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Art, Archaeology,

and Landscape

Cultural
Landscapes,
Cultural Change

18

his atlas is about the creation of cultural landscapes


through the purposeful location of ancient monuments
within the larger physical setting. The materials developed here are drawn from our documentation of thousands of
stone structures and images found within the Altai Mountains
of Mongolia. Our approach reflects our persuasion that when
people long ago constructed those monuments, they did so with
a conscious sense of the mountain ridges, rivers, directionality, and view sheds around them. Embedded in their location
of standing stones, altars, burial mounds, image stones, and
concentrations of rock art was a deep sense of the significance
of natural elements, of a natural order in the world and in the
cosmos. In order to consider this material, we need to establish
a conceptual framework of interconnected and embedded contextschronological, environmental, and material. The purpose
of this chapter is to establish that framework by looking at the
larger paleoenvironment, the chronology of relevant cultures,
and the nature of monument typologies within a chronological
perspective. In the last sections of the chapter we will introduce
approaches to the consideration of surface monuments in the
larger landscape; these will be used to guide our consideration of
the cultural landscapes within each basin and within the region
as a whole.
For several reasons, chronologies of ancient cultures in the
Mongolian Altai remain general. There are no written documents that clearly relate to cultures earlier than that of the Trks
and thus no objective means of naming cultures or locating their
epicenters. Scientific analyses of organic materials may help
to assign dates to monuments, but they do not give us names
to attach to those remains. Furthermore, across the high Altai
regionincluding northwest Mongolia, the Altai Republic in
Russia, northeastern Kazakhstan, and northern Chinathere is
no general agreement regarding either the identity of archaeologically retrieved cultures or their dates. Although there are
significant archaeological parallels between what we find in the
Altai and in other regions of Mongolia, those parallels still support little more than a general chronology, and one that lacks the
assignment of cultural names.
On the other hand, archaeological excavations of monuments in Mongolias central and northern aimag are beginning to result in a critical mass of comparable material and in a
range of dates that may help to identify similar monuments in
the Altai Mountains. This material, added to that derived from
published archaeological explorations in the Russian republics
of Altai and Tuva and in northern China, certainly suggests a
broad chronological framework for specific monument types. In
addition, studies of lakebed sediments on either side of the Altai
Ridge have allowed scientists to reconstruct the succession of
plants and trees that dominated the region in prehistory; with its
indication of habitat, this material suggests which animals could
have been found in our study area and when. These objective
paleoenvironmental conditions can be associated with technological and economic changes that appear in rock art and are
reflected in excavated finds from burials. Finally, the styles in
which humans represented themselveswhether hunting animals, driving carts, or ridingcan be used to relate large groups
of images to specific culture periods. (These relationships, set
within a chronological framework, are more fully developed in

the charts in 2.3.) In these ways and many others, by working


back and forth between contingent materials, it becomes possible to propose a general chronology for northwestern Mongolia:
one that acknowledges the variety and overlay of archaeological
monuments within our study area but also respects the chronological framework established in other regions with reference to
monument typologies.
Because the names of prehistoric cultures in North and
Central Asia refer to sites excavated outside the Mongolian Altai,
their usefulness in our study area is limited. Our primary designation of cultural periods will instead depend, firstly, on broad
epochs defined by geological prehistory, and, secondarily, on the
cultural results embedded in new technologies and their economic consequences. These epochs include the Late Pleistocene,
which ended about eleven thousand years before the present,
coinciding with the disappearance of extensive glaciation and
harsh steppe vegetation; the Early and Middle Holocene, which
saw a gradual amelioration of climate and the extension of forest
cover over a period of approximately 5,000 years; and the onset
of the Late Holocene (approximately 4,500 years before the
present), coinciding with the beginning of a period of cooling
and drying. During this period (which is, of course, the geologic
period in which we live), forests began to retreat and vegetation
gradually returned to steppe species.
Cultural periods, like geological periods, do not shift
abruptly: change takes time measured in decades if not in centuries. Terminology and the timelines by which we graph these
periods should be understood as approximate at best, with ends
that blur and shift only gradually. Ancient populations of the
Eurasian steppe were notoriously fluidboth in space and in
ethnic reference. The variety within monument typologies that
we can associate with the Bronze Age, for example, and that
within rock art of the same broad period indicates that contemporaneous populations in our study area must have been far more
heterogeneous than are acknowledged by single culture names.
Unquestionably, the preliminary chronologies presented in the
following pages will be disputed by others and modified many
times over; they are intended, however, to offer a basic framework for giving cultural and chronological order to the materials
reviewed in this volume.

