Settlement Excavations at Mukri

Recent excavations at the prehistoric and historic encampment at Mukri, in the foothills of the Dzhungar Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan (also known as Semirech’ye or Zhetisu), illustrate the shifting strategies of mobile pastoralist communities at a seemingly small, isolated camp in a marginal territory.  The archaeology of Mukri illustrates how mobile pastoralist communities created and reshaped their landscape through time by activating and deactivating a tangible node in a dynamic social geography.  The site’s long chronology is documented by 14 AMS dates that span more than 3000 years of periodic occupation, revealing at least four distinct phases of construction from the Final Bronze Age (800 BCE) to later historic times (the eighteenth century).

The encampment at Mukri lies approximately 850m above sea level in a narrow ravine on the western piedmont of the Dzhungar Mountains.  More generally, the Dzhungar Mountains rise to ~4500masl from the lowland, hyper-arid sands of the Sari-Esik desert (350-500masl) in the west.  Scrubby, semi-arid plains define the foothills at elevations ranging from 500-800masl. A rich mountain-steppe and meadow ecotone lies between these foothills and the highlands (>2400 m asl). Relative to the other prehistoric sites in the area (e.g. Begash).

Mukri’s location is considered ecologically more marginal. Long-term climatic reconstructions reveal minor fluctuations in aridity and temperature throughout the Holocene; however, the grassland biomass and pasture productivity have been broadly stable for the past two-three thousand years. Mukri’s marginal location (rather than dramatic paleoclimatic shifts) explains the site’s intermittent occupation throughout this time period. Mukri was a minor or peripheral encampment, one of a wide array of settlement options available to local pastoralist groups.

Excavations were conducted at Mukri in 2006 as part of the Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP), which aimed to document the archaeological landscape of the Koksu River watershed and surrounding highland ranges (see Fig. 1).  Excavations at Mukri consisted of two trenches. Trench one (MI) extended over part of a visible mound on the second terrace, and trench two (MII) was positioned 2m upslope of this mound, intercepting what appeared to be a stone retainer or footing for the third terrace.  A ‘quadrat’ grid (1x1m) was established across the excavated area, providing Cartesian provenience for all finds and features. Trenches MI and MII were excavated simultaneously cultural strata and archaeological features were recorded independently for each. 

Mukri’s architecture shows punctuated growth from a small prehistoric encampment in the early Iron Age to a small hamlet of mud-brick houses in later historical phases.  The earliest construction is comparable to pastoralist dwellings at nearby mountain sites, while the latest mud-brick architecture resembles that of agricultural settlements of medieval and later periods in desert territories south and west of Mukri.

Chronology and construction:
Radiometric (AMS) analysis of fifteen charcoal samples from cultural contexts enabled us to distinguish at least four discrete periods of occupation. The occupations are separated by considerable phases of abandonment (or disuse) evident by episodic rubble fill layers in the site’s stratigraphy. The earliest occupation dates to the final Bronze Age and early Iron Age (phase 1), with later occupations in the late Wusun (phase 2), Medieval (phase 3), and historical periods (phase 4).

Discovery Highlights:

Ceramics illustrate wide networks of interactions
The bulk of the material culture recovered from Mukri dates from early medieval and middle medieval periods.  This corpus of ceramics, metals, and stone grinding tools illustrates that Mukri was a small node that participated in a complex system of trade – likely some distance from the site itself.

Decorated, wheel spun ceramics as well as spouted vessels suggest that the pastoralists living at this humble campsite were participants in the broader political economy of trade that defined the region in the Medieval period.  Of particular interest is a painted ceramic pot, dating to the early Turkic period (ca. 600 CE), which is not apparently of local origin.  Few known analogues exist, though we think this vessel is most likely of eastern provenience, i.e. from the territories of Xinjiang.

Bronze and Iron Age Rock Art Sanctuary
In the rocky crags and hills surrounding the settlement of Mukri, we documented thousands of previously undiscovered rock engravings, dating from the Bronze Age to historical periods.  These engravings provide a rich, though illusive, insight into the symbolic and conceptual world of the region’s nomadic societies for the past 4000 years.  Navigate to the “Rock art survey” project page to learn more and see more of these fascinating images.

Relevant Publications:

2010 (in press) FRACHETTI, M., Benecke, N, Mar’yashev, A. N., and P. Doumani. Eurasian Pastoralists And Their Shifting Regional Interactions at the Steppe Margin:  Settlement History At Mukri, Kazakhstan. World Archaeology 42(4)

2008  FRACHETTI, Michael D. Variability and dynamic landscapes of mobile pastoralism in ethnography and prehistory.  In The Archaeology of Mobility: Nomads in the Old and in the New World, eds. H. Barnard and W. Wendrich, 366-96. Cotsen Advanced Seminar Series 4. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA