art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Everyday Life in the Iron Age

Wild apricots, Tuzusai, Kazakhstan

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 in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

Tuzusai, the little village in Kazakhstan where our team is researching Iron Age burial sites, flourished this summer. The fruit trees were full with ripening cherries, both sour early cherries and sweet late cherries. Wild and domesticated apricots, raspberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries were all ready to be picked; a high school student told us he planned to lay the apricots out to dry on the tin roof of his dacha. Our young neighbor Lyuba stopped by one day after work with two freshwater fish she had just caught in Lake Kapchigai. The wheat turned yellow and the soy plants reached almost a foot tall.

The bounty of today’s Kazakhstan is a reminder of how rich and fertile the Talgar region must have been more than two thousand years ago. Rob Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist, has taken soil samples from trash pits, pit house fill (remains after the pit house dwelling collapsed), and ancient hearths at the site of Tuzusai. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he washed these soil samples using a method called flotation, where the light particles of ancient carbonized seeds are separated from the soil matrix. He has found millet, barley, wheat, and even grape pips. The idea that the Saka and Wusun people of the first millennia BCE grew cereal crops, as well as kept sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, has changed our perspective on early nomadic cultures. There is subtle evidence that the diets of ancient people of Kazakhstan were highly variable, including plants, fish, birds, and other wild animals, as well as the meat and milk of their livestock. In our area, the Ili River runs for hundreds of miles from western China and empties into Lake Balkhash. Fish and other river and marsh resources must have been important in ancient times.

During one of our digs, we found some broken pieces of spindle whorls, small ceramic disks with perforated centers. (When I couldn’t think of the word in Russian for “spindle whorl,” I made the motion of using a drop spindle for spinning wool into thread. Lyuba immediately understood.) Finds of such domestic objects remind us that nomads were members of household groups. How important were women to the basic economy? Did they spin the hair and wool fibers for the clothing worn by an entire household, as the ancient Mayan women apparently did? Who made the large storage vessels, sometimes dripping them with red slip and glaze?

Sometimes the elite burial sites, with their magnificent inventories of gold and silver ornamentation, can cloud our visions of the everyday lives of the commoners. But during the bountiful months of the summer, planting gardens, tending to livestock, fishing, gathering berries and wild fruit, putting up stores for the winter, and repairing their mud-brick houses must have been the average Iron Age person’s main concerns. Our work at Tuzusai, often hot, tiring, and dusty, reminds us again of a simple life.

Posted by in A Closer Look, Ancient Near East | No Comments

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.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | No Comments

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

A Colorful Past

Curator Alex Nagel at the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars tent, Folklife Festival, July 2, 2012

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. This post takes him out of the Archives and onto the National Mall.

The Smithsonian staff picnic boiled away on Monday, July 2, from 11 am till 2 pm, and saw a host of Smithsonian employees ambling, somewhat laden by heat, across the Mall with ice-cold smoothies in hand and sweat patches pooling on their backs. I sat watching this from the relative cool of the 2012 Smithsonian Congress of Scholars (SCOS) research tent, thinking how lucky I was to sit in adequate comfort, above ground (unlike the F|S offices), and without having to stare at a computer for hours.

However, if I thought my day was going to be as easy as sitting around people-watching, I was grossly mistaken. From about 11:30 am there was a steady stream of traffic to and from our table, with people asking a vast array of questions about the pigment project that Alexander Nagel, assistant curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art at Freer|Sackler, has been working on for the past six years. Alex has been collaborating with a team of colleagues in Persepolis (Iran) to determine the original colors of the site through documenting small traces of pigments found there. These pigment marks have not only been found in Persepolis, but also at other ancient sites such as Pasargadae (also in Iran) and Palmyra (Syria).

In the SCOS research tent we spoke about the recent findings and discussed what they illuminate about these ancient sites. Ultimately, we explained, the pigments allow us to understand what these cities would have looked like. They give us insight into a culture that we used to think was very pristine and whitewashed, allowing us strip away that fallacy and build an extremely different picture of these cities—one that is covered in vibrant colors. From painted monuments to frescoes, the grand buildings on these sites were decorated elaborately. It is a grand shift in the way we view ancient civilizations and may change many of our perceptions of the past.