Drawing: Lynn-Marie Kara

2.1 Square khirigsuur, Bronze Age

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

Standing Stones

SS

IA
Tsagaan
Nuur

Oigor
Gol

Sogoo
Gol

88

SS

IA
Tsagaan Gol

63
Tsagaan
Gol

100
175

KhotonKhurgan
Nuur

MONGOLIA

Khovd Gol

158

Sagsay Gol

Late bronze
age and early iron age burial mounds
Khirigsuur

SS

5
Tsagaan
Nuur

IN

SS

Elt Gol

IA

62
Sogoo Gol

Tsagaan
Gol
908

MONGOLIA

Khovd Gol

121

KhotonKhurgan
Nuur

MO

NGOLIA

328
Khovd
Gol

212

408
Sagsay
Gol
17

Dayan
Nuur

271
Dayan
Nuur

Oigor Gol

386
Tsagaan
Gol

IN

Sagsay Gol

24

283
Sogoo
Gol

189

52

Standing stones

IA
393
Oigor Gol

KhotonKhurgan
Nuur

Elt Gol

MONGOLIA

Dayan
Nuur

103

IN

170
Khovd Gol

35

Dayan
Nuur
115

41

103

KhotonKhurgan
Nuur

47

Sogoo
Gol

Oigor Gol
51

Tsagaan
Gol

81

14

Drainage basins of major rivers within


study area
Number of features inventoried in each
surveyed basin

IN

Sagsay Gol

Elt Gol
14

Elt Gol

Mounds

68

45

Turkic monuments

2.2 Inventory of feature counts within each basin

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

19

he end of the Pleistocene and its cold, harsh environment spelled the end of the Paleolithic Period and the
disappearance of megafauna that appear in Paleolithic
rock art. The Holocene was characterized by a gradually ameliorating climate with the consequent spread of forests dominated
by larch and spruce throughout the western section of our study
area. The cultures of the early and mid-Holocene would have
corresponded to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods; but we
do not know how these periods should be dated or even whether
such terms apply within the Mongolian Altai. By approximately
forty-five hundred years before the present, however, the climate
was again becoming drier and colder, forests were retreating,
and lake levels falling. Given what we know of the emergence
of the Bronze Age across the Eurasian steppe and within North
Asia, we are safe in dating its inception to approximately two
thousand b.c.e. and its duration into the early first millennium
b.c.e. Critical technological developments during this long
period included the adoption of wheeled vehicles (probably
in the form of heavy carts, 2.9) and, somewhat later, of horse
and camel riding (1.24, 1.26). These changesand particularly
the development of riding with its opportunities for large-scale
herdingcombined with the effects of climate change to create
a need for more frequent changes of pasture. The result of these

Chronology of
Ancient Cultures

Geologic Context

environmental and cultural shifts was the appearance of a full


horse-dependent semi-nomadism.
Dated materials from heavy mounds and from the large
structures known as khirigsuur in other parts of the Altai-Sayan
uplift, and in north-central Mongolia, suggest that their construction began sometime in the mid-Bronze Age and continued through the late Bronze Age. Once again, we do not know
how to name the culture or cultures responsible for these and all
other Bronze Age monuments in our study area. Judging from
the archaeological record in the Minusinsk Basin to the north,
the North Asian tradition of erecting massive standing stones
may have begun before the Bronze Age; we propose that within
our study area, the largest of these stones are Bronze Age in date,
though probably not as early as the huge standing stones in the
Minusinsk Basin. On the other hand, the imagery on deer stones
and certain image stones indicate that they should be dated no
earlier than the Late Bronze Age. That period is contemporaneous with cultures that have been named in other parts of North
Asiathe Karasuk Culture, for example, but we cannot say if
their contemporaries in our study area should be so named. For
that reason, they will here be referred to as people of the Late
Bronze Age.

Paleoenvironmental Context
Temperature/Climate

Geologic Period

Vegetation

Fauna

1,000

1,000

1,500

1,500
Snow
leopards

2,000

2,000

2,500

3,500

1,000 Year Interval

4,500

Domesticated
yak

3,500

Retreating
forests
Falling lake levels

(PALEOENVIRONMENTAL TRANSITION)

LATE HOLOCENE

5,000

8,000

10,000

Warming

Rising
lake levels
Elk

MID-HOLOCENE

4,000

Bear
Increased
humidity

EARLY HOLOCENE

11,000

Cold

LATE PLEISTOCENE

Dry, cold
Glaciers
in retreat

4,500
5,000
6,000
7,000
8,000
9,000

Increasing
mesic vegetation

(PALEOENVIRONMENTAL TRANSITION)

12,000

Moose

Expanding
forests

6,000
7,000

3,000

WIld yak
Cooling

Xeric vegetation
Dry steppe

2.3 Concordance of paleoenvironment and culture

20

End moose
and aurochs
End wild yak

(CULTURAL TRANSITION)

9,000

Years Before Present

Drying

Expanding
dry steppe

Bactrian
camel

500 Year Interval

500 Year Interval

4,000

Present
vegetation

1,000 Year Interval

(CULTURAL TRANSITION)

Present
dry conditions

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

Argali
Ibex
Wild horse
Aurochs

End ostrich
End mammoths,
and rhinoceros
Ostrich
Mammoths,
rhinoceros

Years Before Present

3,000

2,500
Present
temperatures

10,000
11,000
12,000

We are on more certain ground with a burial structure


and imagery associated firmly with the Eurasian Scythian Culture and dated to the Late Bronze and Early Iron agesthat
is, between the eighth and third centuries b.c.e. During that
period, there was a gradual shift from the use of bronze to that
of iron and thus no clear division between the eponymous ages;
nor was there a sudden emergence of the full horse dependency
that came to characterize these people. For this reason, the transition period encompassing the Late Bronze and Early Iron
ages will also be referred to as the period of the Early Nomads.
The Pazyryk phase of this culture, centered in the Russian Altai
mountains and dated to the fifth through third centuries b.c.e.,
is securely rooted in the Iron Age. After that, however, we are
faced with renewed uncertainty. The impact of the Hsiung-nu
(Xiongnu) confederacy across the eastern steppe does not seem
to be reflected in Bayan lgiy, and the nature of culture and
its archaeological monuments between the Early Iron Age and
the Turkic Period is uncertain. Only with Turkic monuments
do we return to a solid if still general chronology: sixth through
the ninth centuries, with the Uighur hegemony dated to the last
century of that period. With the end of the Turkic Period, however, the Altai region seems to have receded from history until
the modern period.

