Richard Kortum conducts an initial reconnaissance of Bayan Olgii. With the help of his guide and translator Batjaa from Ulaanbaatar, and their local Kazakh driver, Asidoldoi, he discovers a rock art complex of ca. 3,000 Bronze Age petroglyphs with associated khirigsuurs and Eurasian deer stones in a remote valley along the Boregtiin Gol known only to local herders, approximately 75 kilometers south-southwest of the provincial capital, Olgii.
Kortum returns to Bayan Olgii for two weeks to search for other rock art sites with anthropologist Dr. Batsiakhan Zagd of Mongolia's National University in Ulaanbaatar, Edelkhan, a guide and amateur "petroglyph hound" from Olgii, and Josh Gambrell, a Peace Corps volunteer working in nearby Buyant who serves as translator and field assistant. The four-man joint Mongolian-American-Kazakh "Rich Cradle Expedition" reaches Khoton Lake on May 31. There it spends five days documenting an impressive number and variety of images, estimated by Kortum and Batsaikhan at ca. 3,000. At the southern base of Biluut 2 Kortum discovers the "Giant Horsemen of Khoton Nuur" –– imposing mounted Turkic warriors measuring in excess of 2.4 meters, making them by far the largest petroglyphs recorded in Mongolia, if not the whole of Inner Asia.
Kortum returns to Bayan Olgii for three weeks with a new group, including archaeologist Dr. Yadmaa Tserendagva, a rock art and lithics expert from the Mongolian Academy of Science's Institute of Archaeology, Mongolian students Manlaibaatar and Bulgan, another Peace Corps volunteer, Nikki Pagnolo, and driver-guide Jagaa Baatar from Olgii. This six-person crew spends five days at Boregtiin Gol and 15 at Biluut. By season's end Kortum and Tserendagva tally in excess of 8,000 petroglyphs at Biluut.
Kortum and Tserendagva return to Khoton Lake for four weeks to continue documenting petroglyphs. They are joined by ETSU geologist Mick Whitelaw, land surveyor and geomatics expert Jerry Nave of North Carolina A&T University, ETSU geology student Taylor Burnham, and photographer David Edwards of Flagtaff, Arizona who has many credits with National Geographic Magazine. This reconstituted six-man team undertakes the first phase of an ambitious laser-mapping campaign, focusing exclusively on Biluut 2, middle and smallest of the site's three petroglyph-bearing high hills. All 1,600+ rock art images and over 120 archaeological structures associated with Biluut 2 are described and mapped.
Kortum returns to Bayan Olgii for two weeks with archaeologists Dr. William Fitzhugh, Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center, and Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan of the National Museum of Mongolia, Smithsonian-Notre Dame intern Kyle Strickland, and Mongolian student Natsagaa. The five-man team spends a week at Biluut inspecting rock art and documenting scores of monuments. From a hearth ring outside a spoked khirigsuur they retrieve charred bone for c14 dating –– the first scientific dates obtained at Khoton Lake. At Mogoit they excavate a unique horse-head burial mound of a central-Mongolian-type khirigsuur. At Tsagan Asgat, 50km east of Biluut, Kortum records deer stone imagery while Fitzhugh, et. al. excavate satellite rings. Afterwards, Kortum travels alone with a local guide, Agii, for eight days into the southernmost extremity of Bayan Olgii to undertake the first survey of rock art and surface archaeology there. Along with several modest petroglyph sites and three sizeable rock art complexes, Kortum documents 17 new deer stones and several assemblages of giant khirigsuurs.
Kortum and Jagaa return to Biluut for two weeks with Julia Clark, entering Ph.D. student in archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh. Together these three describe and map with hand-held GPS devices over 60 archaeological structures associated with Biluut 1 and 3. In the process Kortum discovers two previously unidentified deer stones at Biluut and another at Mogoit.
Kortum and Fitzhugh are awarded a Three-Year Collaborative Research Grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue research at Biluut and Khoton Lake. Kortum's teams of 2004-09 are enlarged dramatically by the addition of experts from ETSU, Western Kentucky University, the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Mongolia, the Mongolian Institute of Archaeology, and researchers from England, Finland, Australia, and China. Growth follows discoveries; accordingly, appreciation for the significance of this site deepens and widens.
Kortum and Fitzhugh organize a two-day conference, "Mongolian Studies: Current and Future Work", held October 23 and 24 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Presenters include their three principal collaborators from Mongolia, Saruulbuyan, Bayarsaikhan, and Tserendagva, as well as Dr. Bill Honeychurch of Yale, Dr. Jean-Luc Houle from the University of Pittsburgh, Drs. Dan Rogers, Bruno Frohlich, Paula DePriest, along with Mel Wachowiak and Dan Cole from the Smithsonian, and Dr. Claudio Cioffi of George Mason University.
