Koksu River Valley Survey

The Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP) began in 1999, designed to address the question of emerging pastoralism and social interaction in the Eastern Eurasian Steppe Zone in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The survey component of the 2002 season was focused within the Koksu River Valley. The main objective of the land survey was to make a detailed database record and digital map of the archaeological monuments (cist burials, kurgans, settlements, rock-art, megaliths, etc.) located in the river valley. The archaeological survey was a collaborative effort with Kazakh archaeologists (Dr. Alexei Mar’yashev) from the Institute of Archaeology in Almaty (Kazakhstan), and with geologists (Dr. Bulat Aubekerov) and botanists (Dr. Saida Nigmatova) from the Kazakh National Academy of Science (also in Almaty). In addition, a number of other specialists are working to provide a variety of additional data.

Our survey methodology builds on a number of well-known field techniques. These include: 1) surface survey and mapping; 2) paleo-environmental sampling; 3) archaeological excavation; and 4) computer assisted spatial modeling using GIS. Before going to the field, a comprehensive map and satellite imagery study was conducted, making the project’s survey design as streamlined, accurate and informed as possible. For example, Corona images available from the US Geological Survey enable the identification of modern agricultural development, towns, roads, and other important features. These images were also used in conjunction with Landsat-7 color imagery for detailed modeling of environmental conditions and archaeological features.

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Archaeological Survey:
The archaeological survey accounted for more than 1500 km2 of total landscape analysis, and 106.7 km2 (10,671 hectares) of field walked polygons. The Koksu River valley and floodplain was divided into six topographic landscape polygons:  two lowland polygons, two mid-elevation polygons, and two upland elevation polygons. 

Within each polygon, the actual area walked was determined by contextual conditions; many of the sub-alpine areas were treacherous and/or inaccessible on foot.  Nonetheless, the estimated coverage within the survey polygons is 85-90% of the total surface area.

For each polygon, the archaeological survey team made a detailed record of all features and locales indicating human manipulation.  These feature types included settlements, stone configurations, rock-art, burials, and general anthropogenic features. A feature is defined as a discrete archaeological element. Thus a group of 5 burials was recorded as 5 features.  Rock-art features were grouped into panels, based on proximity.  Examples of “anthropogenic features” include dense rectangular patches of phosphate rich grass growth (indicative of a corral), or animal terraces, formed by the repetitive tracking of herds across hill slopes. 

In the Koksu River valley, settlements and burials are generally visible on the surface as stone configurations, or visible in profile where erosion ravines have cut across sites. Rock-art is naturally exposed, and was photo documented in all cases.   All features were recorded using a standardized record form, and mapped and/or photographed.  Of course, feature locations were marked using handheld GPS units.  In addition to the archaeological team, a small team of geologists also recorded and studied the geo-morphology of each survey polygon, and produced an overall assessment of the morphological development of the valley.

Survey Results:
Within the scope of the archaeological survey, we recorded 382 archaeological features.  For the purpose of classification, sites were categorized as low, middle or high altitude features. Lowland areas are categorized by elevations less than 800m. Mid-altitude areas range from 800m to 1200m, and high-elevation zones are above 1200m. The altitude designations correspond with ecological factors, such as snowfall threshold, as well as vertical boundaries between various botanical compositions of the rangelands. The Dzhungar Mountains are located between 43º and 46º N latitude, which is typically represented by a semi-arid desert climate.  However, due to the steep rise of elevation in the Dzhungar mountain range (from 600m to over 4500m), the botanical composition is similar to grasslands regions, located north of 50º latitude. In the Dzhungar Mountains, rangeland above 1200m is characteristically “steppic”, while zones below 1200m are considered semi-steppe, or semi-desert (below 800m) (ibid.).  Thus, categorizing the features according to elevation can reveal preliminary associations between ecological conditions, social pathways, and human land-use strategies.

