Mobile culture: A Yale archaeologist sifts through Mongolia’s ancient past
In November, Yale archaeologist William Honeychurch received the Order of the Polar Star from Mongolia — the highest civilian honor the country’s government bestows on foreign citizens. In accepting the award, Honeychurch joined esteemed company: Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton are among the other Americans to accept the honor.
Honeychurch first visited Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1991, when the country, a former Soviet satellite state, was transitioning to democracy. He began forging relationships with Mongolian archaeologists, teaching them English as they taught him about their work. He returned after earning his doctorate, and has worked in the country ever since, focusing his research on ancient nomadic political organization in East and Central Asia.
Honeychurch, an associate professor of anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, spoke with Yale News about the challenges of performing archaeological fieldwork over vast spaces — hundreds of square kilometers — and his anthropological approach to archaeology. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Congratulations on the honor. What does it mean to you?
William Honeychurch: I’m deeply grateful. I see it as recognition of my research in Mongolia and my efforts to raise the country’s profile. Mongolia is a thriving democracy that borders Russia and China, yet it receives very little attention globally. I’m very thankful to my partners and colleagues in Mongolia who have supported me all these years.
As a scientist, I examine the country’s history and pre-history. I also strive to forge relationships between Yale and the National University of Mongolia. Every summer, I take Yale students to Mongolia to do fieldwork, introducing them directly to the country’s continuing pastoral nomadic tradition. And I bring Mongolian students to Yale to study. I think this award presents an opportunity to strengthen these ties and find new ways for Yale scholars to work with our counterparts in Mongolia.
What types of research questions do you explore?
Honeychurch: I study the Xiongnu, who formed the first major Mongolian state under the leadership of Shanyu Modun beginning in about the third century B.C. It was a pastoral nomadic state, which for anthropologists is a difficult concept to understand: How was it that mobile herders created a state?
It’s an issue that archaeologists refer to as ‘emergent complexity,’ which concerns how societies become differentiated, unequal, and specialized. So an interesting question is, how does that work with horse nomads? If mobility is built into your culture, that means your economy, politics, and urban models are different than sedentary models of those same things. I study the idea that a mobile culture will format its entire society differently than a more sedentary culture.
What does your fieldwork involve?
Honeychurch: When you’re studying mobile communities that were distributed over vast spaces, you need to figure out how to cover a large area in a way that provides an idea of the landscape organization in the past. We do that through regional pedestrian surveys, which involves a lot of walking. It doesn’t capture the classic image of the archaeologist painstakingly scraping dirt with a trowel. We do that, too, but in order to know where to scrape the dirt, you’ve got to have an idea of where the sites are located and their position in the greater landscape.
How do the surveys unfold?
Honeychurch: We create survey teams with students from Yale, Mongolia, and other places. We identify study areas of 100 to 300 square kilometers — expansive areas — and we line up six people at 30-meter intervals and give each a square kilometer to cover. We walk systematically as a group and inspect the ground, looking for all kinds of site types and material remains, including seasonal habitations and cemeteries but also broken ceramics, stone tools, coins, and various kinds of bronze artifacts.
It takes a long time, depending on how much you find. If we start finding a lot, we might cover only half a square kilometer in a day. Covering 300 square kilometers can take years. I’ve been working in Eastern Mongolia since 2015 and, so far, we’ve covered about 150 square kilometers while recording more than 2,000 new archaeological sites.
Studying these sites provides us a handle on how an archaeological landscape changes over time. We can picture a landscape of habitation and cemetery sites from 2,300 years ago or 2,000 years ago. We can compare these slices of time to see how human use of that landscape changed century to century and, for example, we can see how the human landscape became totally different as the first state, the Xiongnu state, came about. This field technique gives us a sense of the political process that occurred as these organizational landscapes transformed.
What happens after you discover a site?
Honeychurch: This is where the trowels come in. We excavate the sites and retain the artifacts. Then we perform all sorts of material analyses on them, such as radiocarbon dating, and ceramic and metal analyses. Metal slags from ironworking are one of our most common finds. My team has recently learned that medieval-period nomads had a unique way of making steel. By finding the remnants of that steelmaking process, we reconstructed this unique technology.
Right now, we’re putting emphasis on burial excavation. We’ll find entire cemeteries that date to, say, 3,000 years ago. In addition to illuminating spatial patterns, excavating these sites yields us ranges of artifacts and human remains. Human skeletons are a major source of information. With the consent of local communities and the Mongolian government, and respectfully following all cultural and government guidelines, we analyze DNA and do classic anatomical analysis to understand how people lived. For example, how old were they when they died? What was their physical stature and what health problems did they have? What were their genetic relationships to others buried in the cemetery? Strontium isotope analysis can reveal information about their movement patterns. Nitrogen and carbon isotope analyses can tell us about how people’s diets changed over time.
We take great care to perform this work respectfully. All remains, as well as any artifacts we discover, are brought to Yale labs with the permission of local communities and the Mongolian government and returned to Mongolia once the analyses are completed.
Yale archaeologists take an anthropological approach to their work. How does that differ from other approaches?
Honeychurch: In many places, archaeology is treated as a primarily historical discipline. When you study archaeology that way, you basically restrict yourself to supplementing the historical record of one location or culture.
In approaching my work from an anthropological perspective, I’m not just interested in augmenting Mongolia’s historical record, though I find that record fascinating. I’m broadly interested in human beings. I’m studying pastoral nomadic state formation in Mongolia to inform our understanding of how states arose in different places by different processes such as in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Peru. What are the differences between these various processes and trajectories for state formation? What do those differences say about humanity?
When my Mongol students come to Yale and learn this fairly new approach, they return home and share it with colleagues and students there. It’s helping archaeologists in Mongolia to understand their country’s pre-history in a new way. That’s powerful.