2.4 Bear hunt, Bronze Age This composition is a window into an


ancient hunt when men worked in bands and on foot, with long bows
and spears. In this composition, several men surround the animal.
Another figuredone more recently?rushes in from the left, where a
piece of the boulder has been knocked off.

Cultural Context
Cultural Periods
1,000

TURKIC PERIOD

Monument Typologies
Turkic, Uigher
image structures

Anthropomorphic Imagery
Riders, hunting, combat

Faunal Imagery
Reindeer

1,500
IRON AGE
Snow leopards

2,000

End stylized deer,

EARLY IRON AGE

2,500

moose
aurochs

3,000

LATE BRONZE AGE

Deer stones

wild yak

3,500
yak

mmoths,
oceros

500 Year Interval

Years Before Present

ch

Khirigsuur

Heavy mounds
Massive standing stones

Hunting, combat

Figures
Herding,
caravan scenes with horned
headdresses
Carts

5,000

Domesticated
yak

End wild
yak

Wild yak

4,500

Hero hunters
(NEOLITHIC)

Spirit figures

Moose

Birthing women

6,000

Hunters with clubs

7,000
Elk
Bear

8,000
9,000

ostrich

mammoths,
hinoceros

BRONZE AGE

Dwellings, fourcornered mounds

End bear
End moose, auroch

Bactrian camel
Stylized deer

Camel riders,
horse riders

4,000

1,000 Year Interval

se

Early Nomadic
burial mounds

MESOLITHIC

10,000
11,000
12,000

PALEOLITHIC

Argali
Ibex
Horses
Aurochs

Aurochs
Ostrich
Rhinoceros
Mammoths

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

21

Rock Art

IA
SS

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!! !
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!!
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!!

Sogo

!
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!! ! !
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!!

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Go

d Gol
ov
Kh
!

!
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Khoton
Nuur
!

MONGOLIA
! !!!
!
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!!
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!
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Khurgan
! Nuur !

Tolbo
Nuur

Sagsa

IN
A

!
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!!
!

!
!

y Go

Dayan
Nuur

MO
CHINA

KAZ AKHSTAN

lgiy

!
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!!!
!
!

RUSSIA

NGOLIA

40 km

2.6 Rock art concentrations

the upper valley of Khatuugiin Gol, on the massive moraine along


Khltstiin Gol, and across the rocky moraine known as Khar
Brg, at the east end of Khurgan Nuur. Rocky outcroppings
at the top of high ridges offer the possibility of ancient imagery.
Elegant examples exist on the high ridges between the Turegtiin

2.7 Predation scene, Late Bronze Age


This fine representation of wolves attacking a deer,
from Baga Oigor, appears to have been pecked
over another, earlier scene with wild goats.

22

hunter with a large weapon and static animals


indicate an early date. Two frontal birthing
women, arms raised, are visible in the right-center
and may be earlier in date.

2.5 Hunter, animals, and birthing women,


Early Bronze Age Tsagaan Salaa IV. The frontal

ock art is the general term for imagery pecked or painted


on natural rock surfaces. In mountainous Bayan lgiy
aimag, rock art occurs in the open air rather than within
caves; and if there were ever any painted images, they have long
since disappeared. The rock art that has survived to the present
was pecked-out with heavy stones or sharp metal instruments,
using direct or indirect blows. For the first several hundred years
after they were executed, the images were white; but over the
millennia, most have darkened down from their original appearance. Depending on the time of year and the suns angle, the
images may stand out clearly or disappear from before our eyes.
Within our focus region are located several of the largest
and finest concentrations of rock art in North Asia, including one in the upper Oigor drainage and another within the
valley of the upper Tsagaan Gol. A smaller but important site
extends over three hills on the north shore of Khoton Nuur and
a fourthunknown until 2005is located under the east flanks
of Tsengel Khairkhan Uul. Aral Tolgoi at the far northwestern
end of Khoton Nuur is the smallest of these complexes but the
most ancient. In addition to these complexes, many small concentrations of rock art exist throughout the region. Taken altogether, the complexes and sites attest to the desire of ancient
Altai inhabitants to represent their world in visual imagery and
to do so with an impressively realistic expression.
The rock art of mountainous Bayan lgiy includes individual images as well as simple and complex compositions involving
up to more than one hundred elements. In some valleys, one finds
this material randomly pecked on the surfaces of granitic boulders left from the last major glacial advance. This is true within

