Mongolia’s Bronze Age
Slab Burials, Khirigsuur, Deer Stones
Mongolia is covered with Bronze Age burial mounds. Some are huge, extensive, and extremely visible on the landscape while others are barely identifiable. Both the amount of mounds scattered across the Mongolian landscape and which time periods are represented by mound structures are unknown. Mounds, also known as 'khirigsuur' or 'kurgan', have been reported extensively by Russian, Mongolian and more recently Asian, European, and American researchers. Many excavations have been completed, producing results currently visible throughout scores of scientific and popular publications that document years worth of data and fieldwork.
The Mongolian Bronze Age endured from the mid-2nd millennium BC to the 4th century BC. At the beginning of the Bronze Age the people inhabiting Mongolia and adjacent regions had commenced a transformation from a sedentary, agricultural subsistence strategy to nomadic pastoralism. This transformation is believed to have been complete by 900 BC. The causes for this drastic change are unknown, though several researchers have suggested that climatic changes and perhaps an economic transition to increasing demand for products of animal husbandry may have been significantly causal. Reconstructing the lifetime of these magnificent people, who succeeded in developing a social structure and economic system that endured for more than one thousand years and achieved far ranging cultural homogeneity through rapid mobility—despite a very low population density—is a fascinating process.
While no temporary or permanent settlements have been identified for this period, Bronze Age Mongolians produced multitudes of enduring stone monuments that required an enormous input of manpower.
The known monuments have been classified into three major categories (1) slab burials, (2) khirigsuur, and (3) deer stones.
Slab burials are centralized burial pits covered with stones and surrounded by a squared wall consisting of upright slabs of flat stones creating a protective wall-like fence. The distribution of slab burials ranges from the Khangai mountains west of Mongolia to Inner Mongolia in China, to the Gobi region in the south to the Lake Baikal area in the
Khirigsuur is the Mongolian name for Bronze Age burial mounds. The word for burial mound used on the Russian side of the border is 'kurgan.' The typical khirigsuur consists of a centralized burial chamber covered with un-worked stones (central mound). This mound of stone is surrounded by a wall (fence) which can be either circular or squared (Figures 5.2 and 5.3). During our surveys in 2003 and 2004, 530 khirigsuur and a few slab burials were recorded. We determined that sizes of the khirigsuur range from a few meters (4m) in length/diameter to more than 100m. Additionally, we found that some of the larger khirigsuur were surrounded by from one to almost a hundred external structures including smaller mounds with diameters between three and five m, and circular stone rings with diameters between 2m and 4m. Francis Allard has reported the existence of several huge khirigsuur in the Khanuy Valley, some of which exceed 400m in maximum length/diameter and which are surrounded by almost 3,000 external structures, including smaller mounds and small ring features.
Figure 5.2. Ulaan Tolgoi Class III mound with circular fence.
Figure 5.3. Ulaan Tolgoi Class I mound with squared fence.
The distribution of khirigsuur ranges from the Khentii mountains in eastern Mongolia to the Bayan Olgii province in western Mongolia and from central-southern Mongolia to Lake Baikal in the north. Some khirigsuur have also been reported in the Chinese Xingjian province.
Very few khirigsuur have been completely excavated. D. Erdenebaatar reports that only 16 khirigsuur have been completely or partially excavated and published, all located in southern Siberia and in northern Mongolia. Surveys and excavations completed by Francis Allard, of the University of Pittsburgh, comprise some of the most extensive research excavations and surveys on khirigsuur in the Mongolian Khanuy Valley.
The third group of Bronze Age structures is the deer stone monuments. The deer stone monuments consist of upright stone slabs bearing beautiful anthropomorphic carvings and images of animals (Figure 5.4). On rare occasions they may depict human faces. The maximum height of the slabs has been reported at about 2.5m, and a minimum height of about 1 m (sizes are difficult to determine because of the destruction of many slabs leaving, less than lm of stone remaining). The deer stones' function has been extensively discussed by several researchers. Esther Jacobson's 1993 publication The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia offers a detailed and authoritative description and analysis of the deer stone images depicted by Eurasian nomads during the Bronze Age, and William Fitzhugh has described recent research of deer stone complexes in Hovsgol aimag.
Figure 5.4. Five of the 14 deer stones remaining at Ushkiin Uver. When Volkov mapped the site there were 15 standing deer stones.
Figure 5.5. The two most common expressions of khirigsuur: Mounds with circular fences and mounds with squared fences. Central mound: the centrally located pile of stone including burial chamber. Circular fence or squared fence: the surrounding wall of stones, either circular or squared. Small mounds: externally located smaller mounds. Small ring-features: externally concentrations of stones forming rings.
The temporal relationship between the three classes of monuments is not fully known or understood. William Fitzhugh has suggested a temporal connection between deer stones and khirigsuur. This is supported by our surveys and analyses of spatial mound distribution adjacent to deer stone complexes. However, more research is needed to fully understand this interaction.
The distribution of deer stones far exceeds the ranges of the first two categories (slab burials and khirigsuur). Deer stones have been reported from Inner Mongolia in the south to the Buriatiia area around Lake Baikal in the north, and from the Khentii province in eastern Mongolia to the farthest end of western Mongolia. Similar monuments have also been reported as far west as Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe.
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