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Khirigsuurs, ritual and mobility in the Bronze Age of Mongolia.


Spanning thousands of years, the broad emergence of mobile pastoralism across the vast Eurasian steppes encompassed the domestication, harnessing and consumption of the horse, the adoption of wheeled vehicles, animal sacrifice and burial, as well as the practice of inhumation under tumuli or kurgans (Khazanov 1994: 90-7; Anthony 1998; Levine 1999; Anthony & Brown 2000; Kuzmina 2000, 2003). Although marked by regional variation and still disputed on points of ultimate causes and chronology, this process is generally recognized as having been preceded by a settled and agricultural mode of life. Archaeological surveys and excavations have helped reveal the gradual expansion of forms of mobile pastoralism across Eurasia. By the early first millennium BC, much of the steppes appears to have been occupied by nomadic herding societies whose armed horsemen and migratory populations helped spread technological and stylistic innovations over large distances. Explanations for the transition to greater residential mobility have included increasingly arid conditions, population pressure from settled groups, and the demand for the products of a specialised pastoralist economy (Cribb 1991 : 12-4; Khazanov 1994: 85-90).

In its focus on the origin and transmission of cultural and economic features, the sweeping perspective favoured by studies of Eurasian steppe prehistory has until recently been inimical to the more detailed charting of developments at the regional level. Furthermore, although cross-regional studies often include discussions of developments in southern Siberia's Minusinsk Basin, Tuva and Gorno-Altai regions, they typically do not extend further east to take into account Mongolia's vast grasslands, an omission partly justified by the scarcity of accessible published research. Recent work in Mongolia by local and foreign archaeologists has helped bring into sharper focus the broad outline of its prehistory, revealing in the process the existence of regional trajectories within the territory itself. Neolithic sites in eastern and southern Mongolia have yielded ceramics as well as evidence of sedentary occupation, agriculture and, in the case of the Tamsagbulag culture of eastern Mongolia, animal domestication (Derevyanko & Dorj 1992:172-81). In contrast, although the remains of domesticated horse, sheep and cattle have been recovered from third and second millennia BC campsites and burials in north and north-west Mongolia, there is as yet no clear indication of agricultural settlements predating the establishment of a fully nomadic pastoralist economy in that area. Possibly, as one archaeologist has suggested, subsistence in that part of Mongolia at this early time consisted of hunting and a mobile form of cattle herding, with agriculture playing little or no role (Volkov 1995: 320).

What the archaeological record of Mongolia does make abundantly clear is the dramatic cultural transformation of much of the territory by the mid-late second millennium BC. From this time until the mid-first millennium BC, a period that is the focus of this article and that roughly corresponds to the region's developed Bronze Age, the landscape is marked by a profusion of stone built sites, graves and stelae that are found in large numbers along the valley bottoms, hill slopes and hill tops. Visible settlement traces have not been detected in association with this Bronze Age landscape, neither within the perimeter of the sites nor in association with them, while various lines of evidence point to the ritual and funerary nature of the sites, as well as the possibility that they were built and used by mobile populations who left only ephemeral traces of their settlements behind.

Monuments of the Mongolian Bronze Age

Mongolian archaeologists generally recognise three distinct types of Bronze Age structures, whose spatial distributions overlap with one another (Volkov 1995; Erdenebaatar 2004). The so-called 'slab burials' are constructed of large vertical stone slabs whose protruding sections above the ground surface define the burial's perimeter. The head of the deceased is typically aligned between north-east and south-east. Grave goods include a variety of bronzes (tools, hunting implements, weapons, ornaments and horse riding bits), stone artefacts (tools and ornaments), ceramics (mostly vessel sherds), bone artefacts, selected bones of livestock (e.g. skulls, scapula and anklebones), cowries and mother-of-pearl (Ishjamts 1994: 151-2; Volkov 1995: 321; Erdenebaatar 2002: 151-203, 239-52; 2004). Together, these assemblages point to the emerging martial nature of society, the importance of animals in ritual, and the existence of long-distance contacts that would have brought exotic materials to Mongolia.