East Tennessee State University hosts a two-day conference, "The Biluut Rock Art and Archaeology Project", on campus October 27 and 28. ETSU President Dr. Paul Stanton, Jr. welcomes public lectures at the ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum in Gray, Tennessee delivered by project leaders Kortum and Fitzhugh and their Mongolian colleagues.
On May 7 the Smithsonian Associates holds a full-day public symposium on "The Archaeology of Ritual Landscapes in Mongolia" at the S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC. Kortum and Fitzhugh, Frohlich, dePriest, Rogers, and Honeychruch are among the invited presenters.
Kortum and Fitzhugh return to Biluut for six weeks as co-PIs of a greatly expanded project, "Rock Art & Archaeology: Investigating Ritual Landscape in the Mongolian Altai". Accompanied by 21 collaborators and field assistants from a variety of disciplines, including the Smithsonian's GIS coordinator and expert cartographer Dan Cole, they set out to investigate in detail the ties between rock art, archaeological sites, and ancient settlements, and to analyze the ways in which these elements are spatially organized into a "ritual landscape". Kortum and Tserendagva are joined by Dr. Ken Lymer of England, a specialist in the rock art of Central Asia, and Kazkhstan in particular. Two new major and two minor areas of petroglyphs are discovered, and all 3600+ petroglyphs on Biluut 3 are described and mapped. Another Eurasian deer stone is unearthed and 20 mortuary and ritual stone monuments are excavated and scientifically dated, including two structural foundations from the late Neolithic era. Human and horse skeletons are unearthed, and cultural artifacts including pottery, flints, and Pazyryk gold ornaments are retrieved. Hundreds of flakes, microblades, cores, and a beautiful bi-face are collected by Kortum and his rock art team from the surface of all three Biluut hills and the newly discovered Khuiten Gol delta petroglyph and khirigsuur site three kilometers east-southeast of Biluut 1 and 2, where the stream enters into the lake.
Hosted by Vice Provost for Research Dr. William Duncan, East Tennessee State University holds a three-day schedule of workshops and presentations on the Khoton Lake project October 27-29, including classroom talks and public lectures at the ETSU and General Shale Brick Museum of Natural History. Valuable feedback, ideas, and information is shared with project principals by Mongolian researchers Dan Rogers and Jean-Luc Houle, and helpful practical suggestions are offered by ETSU colleagues Bill Duncan in archaeology, Mike Smith in photography, Mike Zavada and Chris Liu in biology, and Sherry Martinez and Tanner Clements in the Office of Academic Technology Support.
The team swells to over 40 in a long six-week field season. Among the crew are many students: five undergraduates and one grad student from ETSU, four from Western Kentucky University, three Smithsonian interns, and four Mongolian students. Kortum and Fitzhugh are joined by archaeologist Jean-Luc Houle of WKU, whose team of international experts and volunteers systematically survey, shovel-test, and excavate Neolithic and early Bronze Age settlement remains. More than 30 burials and other ritual sites are excavated and dozens of new structures are described and mapped. An array of cultural material is retrieved, including pottery, slag, horse bits and bronze bells, iron arrowheads, a birchbark quiver, gold ornaments, and a collection of stone tools and flakes, some of which may date from the Paleolithic. Kortum and Jagaa nearly complete documentation of rock art on Biluut 1, with more than 6,000 figures the densest concentration of petroglyphs at Biluut. The team is visited by National Museum Director Saruulbuyan and by Professor Emeritus archaeologist Dr. Frank Hole of Yale University.
2012-2013 and beyond
Commitment to this project is long-term. Work will continue for many years after our current grant expires, especially on the tie-in with nearby locations.
In early December 2012 Kortum and Fitzhugh submit a proposal for a second NEH Three-Year Collaborative Grant to support their work through the summer of 2016. They propose to expand their investigations at Mogoit, Tsagan Asgat, and Aral Tolgoi (at the northwestern tip of Khoton Lake), and to explore a newly discovered Pazyryk site located in the Tsagaan Gol valley 40 kilometers north-northwest of Khoton Lake –– an ancient transport corridor through the highest mountains that leads toward southern Siberia's Ukok Plateau in Russia's Altay Republic. They also plan to explore those rock art and deer stone-khirigsuur complexes that Kortum discovered in the province's far south in 2008. These have yet to be studied further; they are expected to shed important light on the issues under investigation and help connect this mid-Altai region to its southern reaches in the Gobi Desert. Eventually, they hope to cross the Altai Nuruu and explore the western flanks in China's Xinjiang province and eastern Kazakhstan.
In coming years they envisage a growing group of international international experts from an even wider array of disciplines, including geomorphology, paleoecology, ethnography, landscape archaeology, and archaeoastronomy, working at these study sites for as many as 10 years or more.