Ush-Kara Survey

The survey of the Ush-Kara plateau in the Semirech’ye region entailed locating and categorizing historic and prehistoric archaeological sites, accurately recording these sites using Global Positioning Systems and constructing a database that contained relevant information for each site. The Ush-Kara survey region consists of a major upland plateau with a north-south oriented ridgeline on the eastern boundary.  The survey was localized along this ridgeline because it exhibits seasonal springs and narrow ravines that provide ecologically diverse and productive micro-climates in the otherwise arid territory.  In addition, this ridgeline runs along a series of brackish lakes that are historically known to have fish and other aquatic resources such as waterfowl, which may have made them attractive to early human communities.

Archaeological Survey:
The archaeological survey was carried out in July and August of 2007 and covered approximately 40 square kilometers, divided between four polygons.

The polygons were not standard with regard to shape or size and represent a selective survey rather than a statistical coverage. This approach was deemed appropriate given the human and logistical resources available, as well as the knowledge gained from previous work (Frachetti 2006) regarding the areas most inhabitable by prehistoric herding communities, such as access to water, landform, and protection from wind. 

Although mapped and planned before beginning the fieldwork, the actual ground conditions determined the extent of each study polygon at its final scale.  Study polygons were also extended along tributary valleys running perpendicularly to and opening onto the ridgeline terrace.  This is especially true for Polygon 4 where such tributary valleys sometimes extended for several kilometers.  Polygon reduction occurred especially in Polygon 2, where the survey team encountered sand dunes in the northern section of the planned polygon and subsequently did not attempt to locate sites there.  For each polygon, the total area walked is estimated at 90%, as it was covered by regularly-spaced individual transects with good ground visibility. 

The survey recording process included accurate mapping of the areas covered through the use of hand-held GPS (global positioning system) units (Garmin Etrex Legend 2007), which record latitude, longitude, and elevation to within a 5 meter accuracy.  When sites were encountered, their location was recorded with these same GPS units, standardized paper record forms were filled out, and photographs were taken. 

When appropriate, site sketch maps were also drawn.  The site numbers were assigned in ascending order in one of three series, 4XXX, 5XXX, or 6XXX, each series corresponding to unique GPS units. The primary feature types included structures, stone arrangements, burials, and rock-art (see Discovery Highlights).  Where appropriate, features were recorded individually, for example a group of five burials was recorded as five sites.  Upon return from the field, the survey team entered the site information into a Microsoft Access database, where the location, attributes and photographs could be joined into a single comprehensive record for each site.

The chronology of recorded sites ranges from the Bronze Age to the historic (Kazakh) period, as testified by the recovery of ceramic fabric and form, feature construction typology, or other formal means of relative dating.  A total of 140 sites were recorded during the survey period.

Discovery Highlights:

For the purposes of this survey, structures were identified by the presence of stone foundations, often with multi-course stone walls visible from the surface.  The structures encountered were both single- and multi-room habitations, generally rectangular in shape.  Other structures were identified by low earthen mounds, but these were far less frequent.  All structures were tested with 1x1m test pits to recover any sample archaeological material that might aid in determining the chronology and function of the structure.  The settlement structures recovered showed cultural materials dating from the Iron Age (Saka period) and later. No Bronze Age settlement was detected within the survey polygons.

The burials encountered during this survey ranged from the Bronze Age to the historic (Kazakh) period, and show a variety of construction techniques and sizes.  Despite variation, the burials can be divided into two general subgroups, kurgans and non-kurgan burials. “Kurgan” is a general term to refer to earth and stone tumulus burials. Across the steppe region, kurgans have a widely variable chronology and typology. 

One sub-type of kurgan encountered within the Ushkara survey includes low, stone kurgans (diameter of 5-7m across and less than 1m high).  The second type of kurgan encountered in this survey is the larger, earthen kurgan.  Earthen kurgans are the most common burial type of the Iron Age, typically dated to the Saka period, and these mounds range in size from the small tumuli, approximately 5-7m in diameter and 1m in height, to extremely large monumental mounds, 30 or more meters in diameter, and 5-8 meters in height.  No kurgans of this larger extreme were encountered during the Ushkara survey, though large kurgans of this type are found in the archaeological remains of the Kyzl-Tas survey area.

Non-kurgan burials include a variety of forms from different time periods. This broad category includes burial forms including stone cist burials, as well as Turkic period stone-mound burials and historic (Kazakh) burials of the past 300 years.  Circular or oblong stone fence burials enclosing central cist features are known widely from burials across the steppe region, and are commonly attributed to the Late Bronze Age cultures of Central Kazakhstan and the eastern steppe zone. Older Kazakh burials tend to have a central earthen mound, covering the interred, with an earth or stone enclosure built around the body. Interestingly, Kazakh burial grounds frequently are located in the same location as more ancient burials, including medieval or Turkic period mound burials as well as prehistoric kurgans and stone cist burials.

Rock Art:
Rock-art includes all the regional varieties of imagery and symbols carved or incised in natural rock surfaces.  The classification of the regional rock-art is well published and the system of chronology and description used for this survey is consistent with previous studies carried out in Eshkiolmes, Tamgaly, and other regional rock-art sites of Semirech’ye.