In the lowland polygons, our primary feature categories were burials (kurgans and stone arrangements) and settlement structures.  The largest numbers of burials are classified as “kurgans”  – generally considered to date to the “Saka” period and later (i.e. later than the 7th c. BC).  Two notable Bronze Age cemeteries at Talapty and Kuigan had been previously excavated, revealing stone lined cists and small hand thrown ceramic vessels. These cemeteries contain more than 60 individual burials, which were not individually recorded in the DMAP database. In addition to burials, settlement structures were found to be more abundant in lowland areas than previously recorded.   In fact, nearly 35% of the total sites in lowland areas were settlements.  In association with these monuments, a considerable number of petroglyphs are found in the immediately adjacent hillsides.  However, the elevation of many of the actual rock-art is often higher than 800m, thus they fall into the statistical set of midland elevations. 

In the midland polygons, the percent composition of features is generally comparable, but the total number of sites is much higher. Noticeable increases in the number of burials (both kurgans and stone arrangements), petroglyphs, and settlements at midland altitudes, suggests increased activity in this zone.  Ethnographic models of seasonal transhumance explain that midland altitudes are productive in both spring and fall, whereas high and low altitudes are only used in the summer and winter, respectively.  This pattern, or seasonal orbit, may account for the increased percentages of specific feature types.  However, the results of analysis currently underway concerning seasonal vegetation, paleo-zoology, and prehistoric land-use, will surely provide more informative explanations.   Also situated within the midland polygons, the settlement site of Begash was selected for excavation, as well as burials from the large Bronze Age cemetery of Begash II nearby.
There are considerably fewer sites in the highland polygons.  The most notable change is an increase in percentage of kurgans. This may reflect a conscientious utilization of highlands as burial grounds in the Iron Age, or perhaps merely reflects the difficulty in locating settlements in sub-alpine meadows.   Due to the logistical difficulties in mounting an expedition to some of these remote sub-alpine meadows, the collection of data in high altitude zones of the Dzhungar Mountains demands special techniques, which will be employed in future surveys there. 

Discovery Highlights:

The site complex at Begash

Among one of the most interesting site complexes discovered during the 2002 DMAP survey was the site complex “Begash.”  The site consisted of a settlement, cemetery, and related rock-art.  After three seasons of excavations, the archaeology of Begash documents the earliest known pastoralist settlement from the Tian Shan Mountains to the Altai Mountains, and provides the earliest evidence for domesticated grain use anywhere in the Eurasian steppe region.  For more information, see our detailed pages on the Begash Settlement and Begash Burial excavations


Rock art is widely distributed in the Koksu River Valley and the surrounding mountains and canyons.  Rock art is found in all elevation ranges, either in proximity to other feature classes such as burials or settlements, and sometimes without associated contexts. 

Naturally, the occurrence of rock-art is dependent on the existence of suitable rock surfaces, which means that rock-art is also found on the cliffs and crags of steep ravines, which are difficult to access.  Though over 30 new rock-art groups were recorded within the survey, a detailed study of the imagery of these panels has not yet been completed. 

However, rock-art in the Koksu River Valley has been extensively studied in terms of chronological associations, and stylistic taxonomy so that we can make some conclusions about the role of rock-art in social life during the Bronze Age and later periods.  Navigate to the “Rock art Survey” project page to learn more about the diversity and antiquity of this rich archaeological resource.

Relevant Publications:

2008  FRACHETTI, Michael D.  Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia. Berkley: University of California Press.

2006  FRACHETTI, Michael D.  The Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project: Reconstructing Bronze Age life in the mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan. In Beyond the Steppe and the Sown, eds.D.L. Peterson, L.M. Popova and A.T. Smith, 122-41.Boston: Brill Academic Publishing.

2004  FRACHETTI, Michael D.  Archaeological explorations of Bronze Age pastoral societies in the mountains of eastern Eurasia.  The Silk Road 2(1): 3-8.