Tracing a Transition: Political Economy in Bronze and Iron Age Mongolia

Bryce Lowry

My dissertation work revolves around the analysis of political economic processes and organizations in prehistoric Mongolia. Specifically, the time period under investigation is the transition between the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age (ca. 1500-500 BC). During this epoch, previous archaeological studies suggest that during this period of transformation the population experienced a radical shift in subsistence practices and political organization. Bronze Age peoples of Mongolia relied on a varied subsistence strategy of hunting and gathering, fishing, agriculture, and minimal animal husbandry. At the turn of the Iron Age (ca. 1000 BCE), mounted mobile pastoralism, a strategy dependent on the extraction of primary and secondary goods from domesticated fauna, was adopted as the central economic strategy. Concomitant with these economic transformations, archaeologists argue that political structures and organization in Mongolia became more “complex,” citing the ability to mobilize labor for the construction of monuments, the exploitation of informational and trade networks, and increases in foreign prestige goods found in burials as evidence of this complexity. However, these conclusions are drawn solely from trends in burial data. As an archaeological data set, mortuary contexts are extremely useful, however, they offer little clarity to the everyday practices and textures which constitute pastoralist political economies.

Therefore, my research seeks to investigate the initial adoption of pastoralism in Mongolia through the theoretical lens of, what I call, “occupational landscapes.” Intended to widen the scope of pastoral political economic evidence beyond burials (while acknowledging the importance of funerary elements in social life), occupational landscapes must account for a wider variety of economic activities and spaces, such as: 1) sites of frequented or permanent habitation, such as pithouses, ger (felt tent) platforms, or corrals and fences; 2) features associated with domestic activity such as hearths, storage pits, caches, or middens; 3) activity areas related to the raw material procurement and production of metals, lithics, and ceramic; and 4) places designated for the seasonal herding, culling, or disposal of fauna.  Once a clearer picture of oikonomea (household economy) is established, it is possible to subsequently turn to larger patterns of economic activity and political organization: How did the adoption of pastoralism spatially alter economic practices upon the landscape? Concurrently, how did shifts in economic life reinforce or transform the political structures organizing Bronze and Iron Age societies? What were the (new) organizational forms and what processes were employed in the (re)making of power relations?

To empirically address these anthropological and archaeological concerns, I will excavate pastoralist households and associated activity areas from the prehistoric Late Bronze-Early Iron Ages of Mongolia. The primary methods to be employed in the search for pastoralist occupation and activity areas will be pedestrian survey, excavation, and geophysical prospection (subsurface radar) using an EM-38 electromagnetometry device. Research will be conducted in Bayan-Khongor province, south-central Mongolia, at two sites located during preliminary excursions in 2011 and 2012. The main body of dissertation fieldwork is scheduled to commence in the summer of 2015.

The University of Chicago SSD grant assisted my ongoing research in a number of ways. First, it subsidized a critical trip to Mongolia this summer, and will help fund a future trip in the early spring of 2015. These trips are crucial to my project’s development as they allow me to establish better and more extensive professional relationships with institutions and essential personnel in Mongolia. These contacts are imperative to acquire permits, allocate space for artifact housing after fieldwork is completed, and to gather Mongolian students’ help with excavation this summer. Second, I was able to complete many of the logistical tasks fundamental to starting an archaeological project from the ground-up.  Although I already have a well-formulated budget in place, pricing out many of the items I will need in the field (such as gers for laboratory and kitchen space, petrol for vehicles, solar panels and generators, food, materials to build archaeological screens, etc.) is necessary in a country where a booming economy is constantly causing the currency (the төгрөг), and therefore the price of commodities, to fluctuate a great deal. Third, the grant permitted a cursory look into where I would be able to find and study other archaeological materials from the Bayan-Khongor region. In fact, many of the artifacts of interest are housed at a new statue complex of Genghis Khan (Цонжин Болдог), gifted from a private collection.

I would like to thank the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago for being so instrumental in the continuation of my doctoral dissertation fieldwork. The next year will certainly be one of promise, excitement, and discovery!