With some reaching 2.5m high, 'deer stones' are stone stelae whose surfaces display numerous carved designs. Often organized into horizontal bands, these designs include circles (interpreted as a sun symbol or earrings), a few full-figured faces facing east, highly stylised deer with bird-like beaks and backward-flowing antlers, bows and various objects (knives, axes, daggers, swords, battle-picks) hanging from what appear to be belts. Some believe that deer stones and their designs represent tattooed humans.

This article focuses on a third type of structure, namely the highly distinctive 'khirigsuurs', which generally consist of a central stone mound, a square or circular 'fence' of surface stones, as well as small stone mounds and circles. Paths and other structures are also sometimes present. Although khirigsuurs, slab burials and deer stones have been identified at a number of single sites (e.g. Erdenebaatar 2002: 207, 226), archaeologists have yet to clarify the temporal and functional relationship linking the three types of structures. The grave goods in the slab burials and the objects depicted on the deer stones at least suggest overlapping chronologies between the mid-second and mid-first millennia BC.

Investigating the khirigsuurs

Established in 2001, the Khanuy Valley Project on Early Nomadic Pastoralism in Mongolia is centred in the valley of Khanuy River, located to the north of the Khangay mountain range in Arkhangai aimag (Figure 1). The project aims to better understand the circumstances that surrounded the emergence and development of mobile herding as a way of life in central Mongolia, an objective that it is realising through excavations, surveys, the identification of campsites, as well as an ethnographic study (Allard et al. forthcoming). The project is also excavating Golmod-2, a recently discovered Xiongnu (third century BC to second century AD) cemetery (Allard 2002). Slab burials, deer stones and khirigsuurs are all found in large numbers within the project's 330km2 research area. This article presents the results of fieldwork carried out at many of the khirigsuurs in Khanuy valley and summarises recently published information on khirigsuurs in other parts of Mongolia and surrounding regions. It provides an opportunity to describe this little known type of monument to the wider archaeological public, to investigate its possible association with mobile herding, and to consider the role that ritual may have played in the development of the khirigsuur phenomenon.


The khirigsuur Urt Bulagyn

The focus of ongoing field studies by the project, the site of Urt Bulagyn (KYR1) serves as a baseline from which to discuss Mongolia's khirigsuurs. Built entirely of unaltered stones and measuring 390 X 390m, it is the second largest khirigsuur in the research area (Figures 2 and 3). Its most prominent structure, which has yet to be excavated, is its 5m tall central mound. A rectangular 'fence' consisting of a single line of surface stones and four corner mounds enclose the central plaza, while a poorly defined 'path' of surface stones joins the central mound to the eastern fence. Beyond the fence, more than 1700 satellite mounds are concentrated on the eastern and southern sides, with the largest mounds located in the sparse western sector. Measuring no more than 1.2m high from their base, the seven mounds excavated so far have all contained horse remains, but no artefacts. The two excavated mounds illustrated in Figure 4 reveal a feature of the site's southern sector, namely the presence of smaller mounds placed to the immediate south-west of larger ones. Near the centre of the largest of these two satellite mounds, a horse's skull and a series of five cervical vertebrae were found, oriented to 120 [degrees]. The close proximity of the vertebrae to the skull and the fact that the vertebrae were found one against the other in correct anatomical sequence suggests that they were still held together by ligaments when placed there. Partial remains of a mandible oriented to 117 [degrees] were recovered from the smaller mound. Horse skulls and/or cervical vertebrae were found in all five other mounds excavated at the site.


The outermost ring-shaped area (Figure 3) consists of over 1000 circles that are built of surface stones and that range in diameter from 1 to 3m. The wide western sector contains the most circles as well as many of the largest ones. The circles are often arranged in rows that are roughly parallel to one another and parallel to the side of the stone fence nearest to them. All five stone circles excavated so far have yielded whitened/bluish small bone fragments lying between 100 and 200mm below the modern ground surface. A total of over 33 000 such fragments was recovered from one of the circles, and fewer than 200 from others.

The colour and appearance of the fragments indicate a long period of burning, while their dispersed distribution and the presence of few charcoal remains suggest that the bones were cremated at another location and the fragments later scattered freely within the circle area. A cursory analysis of a sample of fragments suggests that they represent various livestock species.

Fourteen slab burials, most of them oriented toward the north-east, are located beyond the northern fence between the satellite mound and stone circle sectors (Figure 3). Four burials were excavated. No artefacts, human or animal remains were recovered from two of the graves, while a third yielded only a few animal bones. Measuring 5.7 X 5.0m, the largest burial at the site contained partial human remains, along with a few bones of livestock animals. Located in the same area as the burials, a 'northern path' of unknown function appears as a well-defined scatter of surface stones. A partial excavation of the path revealed a number of large stones lying flat. The slab-burials lie about 15[degrees] from the west-east axis.

Along with helping to reveal its ritual function, work at Urt Bulagyn is providing insights into the construction process itself. For example, it is estimated that roughly half a million stones were used to build the monument. Obtained from horse teeth found in two different satellite mounds, the radiocarbon dates available so far (1040-850 BC and 975-680 BC; these and later dates given at a 20- range) suggest that the satellite mound sector may have expanded outward over a period of a few hundred years. However, many more dates are needed to test this hypothesis and clarify whether Urt Bulagyn was built in phases.

The khirigsuur phenomenon: chronology, variability and function Research in Mongolia and Russia is helping to clarify the chronology and structural features of the khirigsuur phenomenon (Askarov et al. 1992: 466-7; Volkov 1995: 324; Erdenebaatar 2002: 126-47; 2004). The khirigsuur type of kurgan characterised by a stone mound and a circular or four-sided enclosure is found throughout the western two-thirds of Mongolia, and in regions to its northwest (Tuva and Gorno-Altai) and north (east and west of Lake Baikal). Built of stone slabs, the cists within the central mounds rarely contain grave goods or inhumations, leading to a growing acknowledgement that many khirigsuurs probably had a non-funerary function. Although some khirigsuurs were undoubtedly looted, the apparent structural integrity of some of the mounds and central cists suggests they were undisturbed. When present, interred individuals are usually positioned with their head pointing to the west or north-west. Aside from the previously mentioned radiocarbon dates for Urt Bulagyn, the project has dated one small khirigsuur (KYR57) in our research area to 1390-910 BC and a much larger one (KYR 119, Figure 9) to 930-785 BC. When complemented by typological analysis, these dates and the few others available for Mongolia suggest that khirigsuurs were built between the mid-late second millennium BC and the seventh century BC.

The results of fieldwork conducted by our team at 27 khirigsuurs in Khanuy valley and by others in other parts of Mongolia permit us to address the issue of structural and behavioural variability more systematically than has been attempted until now. A comparison of overall site plans reveals an impressive number of noticeable and less evident features present at most of the research areas khirigsuurs, six of which are illustrated in Figure 5. Although certain elements are missing at some of the sites (especially the smaller ones), the structural vocabulary is generally consistent with that identified at Urt Bulagyn: a central mound; a fence with corner mounds; a path joining the central mound to the eastern fence; a satellite mound area whose western sector contains few mounds or may be absent altogether; four large satellite mounds placed next to the eastern fence; an association, in the southern sector, between large and smaller satellite mounds arranged along a roughly south-west-north-east axis; a concentric outer area of stone circles arranged in rows; and the presence of a long path and slab burials between the stone circle and satellite mound areas in the northern sector of the sites.


Interestingly, the smallest khirigsuurs also tend to be the most structurally variable, as illustrated by the unusually shaped site KYR10, which lacks a number of elements (Figure 5). Other small khirigsuurs lack a fence altogether. Without additional chronological data, it is difficult to determine whether this is evidence of more relaxed rules of construction at smaller sites, of the early stages of rule systematisation, or of the lessening of such rules by the end of the period. Significantly, the few detailed plans published to date of khirigsuurs located in northern Mongolia permit us to note a similar structural plan to that described above, although circular fences may have been more common outside Khanuy valley.

One unexpected finding, illustrated in Figure 6, reveals that the eastern fence is often 10-15 per cent longer than the western fence. We suggest two possibilities to account for this result. First, the fences may have been carefully measured at the time of construction (since such a small difference is difficult to estimate visually), resulting in a shape that was in some way meaningful. Second, we may be witnessing the 'keystone effect', in which the builders of the sites faced east and inadvertently made the side furthest to them (i.e. the east fence) longer than the one closest to them (i.e. the western fence). Here again, the smallest sites (in black on Figure 6) display the greatest variability (e.g. KYR 10 in Figure 5), with variation in fence length ratios significantly reduced once these small sites are removed from the analysis.


As illustrated in Figures 7 and 8 (top), the khirigsuurs in the research area display a relatively consistent orientation along a west/north-west-east/south-east axis, a narrow range within which other Mongolian khirigsuurs for which a site plan is available also fall. A determination of the sites' intended orientation (i.e. toward west/north-west or east/southeast) is hampered by the presence of prominent elements on both sides of the khirigsuurs (e.g. the path on the east side and the 'opening' in the satellite mound sector on the west side), although the orientation of the few recorded inhumations toward the west or northwest may be an important clue. At the very least, such consistency suggests an orientation toward a feature or event in the sky rather than toward a single marker in the landscape. If this event was the setting or rising of a particular celestial body above the horizon at a certain time of the year, the determination of the body in question will need to await further field observations since mountain ranges on both sides of the valley would have interrupted its path as it rose or set. One possibility being considered is that the sites were oriented toward the setting of the sun or Venus in the western sky during the spring-summer months or toward their rise in the eastern sky during the autumn-winter months.


Excavations of satellite mounds at khirigsuurs located in and outside the research area have revealed further consistency in the orientation of horse heads, most of which point to the east or south-east (Figure 8, bottom). As in the case of site orientation, more work is needed to determine the celestial feature used to orient the horse skulls. However, the orientation and skeletal data available so far on the age of the horse at the time of death does point to an intriguing possibility, namely that the horses were sacrificed during the late autumn months as offerings to the rising sun. It is worth noting that in present-day Khanuy valley, the killing of horses for meat is also done at this time of the year, when the fat content is the greatest.

Also significant is the extent of variation in the treatment of horse remains among, and within, khirigsuurs. Some of the excavated satellite mounds in the research area contained only scattered fragments of horse teeth, while a few yielded nothing at all. At Urt Bulagyn itself, one mound contained cervical vertebrae, front teeth, but no other skull elements, while in another, the vertebrae were lined up along the skull's northern side, instead of their more usual position south of it. At one khirigsuur in northern Mongolia, some of the 13 mounds contained various combinations of head, neck and hoof remains, while horse parts were accompanied by ceramic sherds in one mound, and fragments of a child's skeleton in another (Erdenebaatar 2002:211-3).

At some of the khirigsuurs, there is evidence for an extended period of growth and use. As mentioned earlier, the radiocarbon dates obtained from satellite mounds at Urt Bulagyn suggest its possible outward growth over a period of a few centuries. The large khirigsuur KYRll9 in Khanuy valley presents further supporting evidence (Figure 9). The curved site plan indicates the presence of three paths, each with a slightly different orientation, while the stone circle areas are seen to interdigitate in and among islands of previously constructed satellite mounds. Kurgans are also known to have been reused as burial grounds over an extended period of time, and in some cases expanded for such a purpose (Mallory & Adams 1997:651). In attempting to assign single functions to monuments, archaeologists also risk ignoring their significant potential as multifunctional components of the social and political landscape. Thus, aside from their apparent role as elite tombs and clan burials, kurgans have also been interpreted as beacons marking territorial boundaries or routes of communication (Koryakova 2000). There is no reason to deny the possibility that kurgans and khirigsuurs were also used as powerful reminders of ancestral links to specific sectors of the landscape as well as seasonal gathering places for social and ceremonial occasions.


