"Of dead kingdoms I recall the soul, sitting amid their ruins." ~Nathaniel Parker Willis
I spent this summer surveying and excavating stone, bronze and iron age archaeological sites in western Mongolia. I worked with a crew from Western Kentucky University as well as from others around the world, including more than a dozen Mongolian archaeologists and students. I don't think I can describe how valuable the experience was, both in terms of the history and archaeology that I learned, but also for the fact that I was cut off from the internet, from electronics, from distractions, and could really be immersed in a place that hasn't yet forgotten the simple things in life.
The capital of Ulaanbatar was hot, dirty, and sketchy. The city center wasn't too bad in a cold, post-soviet sort of way, but the rest of the city was much less safe/sanitary, and as one drove outward permanent structures turned to gers (yurts). Hanging out with the rest of the crew while in the city didn't appeal to me very much. They were all quite into going to bars, going to the black market, and going to karaoke, all activities I would sell a kidney to avoid. I spent a lot of that time reading in my room, or at the archaeology museum in the city center.
There were a few really interesting places, like a monastery we visited, and the statue of Chinggis Khan. However, much of the cultural experience went over my head given my general disinterest in people everywhere, regardless of culture.
For me, things started to look up as we left the city behind. We drove roughly 24 hours in total from Ulaanbatar to the village of Zuungkhangai, over the course of a few days. Along the way, we wound through the foothills of the Altai mountains, and visited a few other small villages. I really enjoyed seeing the landscape, and I spent a lot of the drive playing cards with the Mongolian students on the excavation team.
It was strange to see the initial volume of drinking and late night card games people played, as we settled into life at Zuungkhangai. I tried to get to bed by 8 each night, given we were waking up around 6 the next day for a day of hard labor. I found an old, rusty metal staircase, and started using the underside for climbing training each morning. The Mongolian guys all really liked it, and by the end of the trip they'd be joining me for campusing circuits most mornings.
The terrain around Zuunghkhangai wasn't too different from Colorado, aside from less trees. I loved seeing all the dogs that wandered around town, except we were told not to touch any of them. Probably good advice.
Fieldwork was divided between survey and excavation. Survey got boring fast, and I stayed sane by listening to classical with my phone's speaker. Luckily, we were spaced far enough apart that I didn't bother anyone else with the music. Excavation alternated between fairly tame work when the international PhD's were in charge, and frantic/exhausting work when the Mongolians took charge. During lunch breaks the Mongols would usually wrestle, and I had the chance to try a few times. Unsurprisingly, I sucked.
If I had to pick one quality I liked in Mongolia, I would say it was the straightforwardness of the people there. They struck me as stronger, smarter, and more self-reliant than most people in the west.
The work consisted of four parts: Landscape archaeology surveys, excavations of burials and ceremonial horse head mounds, soil testing, and survey of modern winter campsites as comparative samples. Of these, it shouldn't come as a surprise that excavating burials was my favorite part.
There was one curious burial in which a crumbling cranium was discovered posed as if the body had been buried straight upright. However, there was no body, as the preservation was so poor. Why the skull had been at that angle will remain a mystery.
This beautifully preserved burial was an adult woman from around 1600 BCE. The thought that kept occurring to me while excavating her is that she was only a little bit younger than the Code of Hammurabi, and depending on the accuracy of the estimated date, she could even be older. Every few minutes I had to pause and breathe as that thought punched me in the chest.
We did a Mongolian style barbecue in the long draw valley of a mountain a few hours from Zuungkhangai. The guy in the photo below was one of our drivers. He was one of our favorites, because he took music requests.
There were birds of prey circling overhead while we cooked, and a pack of wild dogs also showed up looking for something to eat. We were happy to share, there is no shortage of mutton in Mongolia.
Often times the locals would come watch while we excavated. When we excavated horse head mounds they were very approving, but some of them had heated exchanges with our Mongolian excavators on the days that we excavated burials.
The conditions we stored excavated remains in were sketchy, to say the least. Bones stored in buckets and cardboard boxes. Lab work done in a room with a ground floor window. Bones transported back to the capital in a bumpy, 24 hour van ride. I don't know what condition everything ended up in by the time the whole process was done, all of the remains are now locked in a giant shipping crate in Ulaanbatar, waiting their turn to head to the National Museum of Mongolia.
The old city of Karakorum was once the capital of the Mongol Empire. Now only some inner walls around a small buddhist monastery survive.
The old guy below owned the ger that I stayed in for a couple nights. He shared tobacco with us, both in the pipe and in snuff-bottles. I hated it, but It felt obligatory to try it since I was a guest, so I put on a brave face. He drank with us too, which endeared us to him very quickly. I can leave you with this advice: you can always befriend a Mongol by offering them free vodka.
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella