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.