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

rivershere so isolated that one asks why gifted artists of the


Bronze Age should have chosen to leave their creations there.
Winter dwellings nestled against rocky cliffs may offer clues
to the presence of rock art concentrations. The appearance of
these modest structures almost always indicates the millenniaold locations of winter habitation sites in protected places; thus
the cliffs behind the snug wood and stone huts of today are often
marked by rock-pecked images dating back to the Bronze and
Early Iron ages. Excellent examples of such sites and their rock
art occur in the valleys of Khar Yamaa and Khargantyn Gol.
Ancient artists seem to have preferred the hard, smoothed
surfaces of metamorphosed sandstone found along a few high
river valleys. This stone has typically been scraped and polished
by ancient glaciers and darkened to a deep rose or mahogany
hue. The time-hardened surfaces can take fine, dense pecking as
well as elegant engraved lines. As a result, the sandstone outcroppings in the high Altai valleys contain an extraordinary pictorial
record of cultures extending over thousands of years. Among all
surface monuments, rock art has a unique character: while it is
possible to identify period styles and general cultural markers,
we are also regularly struck by the individualizing nature of representation. In this respect, rock art brings us much closer to a
sense of real, if anonymous, individuals from a deep past.
The varied subjects of Altai rock art offer a window into the
life and values of the people who lived here over many millennia. Large animals in profile dominate rock art from the pre
Bronze Age. They are almost always represented individually,
motionless, and lacking any psychological interaction with other
images (6.19, 6.22). Early Bronze Age scenes of hunters hold-

ing cudgels and long bows may reflect the emergence of mythic
traditions revolving around the heroic hunter (2.5). In rock art
datable by style and subject to the middle and late Bronze Age
we find many hunting scenes (2.4), but we also find herding
scenes, scenes of men driving carts (2.9), and of families caravanning from one habitation site to another, their children and
household goods packed onto massive yak (3.36). These compositions reveal developing patterns of transhumance as herding increasingly shaped peoples lives. Images of animals racing
over the rock surfaces are also typical of the Bronze Age; they
are often rendered with a keen sense of grace, delight, and even
whimsy. It is striking that elements clearly indicative of a spirit
world are remarkably few, and these belong to the Bronze Age
or earlier (3.32).
Representations of scenes of combat and early representations of horse and camel riding (1.24, 1.26) can be dated to
the Bronze and Early Iron ages. Animal imagery slowly began
to reveal a new conventionalization, so that by the middle of
the first millennium b.c.e., rock art had lost much of its former
vitality. During the Turkic Period, the tradition enjoyed a brief
renaissance marked by images of warriors, riders (2.8), and hunting scenes. Thereafter, and for reasons we do not yet understand,
rock art was forgotten as a form of collective expression. The
work of individual artists also lost its vitality, as if visual representation had been supplanted by some other means of individual
creativity. Taken together, however, the materials from the large
complexes and small petroglyphic sites of mountainous Bayan
lgiy constitute, in effect, an extraordinary documentation of
time long past.

2.8 Rider on fast horse, Turkic Period


The whitish patina of this image from the Upper
Tsagaan Gol Complex indicates that it is not as old
as the other images on this page. The riders bow,
headdress, and style of riding are clear indications
of the Turkic Period.

2.9 Cart with driver, Bronze Age This image


from Tsagaan Salaa typifies the mixed perspective
with which carts were represented in Bronze Age
North Asia. In this case, the wheels are spoked and
the reins from the drivers hands are barely visible
as thin lines.

2.10 Hunter, Late Bronze Age In this scene


from Tsagaan Salaa, the artist has clearly rendered
the recurved bow and gorytus (quiver) typical of
weaponry developed in the early period of horse
riding. Varied patinas indicate images done in
successive periods.

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

23

Memorial
Structures:
Bronze Age

IA
SS

Sogo

Go
d Gol
ov
Kh

lgiy

MONGOLIA
Khoton
Nuur

IN
A

Tolbo
Nuur

Khurgan
Nuur

Sagsa

y Go

Dayan
Nuur

KAZ AKHSTAN

MO
CHINA

RUSSIA

NGOLIA
0

40 km

2.12 Bronze Age structures

There is a great variety in the basic structure type: some khirigsuur are massive affairs, others low and thin in appearance.
Some are made with elegant white or rosy-hued boulders, others
with black boulders, and some reflect an interest in a variety of
colors. The mounds themselves are often marked by one or more
depressions, as if the stones had been purposely cleared, perhaps
to allow fire ceremonies.
It is said that the word khirigsuur refers to the Mongolian
name for a Kirghiz burial (Khirgis-khuur), but why that term
should be applied to this structure type is not clear. The monument type probably came into use sometime around the middle
Bronze Age (mid-second millennium b.c.e.) and continued to
be built and used into the Early Iron Age (c. 600 b.c.e.). In some
regions of Mongolia and the pre-Baykal, khirigsuur were used as

2.13 Mound or khirigsuur, Bronze Age


The extended skirt of this mound suggests it is
a platform khirigsuur. It is the only substantial
structure in the immediate area on a road leading
up from Buyant and over to Khargantyn Gol. Its
isolated location at a pass suggests an ancient
ovoo, a structure dedicated to the spirit of the
mountain rather than to a human burial.

24

The deeply depressed mound of this khirigsuur,


or collared mound, originally rose approximately
3.5 m in height. Small circular altars appear on the
north, west, and east sides, but there is no external
frame. The structure is located at the top of a pass
commanding a view of the wide Khovd valley.

