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12 January 2006
The mysterious Mongolian megaliths

The Darkhat Valley (Mongolia) marks the boundary between the vast central Asian steppe and the forested Siberian taiga. From the earliest times, this region has been a crossroads, a place where the worlds of Central Asia and the Arctic met. The result is a landscape littered with dramatic archaeological monuments, especially huge rock burial mounds known as khirigsuurs and upright stones carved with mysterious symbols.
     It's likely that Bronze Age nomads erected these graceful and mysterious megaliths throughout the northern regions of Mongolia and southern Siberia around 1000 BCE, though some scholars think they may be the work of later, Iron Age peoples who appeared by 700 BCE. Known as deer stones for their carved depictions of flying deer, the monuments rival Europe's megaliths in their intricate designs and careful craftsmanship. Just why they were created and what role they played in ancient nomadic cultures are two of the many puzzles in Mongolian archaeology.
     Since 2001, a multidisciplinary team from the Smithsonian, coordinated by archaeologist William Fitzhugh, has worked here in the largely overlooked Darkhat Valley of the Hovskol Aimag, or administrative region. Fitzhugh is drawn to this remote region of Mongolia because it is at the very southern edge of the Arctic world, which as the director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Program he knows quite well.
     In an effort to understand this slice of the Arctic world, Fitzhugh has put together a large team of specialists, including Harriet "Rae" Beaubien who is studying ways of preserving the region's deer stones, and this summer used a 3-D laser scanning system to make extraordinarily detailed records of the monuments.
     Dubbed the Deer Stone Project, the expedition's goals are ambitious. Fitzhugh hopes to find evidence of cultural links to a circumpolar artistic tradition that could stretch from Mongolia all the way to the Pacific Northwest. "Most people think about Mongolia in terms of East-West connections," says Philip Kohl, an archaeologist at Wesleyan University who has worked on Bronze Age nomadic cultures in Central Asia. "Bill brings a whole different perspective by looking at northern connections. He's also working within a broad anthropological tradition, looking at archaeology in the context of ethnography, for instance."
     As early as the 1950s, American anthropologists have theorized that Mongolian Bronze Age art influenced Eskimo death masks and ivory ornaments with shamanistic and animal motifs. Fitzhugh's work in Mongolia is aimed in part at looking at these possible links.

Source: Archaeology (January 2006)

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