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Horsepower Team Mongolia Recce 2023

Chris Gosden

In September 2023 our group drove 4000 km across western Mongolia through some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth, in grassland steppe bordered by the Altai Mountains, on good roads and bad, looking for archaeological sites (Figure 1).

Our partner, Professor Tsagaan Turbat, Mongolia’s premier archaeologist, led us to burial mounds and stone circles dating over the last five thousand years he had long wanted to excavate. Later that month we were extremely lucky to see behind the scenes in the Terracotta Warrior Museum in Xi’an, becoming privy to their latest excavations and results, as we are also partnering with them. We are starting a six-year project investigating the interactions between Mongolia and China, working closely with scholars from both countries.


Figure 1. The Horsepower team travelling across western Mongolia (@ Rory Carnegie)

Around 200 BCE two states emerged with enormous historical consequences. The better-known is the Qin state in China, famous for the burial of the First Emperor and his attendant terracotta warriors; less well understood but equally interesting and consequential is the first state in Mongolia, the Xiongnu, the people who invented cavalry, becoming in the process the cultural ancestors of Genghis Khan. The Qin and the Xiongnu enjoyed a complex love-hate relationship, by turns trading Mongolian horses for Chinese metals and silk and also fighting: the Great Wall was built in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Xiongnu out.

The history of the horse is central to our investigation. Horses were bred on the steppe, with the Mongolian grasslands being crucial, to be used locally and traded to China. One of our team, Professor Ludovic Orlando (Toulouse), has analysed ancient genetics to reveal the long-term history of the horse. Ludovic’s work has shown that the horse was first domesticated around 2200 BCE on the vast pastures between the Black and Caspian Seas. From there it spread eventually from Ireland to Japan, reaching Mongolia about 1600 BCE.

A further member of the Horsepower team, Professor Ursula Brosseder (Mainz), has worked for over 20 years in Mongolia, enjoying a close working relationship with Turbat. Their joint excavations of a massive burial complex, known as a khirgisuur, dating to around 1100 BCE have recovered a large number of horse bones from a series of small mounds around a central human burial, where horses were sacrificed in large numbers (Figure 2). Ludovic’s initial results (still unpublished) show fascinating differences between the horses in the mounds. Ludovic is hoping to work on bones from Chinese sites, including the mausoleum complex of the First Emperor, which contained large numbers of horses across the site. His work will make possible very detailed comparisons between ancient horses in China and Mongolia, allowing an understanding of the trade in horses.


Figure 2. The khirgisuur in the Upper Orkhon Valley (in the foreground). (@ Tsagaan Turbat and Ursula Brosseder)

Furthermore, Dr. Ruiliang Liu, curator of Chinese material at the British Museum, is working on ancient metals from China and Mongolia, using his own collections and those in China to further understand the making and movement of metals, some of which were traded from China to Mongolia.

Excavations are planned, analyses are underway and our collaborations are being further developed as the Horsepower project starts to unfold. Results will be published in academic journals, but also broader engagement will occur in Europe, Mongolia and China through the project photographer (Rory Carnegie), artist (Miranda Creswell) and science journalist (David Shukman).


The Horsepower Project is supported by a six-year ten-million-euro research grant (2023-2029), co-funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and UK Research Innovation (UKRI) under Grant Agreement: 101071707. We are also grateful to our primary partners: Professor Li Gang, Director of the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum and Professor Tsagaan Turbat, Director of the Archaeological Research Centre, National University of Mongolia.

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