Over the last decade I made four trips to the nation of Mongolia, most recently in 2011. I would have gone more frequently if it hadn’t been for the honor of being department chair for several of those years. Now that we have this blog page, I thought it would be a good time to comment on those trips and offer some observations on the links between the experience of travel, research, and place. This is the first of four posts.
Research was the reason for going to Mongolia, but here is what first intrigued me and set me on this path: In 1986, well before the fall of the Soviet Union, I saw a slide presentation at the School of American Research (now the School for Advanced Research). The presenter showed vast landscapes, always more sky than earth. Some places looked like desserts, but in the middle of each were the ruins of walls. Not just a few walls, but walls that went on and on, to form the outlines of citadels, palace complexes, public buildings, and entire cities! This got my attention. Wasn’t it true that Chinggis Khan and his ancestors were simple tribal nomads that came together to bring ruin down on any “civilization” that got in their way? I was thinking nomads don’t build cities, or do they? Clearly my knowledge was flawed and there was an important story, little known among scholars outside the region. As it turns out there were at least 14 empires that occupied Inner Asia between 200 B.C. and A.D. 1800, all of whom relied heavily on the herding of livestock on the vast steppe grasslands. The famous Mongol empire of the 13th and 14th centuries built their successes on a long tradition of steppe statecraft. As I have now come to realize, the empires of the steppe were not just a reflection of what was going on in China, but they indeed originated the political and military tools that allowed them to dominate vast regions.
In 2000 I began serious study of the early empires, and in 2002, Matt Gallon, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and I flew to Mongolia through Beijing. The objective was to begin mapping the ancient urban centers and gain an understanding of how such places related to the building of empires, which had animal herding and some agriculture as their economic foundation. We were not the first archaeologists to visit these sites and we are indebted to the Russian researchers who described some of the sites as early as the 1890s, and to the Mongolian archaeologist, Khodoo Perlee, who worked in the 1950s and 1960s.
In Ulaan Baatar, we linked up with Erdenebat Ulambayar and his sister, Erdenetuya. At the time Erdenebat was an archaeologist for the Mongolian Institute of Archaeology, considering earning a doctorate; ten years later he is the Chairman of the Anthropology Department at the Mongolian National University, with a Ph.D. from Bonn University. Erdenebat speaks German and Russian, as his foreign languages, but not much English. Erdenetuya speaks English and Korean and is a lawyer for the Mongolian state prosecutor’s office. She kindly agreed to come along as interpreter. Along with the driver, Sukhbaatar (Axe Hero), our team was set and we drove out of the city to where the pavement ends.
We pulled over to examine our maps and the spaghetti bowl of tracks leading in every direction. Erdenebat took a look at his compass, sighted a destination on the horizon and off we went. The steppe may appear flat, but when driving it is all bumps and dips. Bouncing along at top speed in our Russian minivan was fun at first, but then my internal organs started to hurt and I realized this was the first day of a real journey.
That night we reached the first site, Khar Bukhyn Balgas, a fortified town of the Khitan Empire (A.D. 907-1125). I had never seen a site like this and the sheer scale left a lasting impression. The walls were made of that is called “rammed earth”-- heavily eroded, they still stood 2-4 meters tall. The walls formed a rough square, 700 x 680 meters.
On the inside there were mounds and the ruins of buildings made of stone from a later period, but mostly there was open space.
About 10pm in the dimming light we set up our camp, ate some noodle soup, crawled into our tents, and fell asleep...
- Dr. J. Daniel Rogers
In the next installment of Travels in Mongolia the team continues on to the Orkhon River Valley and some of the most impressive ruins in Mongolia.
The principal research findings from this trip are published in Rogers, J. Daniel, Erdenebat Ulambayar, and Mathew Gallon (2005) Urban Centres and the Emergence of Empires in Eastern Inner Asia. Antiquity 79: 801–818.