Day of Archaeology: Camping in Mongolia

Day of Archaeology: Camping in Mongolia

So on the actual Day of Archaeology I was in my archaeological office job daydreaming about my recent fieldwork in Mongolia. Here is the story of my Mongolia summertime excavation amid wildflowers and beautiful mountain passes in pictures …

The roads were fairly rough; this is the main road between the Soyo site and the tiny mountain village of Ulaan-uul. Tiny ground squirrels bounded around among the trackways, and often yaks or herds of other animals including camels, goats, sheep or horses, would cross the road in front of us.

The vans that took us were built to a 1950s Russian design. They were made for Siberian winters, with an engine inside so it could be fixed in relative warmth even if it was snowing outside. They forded many rivers remarkably well, but in the instance above, we did get stuck. Our driver changed to four-wheel drive but on several occasions we had to get out and push the car.

We camped beside beautiful clear streams in meadows filled with wildflowers. Mongolia is great for camping! Our site office in the field was a ger, which took a remarkably short time to set up and was very weatherproof! We drank from the local clear streams as well; I used a water-filter to purify the water before drinking.

The food at the dig was typically Mongolian – lots of meat, and very freshly cooked! The head is considered one of the best bits; a special portable blow-torch is used to remove the hair from the skin so that the skin can also be eaten. I really enjoyed the breakfast porridge or khosh; there was a delicious breakfast donut that was quickly became one of my favourite foods!


We surveyed and sampled and excavated different parts of the Soyo landscape; I was hoping to find out more about the environmental changes that happened when pastoralism increased and large herds of animals began roaming the central Asian steppes. It will take some time to process the samples I collected in the laboratory and answer the question of how much things changed under a mobile, pastoral economy. Thanks to Dr. Julia Clark at the American Center for Mongolian Studies for a really great archaeological research opportunity!

My Month as an Archaeologist

My first time as a real life archaeologist was even better than I imagined and it’s all thanks to the Northern Mongolia Archaeological Project, short for NMAP. Run by Dr Julia Clark from the American Centre for Mongolian Studies and Dr Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav from the National Museum of Mongolia this field school offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to investigate nomadic pastoralism at the site of Soyo in the Darkhad region in Northern Mongolia. The team was comprised of a variety of nations; Mongolians, Australians, Americans, Scottish, British, French, and Swedish. Though all originating from different cultures, languages, and education, we all spoke the common language of archaeology and excitement!

The back side of Soyo mountain.

The trip gave me experiences in a variety of areas, but some of the archaeological that first come to my mind are working with Ian Moffat (Flinders University), and Dave Putnam (University of Maine at Presque Isle). Ian was on the team in order to construct an image of the whole site using GPR ( As a student of Ian’s we were given the task of walking up and down the sloping hills of Soyo, more often than not scattered with boulders ranging from the size of a hand to the size of a tent! Strapped onto our back was the radar which every 2cm would send pulses down into the ground to a depth of roughly 4m before bouncing back up. As we moved forward the screen depicted the data we had just collected, and it was fascinating being able to see what was beneath our feet and what it would mean later on for the site. Apart from GPR we were able to fly a kite with a camera attached to it up in the air to capture an aerial image of the site. What I definitely learnt from trying to fly a kite multiple times, was that all one needs is a storm and a kite goes right up! Learning about GPR, and learning how to work the technology associated with it was fascinating and a preview into what I see as the way of archaeology.

Ben Turcea and Evan Holt digging one of the test pits.

Working with Dave will always be remembered as the time I baptised my Marshalltown trowel. We dug six test pits in total and every test pit provided a different stratigraphic image of the landscape. Two of our test pits reached a depth over 140cm, with one of them even hitting permafrost which was an exciting discovery! Dave, along with Ian were able to describe each of the different layers we were viewing and bring them to life. Reading about stratigraphic layers from a textbook will never be the same let me tell you that! What I found extremely interesting were that the glacial boulders we encountered were at different depths at each test pit and units. Additionally I was able to help dig out the deeper test pits while upside down which just shows I’m fit for the role of an archaeologist!

Evan Holt and Adam Nelson giving me a helping hand.

This trip will be one of the most memorable excavations in my lifetime and I would recommend it to anyone! My only recommendation is that when you’re offered goat, take as much of it as you can because you’ll want seconds!

Archaeological Geophysics in Northern Mongolia

One of the best things about my job as an archaeological scientist is that my research isn’t tied to a particular geographic region or period and so I get to work with fantastic colleagues from all around the world.  This is well illustrated by the comparison between my Day of Archaeology post from last year (co-authored with colleagues from IMS-FORTH) where I spent the day testing electromagnetic induction equipment on a Cretan beach and this year where I have been conducting a ground penetrating radar (GPR) and geomatic survey of the Neolithic/Bronze Age Soyo site in Northern Mongolia.  This site is being studied as part of the Northern Mongolia Archaeology Project headed by Dr Julia Clark from the American Center for Mongolian Studies and Dr Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav from the National Museum of Mongolia.  This project is using a range of multidisciplinary techniques to examine the archaeology of the Darkhad Depression region in Northern Mongolia.  Over the last few years it has particularly focused on the site of Soyo which is located at the intersection of the dense forest taiga and the grass steppe-land of the basin and so is uniquely positioned to examine interaction between hunting and herding practices.  Previous research on prehistoric domestic sites in Mongolia has been frustrated by the prevalence of thin, jumbled deposits of artefacts with few preserved features. However, Soyo contains a ~ 2m thick stratified archaeological record that covers more than 7000 years.

Dr Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav collecting GPR data at the Soyo site

Dr Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav collecting GPR data at the Soyo site

My role on the project is to use GPR to map the subsurface stratigraphy of the site in 3D to correlate between the eight excavation units.  In particular, I concentrated on determining the thickness of the unconsolidated sediments and mapping the depth and thickness of a number of palaeosols containing archaeological material within the site.  This work was supported by an extensive program of kite photography and DPGS survey to provide a high resolution map and digital elevation model of the survey area.  I also worked in collaboration with Dave Putnam (University of Maine at Presque Isle), Stefani Crabtree (Washington State University and Université de Frache-Comté) and Evan Holt (Florida State University) to record the stratigraphy of archaeological excavations and test pits in order to calibrate the GPR results.

Adam Gates and Baynandelger Chinbold logging the stratigraphy of a test pit and collecting DGPS data

Adam Gates and Baynandelger Chinbold logging the stratigraphy of a test pit and collecting DGPS data

While the GPR data interpretation is only preliminary at this stage, the results look excellent with the key features showing up very clearly even in unprocessed profiles.  Similarly the geomatics data provides a rigorous spatial context to the site investigation so will facilitate a robust comparison between the excavation units.  Most importantly, this project has generated a great deal of interest and provided training opportunities in the use of geophysical and geomatic techniques among Mongolian researchers and so will hopefully facilitate their widespread adoption for archaeological research in this region in the future.  For me, this project also provided the opportunity to enjoy life in this remote region of Mongolia, including watching a Naadam Festival in the local town of Ulan Ul, spending time taking in the spectacular scenery and enjoying plenty of local delicacies.

Getting my teeth into Mongolian archaeology (and a goat)

Getting my teeth into Mongolian archaeology (and a goat)