2.11 Massive khirigsuur, Bronze Age

een from a distance, the valleys of the Mongolian Altai


seem empty of signs of human culture. One might spy, far
off, a cluster of yurts, a single rider, or animals accompanied by a herder meandering up trails to high slopes and ridges.
An occasional wooden hut nestled into a hollow against a cliff
suggests the potential presence of people, but except in winter
such dwellings are empty. In all directions, the view that stretches
before us suggests that ancient human cultures must have overlooked this land, discouraged, perhaps, by the harsh wind and
cold and by a pitiless summer sun.
With closer examination, the empty landscape begins to
reflect life and movement. Marking passes, bordering lakes,
and punctuating river terraces are countless stone monuments
indicating the paths of ancient peoples. These silent monuments
offer a window into a deep past; they enable us to repopulate the
ancient Altai.
Of all the monuments, khirigsuur are the largest structures
and in many ways the most puzzling. Within the Mongolian
Altai, these elaborate, even elegant, constructions are typically
found on open plains or on terraces overlooking rivers, singly
or in pairs, or even in groups. They range in size from as small
as 10 m to greater than 50 m in diameter. Originally their central mounds were much higher, but with time they have settled,
although some retain impressive height (2.11). One kind of
khirigsuur is marked by a round or squared surrounding frame
(2.17) of low boulders. Radii aligned with the cardinal directions may connect the mound and surrounding wall. A second
type, called platform, looks like a flying saucer or a solid pavement: its central mound is surrounded by a rounded or squared
stone skirt (2.13). These khirigsuur do not, of course, have rays.
A third type of khirigsuur can be called a boulder khirigsuur,
since the central mound is either replaced by or forms a skirt
around a massive, naturally occurring boulder (11.43). Small
circular altars constructed with low boulders are usually found
on the khirigsuurs northern, western, and southern perimeters
while the eastern edge of the frame may be marked by a kind of
entrance, standing stone, or mound.

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

2.14 Four-cornered mound, Bronze Age This mound is one of


several on the high north side of the Sogoo valley. Still visible are fine
white stones in the center and large corner stones of contrasting color.

simple burials, with the body laid directly under the mound and
with few funerary objects. In Tuva, just north of our study region
and where a number of spectacular khirigsuur have been excavated, there is no evidence they were used for burials. We do not
know if the khirigsuur in the Mongolian Altai served as burials
or as altars. To date, none here or in the Russian Altai have been
excavated. It is easier to guess the function of the small circular
altars around the khirigsuur. Excavations have revealed that for
thousands of years they were used for burned offerings.
The khirigsuur is not the only structure type that can be
associated with the Bronze Age. Throughout our study region,
we find a distinctive kind of stone mound composed of piles of
sharp talus or heavy boulders (2.16). These structures are found
individually on high points of land, along terraces, or spread in
large numbers across elevated slopes. Curiously, most studies of
Altai monuments have ignored these mounds, yet their numbers, the massiveness of their construction, and their locations
suggest they were connected to ceremonies relating to death.
Perhaps because of the immovability of their settled stones, the
mounds rarely have central depressions. If they were used as
burials, the individual was probably laid directly on the surface
of the ground and covered with bouldersmuch as one finds
in the case of isolated herders burials today. It is also possible
that these mounds were the sites of sky burials or were used to
commemorate sky burials on the cliffs above. If that were the
case, then these mounds would more appropriately be considered funerary altars or cenotaphs. Whatever their function, we
are certain they are much earlier than the Early Iron Age because
their form does not match any known for postBronze Age cultures in this part of Asia.
Scattered throughout the Mongolian Altai are small groups
of structures squared in form with unusual boulders of contrasting coloration marking their four corners and centers (2.14).
Known as four-cornered mounds, these structures are usually
aligned to the cardinal directions. Few have been excavated, but
there is sufficient evidence to indicate they were Bronze Age
burials; and for all the beauty of the stones with which the surface structures were constructed, it seems that the dead were laid
in simple, shallow pits with minimal grave goods.
Another poorly understood structure, here called dwelling,
takes the form of a rectangular or rounded pattern laid out on

the surface of the earth in white, grey, and black stones (2.15).
Such patterns sometimes occur in great numbers, consistently
oriented east to west and marked by entrances at both ends.
Standing boulders outside the east entrance indicate the particular significance of that direction. Double walls and interior
hearths call to mind present-day winter dwellings with chinked
log and plank walls (1.19). There is no evidence these structures
were ever used for underground burials; they may rather have
been intended to represent dwellings for the dead in the next
world. What happened to the bodies of the deceased is a mystery; one must again consider the possibility that the dead were
given sky burials, perhaps in the cliffs that so often loom behind
or above the fields of dwellings. By reference to images of dwellings in rock art of the Bronze Age, we can hypothesize that these
patterns belong to the same period. Also to this period must date
the curious long lines that so frequently stretch for many meters
from the dwellings down to the river below, or up to a mountain
ridge, or in the direction of a sacred mountain. We can surmise
that these lines somehow anchored the dwellings to a significant
zone of transition: that they functioned in some way to assist the
dead to travel to the realm of the spirits.

2.15 Dwellings and lines, Bronze Age


The dwellings in this group within the middle
Tsagaan Gol valley are made from white and black
stones. To the west they face out to the sacred
mountain, Shiveet Khairkhan, visible in the center
background. On the left can be seen some of the
stone lines that also extend in that direction.

