comments