One of the most interesting pieces we discussed was a stone relief excavated at Palmyra that had traces of pigments on it. The relief, which is part of the F|S collection,  is one of about 5,000 found at the site, all representations of the people in the tombs they were guarding. The color present on this relief is again evidence of how vibrant these cities would have been; even the dead were housed in elaborately painted tombs.

As the day went on, Alex and I were faced with a number of interesting questions, observations, and suggestions. It was rewarding that people took so much interest. They were fully engaged and particularly fascinated with the notion that the past was so much more colorful than some had believed. Of the many questions that were asked over the course of the day, the ones that popped up most frequently were those related to the conservation of the pigments; whether  the colors used were part of a grander, interlinked scheme that crossed cultures and civilizations; and whether there was going to be an effort to restore these sites to their former painted state once ample evidence was collected.

Regarding conservation of the pigments, Alex explained, it would do more damage to try to apply something to conserve them than just leaving them as they have been for the past 2500 years. Instead, glass covers have been put in front of many of the places where significant pigmentation has been found so it cannot be touched. As for whether these colorings are indicative of a cross-cultural exchange, we explained that many of the materials used to color the palaces and monuments at Persepolis, at least, were garnered locally, and that the copper compound used to make blue and the ochre used to make red could both be found in Iran. This does not indicate a cross-cultural exchange, but equally does not rule it out.

The most controversial issue was the question of whether the sites would be repainted. There seemed to be two camps of people in regard to this notion. There were those who thought it would be atrocious to dream of doing such a thing, and there were those who thought it was a necessary step in the restoration process. It was intriguing to see the dialogue develop over the course of the day and see what different people had to offer on the topic.

Personally, I feel that to restore the sites back to their original colors would interfere too much with the course of history. It is part of the historical record that the colors have disappeared. As a result, we should respect that passage of time and be content that, with today’s technology, we are able to recreate the sites with digital technology and possibly even build 3D models in full color. To do anything more would just be out of line.

What is your opinion?

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Events, From the Archives | 3 Comments

The Politics of Beauty

Sarah Johnson, research assistant, works in the curatorial department on Islamic and Ancient Near Eastern art. 

 

The Shapur plate

Beauty is often political, although politics is rarely beautiful. This early work of propaganda, known as the Shapur plate, was created in the Sasanian Empire of Iran nearly 2,000 years ago. The Sasanian king Shapur II, who is depicted on the plate, probably sent it to another king to show off his power and wealth. Gifts between kings in the ancient world were powerful political symbols and the quality of a gift could solidify or deteriorate a diplomatic relationship. This plate shows the king’s power not only in its imagery of hunting but also in its design and craftsmanship. The lavish materials and intricate design (the plate is made of nineteen separate pieces of silver) showcase Sasanian mastery of the arts. Even aesthetics were subject to politics in the Sasanian Empire.

Long after antiquity, the Shapur plate continued to be subject to the whims of politics. In the 1870s, it was acquired by the famous Stroganovs in Russia, where it quickly became a star of ancient art. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communist Party confiscated the plate along with the rest of the Stroganov collection. Luckily, the plate passed the test of the Antiques Export Fund: This group decided, based on aesthetic reasons, whether or not silverworks in Russia went to museums like the Hermitage or were sold or melted down to make that universal political necessity, money.

The plate entered the Hermitage Museum. When the Hermitage collection of Iranian metalwork was in danger of being sold or destroyed, Joseph Stalin intervened. Although the decision was more to prevent political disgrace in destroying such a valuable collection than an aesthetic appreciation for Sasanian silver, it is partly thanks to Stalin that the plate survives.

To get up close to the Shapur plate in person, visit the exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, on view now in the Freer|Sackler.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, From the Collections | No Comments