2.16 Old mound, Bronze Age This mound


above Khltstiin Gol is typical of so many in the
Mongolian Altai: rough, earthed-over, and located
high above the river with a view shed to the east
and west. At some point in the millennia since it
was built, the huge boulder poised on the mound
rolled down from the cliff to the north.

2.17 Square khirigsuur, Bronze Age


This fine platform khirigsuur, approximately 14 m
on each side, stands on a terrace over Khltstiin
Gol, its east side oriented to Sagsay Gol below,
its west side to the sacred mountain, Tsengel
Khairkhan Uul.

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

25

IA
SS

Sogo

Go
d Gol
ov
Kh

lgiy

MONGOLIA
Khoton
Nuur

IN
A

Tolbo
Nuur

Khurgan
Nuur

Sagsa

Dayan
Nuur

y Go

ome Bronze Age structure types may have continued to be


built well into the Early Iron Age. An example is a kind
of thin khirigsuur frequently found in the vicinity of
Early Iron Age burial mounds and occasionally involving a
complex group of altars unlike anything easily related to Bronze
Age monuments.
There are other structure types of which the functions, like
their date, also remain unclear. These include a curious circular
monument surrounded by a wall of standing flat slabs slanting
in toward the center (2.19). They may also include small paved
structures sometimes associated with certain khirigsuur (2.23).
Several structures are reminiscent of burial types reported in adjacent Altai-Sayan regions, but their identification in the Mongolian
Altai is uncertain.
We are on more secure ground with the burial mounds of
the Early Iron Age (sixth through third centuries b.c.e.). These
are usually arranged in irregular rows of two to eight or more
mounds extending roughly from north to south (2.22). Rows
of standing stones (balbal) may extend from the mounds to the
east for a distance of up to 30 meters (2.20) and small altars of
grey boulders and black standing slabs often occur on the west
side of the mounds (2.21). Excavations of mounds throughout the Altai-Sayan region have revealed wooden chambers in
which the dead were placed either in larch coffins or directly on
the south side of the chamber floor, their heads to the east and
their faces to the north. They were laid out with their household
goods, their finest clothing and even horsesas if prepared for
life in the next world and for the journey there. In the high Altai,
the stone mounds of some burials have created a subsoil lens
of permafrost that has effectively preserved the organic materials in deeply buried, wooden chambers. Despite a few wellpublicized excavations of frozen burials, however, the vast major-

Memorial
Structures:
Late Bronze and
Early Iron Ages

KAZ AKHSTAN

MO
CHINA

RUSSIA

NGOLIA
0

40 km

2.18 Late Bronze and Early Iron Age structures

ity of these chambers were plundered in antiquity. Others are


curiously empty: built but never used, marked on the surface
of the ground by their stone mounds. These burials are associated with what is sometimes referred to as the Scythian Period
culture of early nomads, or the Pazyryk Culturethe culture of
the Scythian Period specific to the Altai region. However one
names the culture responsible for these burials, they all belong to
a relatively limited era.

2.19 Collared mound, Late Bronze Age (?) This structure, one of two above the left bank of Nutsgenii Gol, is unusual within our region and has no
clear, published analogies in neighboring regions. It has a diameter of approximately 10 m.

26

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

2.21 Altar, Early Nomadic Period


Within this altar from Tsagaan Asgat, the round,
light-colored boulders on the west are river
stones; the standing black slabs on the east are
mountain stones. This color pattern regularly
recurs in altars accompanying burials of the Early
Iron Age. It suggests a concern for a symbolic
integration, perhaps of mountains and rivers,
deemed essential at death.

2.20 Burial mounds, Early Nomadic Period One long row of balbal stretches to the east from sunken burial mounds on the left bank of Sagsay Gol.

2.23 Circular structure, Late Bronze Age (?)


The fine circular structure, with a diameter of 11 m,
is made of carefully placed light and dark stones. It
is one of several altar-like forms surrounding a thin
khirigsuur at Tsagaan Asgat. Its date is uncertain.

2.22 Burials mounds, Early Nomadic Period A row of five deeply sunken burial mounds on the left bank of Chigirtein Gol is seen here from the
north, looking south to Dzhalangash Uul. On the right (west side) one of the typical altars associated with Early Iron Age burials in the Altai is visible.

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

27

Standing Stones

IA
SS

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RUSSIA

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NGOLIA

CHINA

40 km

2.24 Standing stones

stones from other regions, those of the Mongolian Altai can confidently be dated to the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages. The
latest standing stone type can be easily dated to the Early Iron
Age. Smaller than the massive Bronze Age stones but larger than
later Turkic balbal, these stonesalso called balbalappear in
rows that stretch to the east from Early Iron Age burial mounds
(2.20). Within the Mongolian Altai, these stones are frequently
shaped with the high, narrow face to the east. Their coloration
and richly textured mineralization recall stylized deer in flight.
They are certainly the last of the deer stone tradition.

2.25 Standing stones, Bronze Age


Within this group on the right bank of the Khar
Yamaa, there were originally four or more standing
stones, but over the centuries at least one has
toppled and broken. The rectangular enclosing
frame has also been disrupted, perhaps as a result
of the trampling of animals rubbing their backs
against the stones. These impressive monoliths,
seen here from the southwest, are set within a
wide valley, easily visible from a great distance.

