As a part of his travels to Mongolia, Dr. Rogers surveyed many sites from the empires period, beginning around 200 B.C.. What you may not know, is that he also collected ethnographic objects for the Museum’s collection, consisting of items that would be commonly found in a family home there. One of the things that makes the Smithsonian’s vast collections so useful is the principal that we are a living, collecting museum, and will continue to attempt to represent biodiversity and material culture through time. If we only collected the past, our collections would soon become static. If we wait to collect from a certain time period until 50 years or more has gone by, we will have lost the ability to obtain many objects that have been discarded along the way, because they were not thought to be worth saving or had become obsolete or unfashionable. However, small everyday objects tell us a lot about the people who use them. It is the same reason why trash pits at an archaeological site are studied so intently; oftentimes what we throw away is as interesting as what we keep! Collections that stay alive and follow a culture over time are also incredibly useful when researchers want to compare how people have changed, and what remains of older ways. This is another reason why Dr. Rogers chose to acquire Jeri Redcorn’s pottery for the collection; to represent a culture and tradition over time.
The Mongolian collection includes a variety of items, from clothing, to amazing hats, religious items, decorations, games, and more. My personal favorite is the hat shown below. This hat is commonly worn in the countryside, but would be taken off when entering a ger (or tent) as a sign of respect. The knot on the top symbolizes the endless knot of Buddhism. Quite a fashion statement!
However, I make no bones about loving the fact that we have this sheep anklebone game! This type of game dates back to early Mongol history. These games are very common, and are often made by the families themselves. The anklebones are used to foretell a person's future, which is read based on the way the bones land -- either in a horse, camel, goat, or sheep fashion. Inside the bag are one red and three naturally colored sheep bones. Luckily, the game includes paper instructions printed in English, and shows the meaning of the rolls.
A more common, but infinitely awesome piece of the collection is this “Chinggis” (Genghis Khan) beer coaster, which represents the enduring place that Genghis Khan has in the hearts and pints of the Mongolian people. Additionally it demonstrates how a country’s past is continually re-used as fodder for identity shaping and money making.
There are also many different examples of embroidery and clothing, such as this woman’s deel (robe), and this embroidered shelf hanging, depicting twelve animals associated with the Chinese calendrical cycle.
Other objects include butter lamps; a beautiful altar set used to display family pictures and memorabilia; wooden bowls used to drink milk or tea; lovely ceramic bowls used to serve food and drink; and a contemporary man’s hat, which gives you a comparison between the traditional hat seen above and this one, either of which would be worn by a Mongolian man, often with a man’s deel, similar to the woman’s deel seen above.
For more objects in the collection, please visit the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center, and search for “Mongolia Ulaan”! We hope this gives you a deeper glimpse into the kind of work we do at the Smithsonian, and encourage your questions! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @archaeologylab.
-Meghan Mulkerin, Collections Specialist Contractor.