Ancient Mongolia—no passport needed

U. OREGON—A newly published atlas, Web site, and digital photo archive document a little-known yet fascinating area of the world—the Mongolian Altai.

Researchers from the University of Oregon directed the project, which showcases ancient archaeological discoveries from the mountainous region of northwestern Mongolia, a rugged and remote area home to hunters and pastoral nomads for thousands of years.

The inhabitants of the region erected large stone altars, burial mounds, standing stones, and image stones in the valleys. They also left behind vast concentrations of rock art in the high valleys—images that tell their life stories.

The project was developed to appeal to geographers, archeologists, educators, and general readers interested in ecotourism, preservation, geography, and ancient human cultures. The extensive materials represent the first broad inventory of surface archaeology in northwestern Mongolia, says project director Esther Jacobson-Tepfer, the Maude I. Kerns professor emeritus of art history.

“When you look at a monument in its physical context, you have to consider its view shed: that is, its orientation in the landscape, the larger features it seems to be addressing,” says Jacobson-Tepfer. “Monuments and their relationships to people and landscapes are like open windows into the values and concerns of ancient cultures.”

The published 224-page atlas, Archaeology and Landscape in the Mongolian Altai: An Atlas, and the corresponding Web site, Archaeology and Landscape in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, are the result of 18 field seasons in the Altai Mountains of Russia and Mongolia.

Jacobson-Tepfer, initially a Chinese art historian, became interested in nomadic cultures and decided to follow those interests north as part of a year-long study program in the Soviet Union to learn more about the deeper connection with landscape and rock art. She and her husband, Gary Tepfer, who is a photographer, spent three field seasons on the Russian side of the Altai Mountains and 15 field seasons in Mongolia identifying concentrations of archaeology and documenting them with field notes, photography, and locational data.

To document the region, she enlisted help from Oregon’s geography department’s InfoGraphics Lab. James Meacham, lab director, codirected the project and accompanied Jacobson-Tepfer and Tepfer on three field seasons.

“This collaboration was a great opportunity for me and the lab’s staff to bring our geographic perspective and skills in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to the project to assist in analysis, produce maps, and present the research to a broader audience,” says Meacham.

With vivid maps and photographs, the atlas and Web site present the cultural heritage of a rugged environment, focusing on the interconnection of the surface human-made structures and the landscape.

The Web site includes extensive background information about the Altai region and its people. The central element of the site is the section on archaeology and cultural landscape, supported by an image gallery with digitized photographs of monuments linked to an interactive map.

The interactive map and the maps in the printed atlas come from the project’s detailed GIS database. The interactive map is designed to allow users to display map layers dynamically, pan and zoom the Altai region, and view specific monument types.

The project was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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