Settlement Excavations at Begash

Begash is a prehistoric pastoralist settlement located in the Dzhungar Mountains (Koksu River Valley) of Semirech’ye in present day Kazakhstan. In contrast to the idea that pastoralist camps are short-lived and ephemeral, Begash’s chronology and archaeology illustrate more than 4000 years of locally reiterated construction technology and pastoral strategy, as well as continuous historical investment in the local landscape on the part of its prehistoric and historical inhabitants. The site’s stratified phases of architectural construction and smaller encampments start as early as 2500 BC, and document a pattern of long-term re-use of a particular settlement location by mobile pastoralists throughout prehistory and later periods. Begash’s archaeology reflects an important aspect of regional continuity in the seasonal habitation and social landscape of mobile pastoralists in eastern Eurasia in the Bronze Age.

The site’s importance in the landscape of the Koksu River Valley is also indexed by two large associated cemeteries, Begash-2 and Begash-3, located close to the settlement. Test excavations in 2002 and 2005 revealed stone cist burials characteristic of the late Bronze Age, as well as kurgan burials that illustrate continuity of use in the burial ground in the Iron Age (based on regional analogues). In addition, two burials were documented in the immediate area of the settlement.

Begash was excavated in 2002, 2005, and 2006 (Frachetti 2004; 2006).   The site is located at ca. 950 m above sea level in the piedmont zone of the Dzhungar Mountains, which open to a riparian terrace of the Zhalgyzagash River—an upland tributary of the Koksu River.  The settlement is located on a flat ravine terrace (approx. 2500 m2) enclosed by steep canyon walls on the North, West, and South, and situated along a spring-fed stream that today has water year-round. The excavated area was centered around visible structures from the most recent period of habitation and on the basis of shovel tests, and is considered to be the center of habitation at the center of the terrace.

Chronology and construction:
Archaeologically, Begash and its associated material culture can be divided into six chronological phases: three major architectural construction phases as well as a number of inter-stitial occupations when the site’s architecture was only partly in use, or when the site area was occupied with foundationless encampments.  Thirty-four AMS dates provide a chronology of habitation phases at Begash from 2460 CAL B.C. to A.D. 1900, without significant evidence for depopulation or substantial social discontinuity in the region or at the site for any long duration in prehistory.

Nevertheless, three periods of architectural construction at Begash – Phase 1(a & b), Phase 3(b), and Phases 5 & 6 – reflect marked phases of change in the scale of the settlement, as well as structural reorientations of the architectural layout of the habitation.  However, given the fact that the entire terrace was not excavated, this must be qualified in terms of the recorded structures within the area of excavation for each period, delineated below.  Between the major phases of construction, pastoral populations continued to use the settlement area, albeit more intermittently, demonstrated by numerous hearths and trash pits containing faunal remains and other cultural features not clearly associated with in-situ walls or structures.

Excavation Findings:
While excavating within the Iron Age levels of the settlement, we discovered a fully entact human burial, which dates to roughly 900 BC.  The skeleton was that of a young woman, about 19-20 yrs of age, and in very good health. 

Interestingly, she was found without hands or feet, or knee-caps – the rest of her skeleton was in perfect anatomical position.  The bones of her hands and feet had been neatly stacked along the edge of what was clearly the original burial pit, along a demarcated edge of a robber-trench that was C14 dated to less than 100 years later than the burial itself.  When we excavated the skeleton in full, we discovered a small golden hair-clasp behind the skull, and a triangular stone placed over the abdomen area, resembling a belt buckle. 

Was the disturbance of this burial the handywork of a thief who knew exactly how to remove carefully the bracelets and anklets (note, these are assumed, as they are very common in burials of this period), but did not linger to disturb the head of the buried woman?  The burial was clearly robbed, and if the golden hair clasp is any indication, there was more to know about this young woman than remains.

Discovery Highlights:

Local landscapes with ‘global’ connections:

The settlement of Begash is surprisingly rich in material finds and interesting archaeological contexts.  Most of the assemblage of decorated ceramics, limited bronze metals, and worked stone represent what we think are locally produced “cultural” artifacts.  However, stylistic similarities and decorations of this material suggests that pastoralists like those at Begash were part of wider economies and interactive arenas among mountain nomads and civilizations farther afield, as early as the mid-3rd millennium BC.

Earliest Wheat and Millet in the Eurasian steppe:

Recent discoveries of domesticated grains of wheat and millet in Central Eurasia, dated by AMS (C14) to 2200 BC (calibrated) have caused a reconsideration of the pathways of trade and interconnectivity between Bronze Age communities in Xinjiang and southern Central Asia during the late 3rd millennium BC.  These seeds were found within a cremation burial cist in the lowest levels of the settlement.

Sheep not horses at the root of Eurasian Pastoralism?

The economic basis of steppe pastoralists has traditionally been tied to horses.  The earliest known domesticated horses were found in Kazakhstan (ca. 3500 BC), but the evidence from Begash suggests that when eastern steppe populations started to be more mobile and engage in herding as their primary economic strategy, it was sheep and goats that formed the main basis of their economy.  At Begash, horse remains do not make up more than 5% of the zooarchaeological remains until historical times, during the time of the Mongols.

Relevant Publications:

(in press)FRACHETTI, Michael D., Spengler, Robert S., and Gayle J. Fritz.  Earliest Evidence of Broomcorn Millet and Wheat in the Central Eurasian Steppe Region. Antiquity (expected fall/winter 2010)

2009 FRACHETTI, M.D. and N. Benecke.  From Sheep To (Some) Horses: 4500 Years Of Herd Structure At The Pastoralist Settlement of Begash (southeastern Kazakhstan). Antiquity 83 (322): 1023-1037.

2007  FRACHETTI, Michael D. and Alexei N. Mar’yashev.  Long-term settlement, mobility, and landscape formation of Eastern Eurasian pastoralists from 2500 CAL B.C.  Journal of Field Archaeology 32(3): 221-42

2009 FRACHETTI, Michael D. and Alexei N. Mar’yashev. Periodizatsii I khronologiya dolgovremenogo poseleniya Bigash.  Izvestia, National Academy of Science, Republic of Kazakhstan1: 70-83.

2007  Mar’yashev, Alexei and Michael FRACHETTI.  Issledovanie mogil’nikov i poseleniya u sela Bigash v vostochnom Semirech’ye.  Istoria i Arkeologiya Semirech’ya 3: 100-105