Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.
Tuzusai, the little village in Kazakhstan where our team is researching Iron Age burial sites, flourished this summer. The fruit trees were full with ripening cherries, both sour early cherries and sweet late cherries. Wild and domesticated apricots, raspberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries were all ready to be picked; a high school student told us he planned to lay the apricots out to dry on the tin roof of his dacha. Our young neighbor Lyuba stopped by one day after work with two freshwater fish she had just caught in Lake Kapchigai. The wheat turned yellow and the soy plants reached almost a foot tall.
The bounty of today’s Kazakhstan is a reminder of how rich and fertile the Talgar region must have been more than two thousand years ago. Rob Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist, has taken soil samples from trash pits, pit house fill (remains after the pit house dwelling collapsed), and ancient hearths at the site of Tuzusai. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he washed these soil samples using a method called flotation, where the light particles of ancient carbonized seeds are separated from the soil matrix. He has found millet, barley, wheat, and even grape pips. The idea that the Saka and Wusun people of the first millennia BCE grew cereal crops, as well as kept sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, has changed our perspective on early nomadic cultures. There is subtle evidence that the diets of ancient people of Kazakhstan were highly variable, including plants, fish, birds, and other wild animals, as well as the meat and milk of their livestock. In our area, the Ili River runs for hundreds of miles from western China and empties into Lake Balkhash. Fish and other river and marsh resources must have been important in ancient times.
During one of our digs, we found some broken pieces of spindle whorls, small ceramic disks with perforated centers. (When I couldn’t think of the word in Russian for “spindle whorl,” I made the motion of using a drop spindle for spinning wool into thread. Lyuba immediately understood.) Finds of such domestic objects remind us that nomads were members of household groups. How important were women to the basic economy? Did they spin the hair and wool fibers for the clothing worn by an entire household, as the ancient Mayan women apparently did? Who made the large storage vessels, sometimes dripping them with red slip and glaze?
Sometimes the elite burial sites, with their magnificent inventories of gold and silver ornamentation, can cloud our visions of the everyday lives of the commoners. But during the bountiful months of the summer, planting gardens, tending to livestock, fishing, gathering berries and wild fruit, putting up stores for the winter, and repairing their mud-brick houses must have been the average Iron Age person’s main concerns. Our work at Tuzusai, often hot, tiring, and dusty, reminds us again of a simple life.