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.
All week the weather reports have predicted rain, but we have mostly had glowering skies, occasional winds, and some thunder grumblings. Today we quit before our break time because a rain came, but it was short-lasting. Steppe weather usually comes from the northwest, where the storm clouds gather and then blow against the high Tianshan Mountains.
The crew was happy to leave early today. It’s been a long dig season. Most archaeological projects in Kazakhstan are located in remote mountain, desert, or steppe areas where a field camp is set up, and the project lasts for 3 to 6 weeks. We’re now into the 9th week of excavation.
I refer to what we do as “garage archaeology.” We pick the crew up every day at 6:30 am with the Uhas Microautobus, drive less than 3 km (1.9 miles) to the site with our equipment, and then work until 12:15 pm. It is a short day, but usually packed with so many activities that even the high school students who work with us sometimes comment on how fast the morning hours pass. Then we drive from the site to the place where we store the artifacts and park the bus in the garage.
After weeks of hard decisions, such as over which pieces of fallen mud brick wall to destroy and which to keep because they could be parts of walls, tandoor ovens, or floors, we have now found two large rooms in front of the upper mud brick platform and a large storage pit to the west of the platform. There are successive layers of packed mud brick flooring. A week ago, we broke out the three archaeological picks we brought from the US. They are the preferred tools for smashing the mud brick and adobe fall.
Olzhas asked yesterday, “When are we going to find gold?” The fact is that in settlement sites such as Tuzusai there is no gold to be found. Today we found a tiny piece of bronze, about the closest we’ll come to any kind of precious metal. It is indeed difficult for us to believe that the kurgans, with such rich burial inventories as the Issyk Golden Warrior, actually come from the same Iron Age period as a settlement site such as Tuzusai.
But today we did find an elite artifact on the second floor of the mud brick platform: half of a bronze bracelet. That’s an amazing find, probably the most incredible find we’ve had. When Alec found it, he turned to show it to me. Later I said, “Years from now you’ll be able to go to the Kazakh State Central Museum in Almaty and point to the bronze bracelet on display and say, ‘I found that in 2012!'”