Khirigsuurs were clearly important as stages for the carrying out of a range of rituals, some of these incorporating animals and/or the movement of celestial bodies. As pointed out above, one of the striking features of the khirigsuur phenomenon is the significant and widespread regularity witnessed at all levels of ritual practice and space, including what initially appear to be minor structural and behavioural elements. To be sure, such consistency hints at the presence of ritual specialists and the generational transmission of ritual knowledge over centuries, although differences among and within khirigsuurs (e.g. varying practices associated with nearby satellite mounds) should not be ignored and may suggest that ritual practice was permitted to vary within certain limits at any one time. It should be noted that among nomadic pastoralists, instances of leadership by religious specialists are not uncommon. In traditional Mongolia, a clan chief was sometimes both political leader and shaman (Jagchid & Hyer 1979: 171). Although no direct links are here suggested, Mongolian shamanism may offer further clues regarding ritual practice during the Bronze Age. Thus, shamanism is marked by an absence of centralised religious authority as well as by limited but real variation among individual shamans in how rituals are conducted (Sarangerel 2000: 74). In this respect, we may consider the previously mentioned variability in ritual practice encountered at nearby satellite mounds at single khirigsuurs and wonder whether it might be evidence of the presence of different, possibly itinerant, ritual practitioners.

The more or less consistent structural and behavioural elements associated with the khirigsuur does not mean that it should be viewed as an isolated phenomenon. In fact, khirigsuurs share a number of such elements with sites of earlier and contemporary cultures in other parts of the Eurasian steppes. Burial under mounds (kurgans) is certainly a well-known and widespread feature of this vast region, as is the important role that livestock animals played in ritual. Centred in parts of southern Siberia and Mongolia, the third millennium BC culture known as Afanasevo has burials that consist of mounds surrounded by stone fences (Mallory 1989: 223-6). By the second millennium BC, some of the features of the eastern steppes' Andronovo cultures are also shared with the khirigsuur phenomenon, including stone barrows, stone slab cist burials, four-sided and circular enclosures made of surface stones or vertical slabs and the internment of selected parts of livestock--for example the familiar head and hoof deposits--that accompanied human inhumations or were buried in separate pits (Kuzmina 2001). Located in the nearby region of Tuva to the west of Mongolia, the ninth-eighth century BC kurgan known as Arzhan 1 consists of a main tomb located at the centre of a large circular structure subdivided into nearly 100 compartments built of wooden logs, with many of these compartments containing the remains of individuals and fully caparisoned horses. A circular stone fence defines the perimeter of the site. Although similar in some ways to Mongolia's khirigsuurs, Arzhan nevertheless stands out as a distinctive monument (Askarov et al. 1992).


The data collected so far by the project in the Khanuy valley point to a number of possible interpretations, although poor chronological control and limited settlement data make some of these highly tentative. The first proposition is that the khirigsuurs were built by mobile populations, possibly nomadic pastoralists. Field surveys in Khanuy valley and in nearby regions of Mongolia have yet to identify any visible remains of permanent dwellings associated with khirigsuurs, while preliminary testing has revealed only subsurface scatters of ceramic sherds. Such mobile populations may have been herders. Mobile hunter-gatherer societies typically do not build labour-intensive monuments (Bradley 1993: 1-21), while pedestrian hunters in such societies are not likely to have selectively carried horse heads back to camp, particularly as the skull is heavy and awkward to hold (Olsen 2003: 95). Thus, it is suggested that the horses were either killed and dismembered at the khirigsuurs or that parts of the carcass were hauled to the site by horse-mounted hunters, both scenarios implying at least some degree of horse herding and domestication. The absence of bits or other parts of the bridle at the khirigsuurs (and possibly contemporary slab burials as well) should not be taken as negative evidence of riding, since mounted herding can be done while riding bareback (Shishlina 2003) and harnesses can be made of perishable materials (Levine 1999: 14).

