Archaeology of a sacred mountain: mounds, water, mobility, and cosmologies of Ikh Bogd Uul, Eastern Altai Mountains, Mongolia


Cecilia Dal Zovo

PhD defended at: 

University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain




The huge elevation of the Ikh Bogd Uul Mountain and the Orog Nuur Lake, located in the district of Bogd Soum, province of Bayankhongor aimag, in central southern Mongolia, are the cultural and physiographic framework of my PhD research. The correspondent main archaeological focus is the monumental, funerary, and sacred landscape of the mountain, and its spatial articulation through Bronze and Iron Age burial mounds, which were probably associated with small, highly mobile communities, with shared rituals and cosmological principles. The landscape of Ikh Bogd Uul Mountain includes notable features such as late prehistoric burial mounds and rock art sites, but also traditional oboo stone altars, and stupa Buddhist shrines, while the mountain as whole is currently endowed with significant symbolic and sacred values. Not only I investigate when and why these monuments were built, but also, for how long they were used, how they were adapted, and how much they influenced the surrounding ritual and pastoral landscape throughout time. In this process, I consider the landscape of the mountain and the neighbouring lake in consonance with the local and traditional view, as a single entity: a backdrop for the celebration of impressive funerary rituals in the late prehistory, a place for the dwelling of local master spirits, an economic resource, and a symbol of homeland and identity.
Through a cosmological, spatial and archaeoastronomical approach, I analyse the physical and symbolic proximity of prehistoric mounds and other stone monuments with the elevations and bodies of water, with local mobility, and with ritual practices over time. I then explore how ancient remains like mounds have probably influenced Mongolian folklore, and, conversely, how the worldviews of the local nomadic population can provide a suggestive framework for the interpretation of the sacred landscape of Ikh Bogd Uul Mountain. I outline the shifting and multiform ways through which the inhabitants of Ikh Bogd Uul Mountain built ‘institutional’ or alternative sacred geographies, interacting with the ancestral landscape. Furthermore, I investigate the characteristics of movement, orientation, and the awareness of local inhabitants over time. In this integrated process, I consider the archaeological record and the sacred landscape of the mountain from a symmetrical perspective, drawing upon landscape archaeology, landscape anthropology, cultural astronomy, archaeology of folklore and post-colonial theory, as the theoretical and methodological basis of my investigation.
Thanks to a combined methodological approach, I propose to generate original and inspiring ideas for a multivocal reconstruction and interpretation of the late prehistoric and traditional landscapes of the research area. This interdisciplinary method is rooted in a specific focus on indigenous ontologies and worldviews of the local communities, which I combined with quantitative analyses of spatial, archaeological, and astronomic data obtained through the observation of satellite imagery and four field surveys. Accordingly, this investigation is divided in two parts. In the first section, using a narrative approach, I reconstruct the ancient and modern local cosmologies and the symbolic aspects of the landscape of Ikh Bogd Uul, based on the historical, anthropological, and ethnographic record. In the second part of my dissertation, I will apply GIS, spatial, statistical, and archaeoastronomical analyses to the prehistoric funerary mounds. Nevertheless, these calculations will be shaped on the hypotheses derived from the analysis of the cosmological and symbolic aspects of the landscape of Ikh Bogd Uul that I have elaborated in the first section. In this way, I hope to include traditional cosmological perspectives in the shaping of the archaeological analysis of Ikh Bogd Uul Mountain. Through a post-colonial, committed, and localised archaeological practice, I therefore aim to achieve a broader, holistic understanding of the alternation of sacred geographies of Ikh Bogd Uul Mountain, continuously adapted and renovated by local communities over time.

Key words: Late Prehistory, Central Asia, GIS, pastoral communities, Buddhism, archaeoastronomy, sacred geographies