Work Continues

October 7, 2015

We have now in our third week of excavations at the Iron Age site of Tuzusai, a settlement dating from 400 BC to AD 1. Our main hypothesis is that the common lives of the Iron Age people in the Talgar area was based on an economy of both herding and farming. For many years there has been a debate about how nomadic the horse-riding steppe people were during the first millennium BC. Some of you know about the Scythian (described by Herodotus) or the Saka (names given to these nomadic horse-riding confederacies by the Persians. The Scythians were known for their horse-riding cavalries and their splendid burial mounds found throughout Eurasia from the Black Sea in Anatolia to China, Mongolia, and Siberia.

We have been working on Tuzusai on and off since 1994. In the first years of our excavations Tuzusai settlement consisted mainly of rectangular and circular storage pits. Over the past seven years we have found pit houses, rectangular mud brick buildings, and a mud brick house platform. The site is complicated to excavate since it is on the western bank of an ancient stream bed with a soil matrix of loess, or wind-blown glacial dust. The architecture is made of mud brick of these loess soils and except after a heavy rain, the site is often dusty.

In the past weeks we have been excavating Pit House #9 which turns out to be a really exciting round house dug into the loess soils. What remains is the shape of the house, and various layers of fill and floor levels. In other words the original inhabitants dug a circular pit about 1 meter deep into the parent soil, and roofed the house using upright timbers and brush roofing. After the house was abandoned, others threw in garbage including the remains of past meals: sheep and goat bones, cattle, horse, and Bactrian camel bones. Then people returned to the house and built another floor or occupation level over the garbage fill. There are at least three different floor levels in the circular house.

Everyone asks us, so what great finds do you make? No gold, no silver, and very little metals at all. Today we found a tiny bronze bead or fragment. Imagine excavating an old cellar house in rural Virginia. You might find a lot of broken bottles, tin cans, some remains of past dinners, and old pieces of wood, nails, etc. Yet if carefully recorded, those remains can tell an interesting story about the past inhabitants. So every day we photograph the animal bones, ceramic sherds, and pieces of discarded mud brick found in the fill of the house or on its floor surfaces. Have we found any whole ceramic pots this season? No. Have we found an entire carcass of a sheep or a cow? No. What we have found instead are part of a leg joint of a young cow (probably a high status meat item), a scapula fragment of a camel (who eats camel you may ask?) Our local friends say you probably have to boil a camel a long time to make the meat edible. As for pot fragments… just today we found a large piece of painted or red-slipped bowl. I can imagine the meals eaten in that bowl… meat and grains such as wheat, millet or barley.

Archaeology requires a lot of hard work and a good imagination. We have plent of that on site. Right now we have three workers: Zhenya our driver/mechanic who is the world’s most meticulous excavator, Gleb, a retired policeman who is garrulous and can identify every pot rim or bottom, and Mambet, a MA graduate student from the Kazakh National University.

Stay tuned for a discussion of next week’s survey in Turgen, an area to the east of us.