It is sometimes claimed that fully nomadic pastoralism emerged on the steppes of Eurasia no earlier than the beginning of the first millennium BC, with earlier pastoralist populations said to have been settled or to have practised various forms of semi-nomadic pastoralism (Askarov et al. 1992; Ishjamts 1994; Khazanov 1994: 90-7). Khazanov maintains that although all of the pre-conditions for pastoral nomadism were in place by the mid-second millennium BC, it is not until the beginning of the next millennium that the transformation was complete, a process that he believes was linked to the onset of very arid conditions. Some archaeologists point to features of earlier steppe cultures that suggest some degree of residential mobility. For example, the third millennium BC Yamnaya Culture (located between the Black Sea and Ural River) is marked in some areas by an absence of dwellings and agricultural implements, the presence of kurgan burials out in the open steppes, the use of wheeled vehicles, and the fact that the domesticated species (cattle, sheep and horse) were well suited to the steppe environment (Mallory & Adams 1997: 652-3; Anthony 1998; Shishlina 2001). However, the absence of substantial settlements should not be construed as irrefutable evidence of a fully nomadic migratory pattern, either in Yamnaya Culture or in the Mongolian Bronze Age. In fact, the large number and impressive scale of the khirigsuurs in Khanuy valley also suggest some degree of residential stability associated with the building of the sites and/or their use over an extended period of time.

It has been noted that the centralisation of power in nomadic pastoralist societies is an inherently difficult process, in part due to low population densities and the natural tendency of mobile pastoralists to disperse (Irons 1979; Khazanov 1994: 152-64). Nevertheless, instances of significant demographic recruitment did on occasion occur in Mongolia. These included not only the khirigsuur phenomenon of the Bronze Age, but also the many later walled towns and political capitals (e.g. Khar Balgas during the Uighur period and Kharkhorum during the Mongol period), elite cemeteries (e.g. Xiongnu burial grounds such as Golmod-2 in Khanuy valley), as well as large-scale military operations that reached beyond the borders of present-day Mongolia (e.g. the Xiongnu military campaigns into China and the Mongol advances through the Eurasian continent during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD).

For the Xiongnu, Uighur and Mongol periods, archaeological and textual evidence points to highly centralised power structures that oversaw the construction of sites, cemeteries, as well as the operation of trade and military activities. In contrast, demographic recruitment and substantial labour investment during Mongolia's Bronze Age appears to have been mostly focused on the ritual sphere, whether in the construction of the khirigsuurs or in the transport and erection of the deer stones. One further distinctive feature of the Bronze Age appears to be an absence of long-lived primary political and demographic centres, or of the operation of large-scale military and trade operations. Instead, the widespread distribution of the numerous khirigsuurs, deer stones and slab burials that dot Mongolia's steppes at this time points to a highly fragmented and possibly shifting geopolitical landscape.


Although better chronological control is required to further address this issue, it is possible that the earliest khirigsuurs were constructed and used prior to the appearance of mounted warriors at the beginning of the first millennium BC. Even if that is not the case, we may still suggest that ritual in Mongolia's Bronze Age served not only an important integrative role, but also provided real--but limited--opportunities for self-aggrandizement. Many anthropologists have remarked on the fact that the control of ritual practice and its setting offers an important pathway to power (Bloch 1992). While a monumental backdrop and arcane ceremonies can effectively impress upon followers the powers of the religious leadership, the ritual subtext itself serves to reiterate the status quo's guiding principles. With this in mind, we may inquire as to the opportunities that a highly regulated ritual programme such as that performed at the khirigsuurs would have provided to ambitious individuals. The distribution of khirigsuurs and other Bronze Age sites throughout Mongolia suggests a decentralised geopolitical landscape in which no single individual controlled the entire region.

Future work on the social structure of early Mongolia and the role of nomadism will benefit from the finding, dating and mapping of settlements, that forms an important objective of the next stage of the project. For a good portion of Mongolia's prehistory and history, one is faced with a highly diffuse archaeological landscape characterised by small stone-built tombs and ritual sites, as well as temporary campsites that are difficult to locate (and which have until recently generated little interest on the part of archaeologists). Our project is initiating a systematic settlement pattern study that will help clarify population levels and the distribution of occupation in the valley.

Received: 25 July 2003; Accepted: 2 February 2004; Revised: 14 June 2004


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Francis Allard (1) & Diimaajav Erdenebaatar (2)

(1) Department of Anthropology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, USA. (Email:

(2) Institute of History, Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Mongolia (Email:
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Author:Allard, Francis; Erdenebaatar, Diimaajav
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Date:Sep 1, 2005
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