28

oving from broad valleys into side draws or traveling over high ridges, the traveler frequently thinks he
sees another person standing quietly in the distance.
Only on closer inspection is that figure revealed as a large standing stone. These monoliths vary in size but may be of massive
proportions, and the material from which they are carved is
often of unusual quality and color. Over the millennia, many
have fallen, but originally they were oriented with their sides to
the four quarters. Deer stones are a particular kind of standing
stone, named for the images of deer and other animals often
pecked on their surfaces. A deer stone is typically carved with
round earrings on the sides of its head, a necklace of beads, and
a belt and hanging weapons (2.27). More rarely a human face
explicitly conveys the stones anthropomorphic reference (2.28).
Deer stones usually occur singly, but in one instance just above
Tsengel there are two tall stones, one with a muted human face
(5.11). At the famous site of Tsagaan Asgat, there are more than
eighty standing stones or fallen fragments (7.5).
Whatever the size of the standing stones, they all conjure human figures; in the case of deer stones, that reference
was clearly intended and expressed. Scholars have traditionally
divided North Asian deer stones into three broad stylistic types
roughly associated with north, central Mongolia, Tuva, and the
Russian Altai. Within the Mongolian Altai, however, these stone
types are often found in unusual combinations, suggesting the
constant mix of populations within this large region.
The dating of standing stones will always be approximate
and dependent on size, number, location, the stones proximity
to other datable monuments, and the elements carved on the
stones surfaces. With those criteria in mind, we may propose
the following schema. Massive standing stones, always set within
frames and often accompanied on their east sides by small circular altars, must have been erected in the Bronze Age. On the
basis of the carvings on their sides and by comparison with deer

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

2.26 Leaning stones, Bronze Age


Set within a still clear frame, this finely quarried
pair of stones, each approximately 1.10 m tall, is
essentially hidden from view in a small draw on
the north side of Chigirtein Nuur. Originally the
stones stood erect, but over the millennia one
has slumped back against the other. The stones
are seen here from the northeast.

2.28 Image stone, Late Bronze Age


The high side of this stone is carved with a nowmuted human face, but other than its shape there
are no elements that allow it to be identified as a
deer stone. Alone, facing to the east, and with a
height of 1.3 m, the stone is located within a high,
closed draw sloping down to Sogoo Gol, for all
appearances the master of its hidden valley.

2.27 Deer stone, Late Bronze or Early Iron Age This small deer
stone in the Upper Tsagaan Gol Complex is of the Altai type: it lacks
animal imagery but is carved with a beaded necklace, round earrings,
and three parallel slashes to indicate a human face. The dark grey stone
is unusual in being covered on its east side with drilled concavities, often
referred to as cup marks. The stone faces east within a large ritual site on
the left bank of Tsagaan Salaa.

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

29

Turkic
Monuments

IA
SS

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CHINA

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IN
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MONGOLIA
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2.30 Turkic memorials

2.29 Burial, Turkic Period Within the


Mongolian Altai, Turkic burial mounds are
relatively infrequent. They may appear individually
or in clustered groups. This mound in the Elt basin
has the remains of a wooden post protruding from
its west side. Small mounds of boulders lost in
deep grass around the large mound suggest the
remains of followers of the individual buried here.

30

!!!

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he most visible monuments associated with the Trks


include burial mounds, rectilinear altars called enclosures, and a variety of standing stones, including small
balbal, false image stones, and true image stones. Turkic burials
take the form of mounds (2.29) usually greater in height and less
earthed-over than the much older mounds of the Early Iron Age.
Not infrequently one can find a wooden stake, or what looks
like the base of a tree, protruding from the west or north side
of the mound. This is all that remains of what may have been a
pole carrying the flayed body of a horsea virtual steed for the
person buried beneath the mound. Within mountainous Bayan
lgiy, the most curious aspect of Turkic burial mounds is that
they are so infrequently encountered. This circumstance suggests
that here the dead were disposed of in some other manner than
burial, their lives and deaths rather than their bodies memorialized through the ubiquitous enclosures.
Turkic enclosures (2.33) are box-like structures defined by
long slabs laid on their sides and abutting at the enclosures corners. The space within the enclosure is piled with light-colored
boulders and dark slabs. The enclosures may occur individually
or in groups of between two and seven. In many cases, their different sizes suggest memorial structures for a family or a group
of related individuals. Their sides are always roughly aligned with
the cardinal directions; often there will be a row of small balbal
extending to the east (11.116). Less common are enclosures surrounded by a low trench and an outer dike. These forms are
certainly the remains of more elaborate memorial structures.

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

40 km

Excavations of enclosures in the Russian Altai and Tuva have


revealed the presence of central pits within which may be found
the remains of a lower tree trunk. The placement of a larch pole
within the pit has suggested that the Turkic memorial rituals also
involved erecting a virtual tree that may have represented the axis
between this world and the next or perhaps the path along which
the dead persons soul was conducted from this world to the land
of the spirits. Bones of sheep and horses and occasional finds of
silver cups also indicate that funerary rites involved burned offerings and drinking ceremonies.
In addition to the lines of small balbal, a larger standing
stone or a stone partially or fully carved to represent a man
often stands outside the east frame of the enclosure or within
the enclosure but facing east (2.32). Uncarved standing stones
or stones carved in the most rudimentary way are substitutes for
true image stones (2.33), but the fully carved image stones are
among the most interesting of all Altai antiquities. They range
from crude to detailed and refined. Hundreds of such figures
are known from Tuva, Russian Altai, and Mongolia. Within
mountainous Bayan lgiy, scholars have recorded more than
115, most still in their original positions. The images are typically carved with mustaches and small beards, ears and fine ear-

rings, large collared and belted jackets, and small purses on their
right hips. With his right hand, each figure holds a goblet in
front of his chest while his left hand clasps a sword hanging from
his belt. At their most impressive, the images are solemn and
compelling, gazing steadfastly to the east. The figures associated
with the late Turkic, or Uighur, Period are similar to those of the
Trks but with decisive differences: they are not associated with
enclosures and their figure type is more massive than that of the
Trks (2.31). Typically, they wear long Central Asian robes, and
with both hands they hold large vessels before their chests.
There is general agreement that the Turkic images must represent honored dead, but the meaning of the balbal that extend
to the east before them is less certain. Some argue, on the basis of
old Turkic texts, that balbal refer to specific enemies slain by the
deceased warrior; others argue that they refer to a generic enemy
and indicate an abstract honoring of the dead.
In the case of the Turkic and Uighur materials, as with those
of much earlier periods, within each specific typology we find significant variations in both style and quality. Clearly the cultural
norm was constantly subjected to individual creative impulses
that we can perceive even if we cannot identify the individual or
lineage responsible for that innovation.

2.31 Stone image, Uighur Period This fine


image, discussed in the chapter on Sagsay Gol,
typifies the Uighur image type. Its head is massive,
its expression solemn; its heavy body, dressed in a
long robe, faces out to the east. With both hands
the image holds a vessel in front of its chest. The
figure looks out over a rocky plain as if affirming
his ancient authority.

2.33 Enclosures and false image stone, Turkic Period These two enclosures from Khargantyn Gol typify the structure
type, with heavy slab walls and interiors filled by boulders and broken slabs. In this case the southernmost enclosure is fronted
on its east side by a roughly shaped standing stonea false image stone. The view here is to the northwest.

2.32 Image stone, Turkic Period This figure is one of four standing
together in a large ritual site. The bird guano covering its head does not
hide the fine carving, particularly of the mans arms and hands. With a
height of 0.90 m, he faces east. Upper Tsagaan Gol.

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

31

Monuments in
the Landscape

2.34 Standing stones, Bronze Age When


closely approached, these stonesa little over
1.0 m in heightcan be seen to frame the snowy
mountain, Shiveet Khairkhan, rising at the west
end of Tsagaan Gol valley. Seen from a greater
distance, as here, the side valley within which the
stones are located and the round altars on their
east are clearly visible.

SSI A

IN

laa

n Sa
Tydyk

Gol

ugiin

laa

MONGOLIA

W
es

Tsaga
a

Sa

Go

Baga

Khat
u

Shiveet Khairkhan
3,349 m

Ts
ag
a

Standing
Stones

ol

an

Baga
Khatuugiin
Nuur

32

RU

ar
Kh

ust as archaeological monuments reveal significant space


through their directional orientations, so their locations
suggest ancient understandings of important landmarks in
their physical world. This spatial imperative conveys an expressive depth that cannot be understood by simple drawings of the
monuments themselves, nor is it revealed to the viewer by looking only at the monuments. It is rather essential that we look
away from the monument, out at the surrounding landscape,
and particularly in the direction indicated by the monuments
orientation. In doing so, we begin to sense that monuments were
deliberately placed in relationship to specific rivers and their
flows, to snow-crested ridges and mountains. The monument
seems to borrow the power of the physical feature or to set up a
reverberation of reference between the eternal, natural element
and the time-bound, human-erected stones. This recurring relationship between monument and physical feature becomes obvious to the observer in the field; it can be recreated in a virtual
form by photography and through the delineation of the monuments view shed.
Regular principles of placement and view shed are particularly apparent in the case of massive standing stones. This is
exemplified by a pair of standing stones in a hidden draw along
the Tsagaan Gol (2.34). The stones are fronted on the east by
three circular altars; to the west they frame the sacred mountain Shiveet Khairkhan. Further to the west, a stone erected
high above the valley floor and invisible from below directs ones
attention east and downriver (2.37). An impressive example of

l
Go
Dez

View shown in photo above


Areas visible from artifact
0

2.35 View shed from standing stones in 2.34


(view looking west)

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

5 km

an extended view shed is offered by two stones, one now fallen,


above the left bank of Mogoityn Gol (2.38). The stone pair was
raised in a high, closed draw, off any track or trail. But the stones
look out over the large plain of Ketnes, with its huge khirigsuur
quite visible in the distance, and beyond to the glaciated ridge at
the border of China, on the south.
In the case of khirigsuur, the view shed often becomes circular and the shape of the monument echoes that of the mountainencircled plain in which it is found. This effect is clearly visible
in the case of the large khirigsuur scattered over Ketnes (9.15). A
somewhat different kind of view shed is offered by a fine khirigsuur at the confluence of Khovd and Godon gol (2.36). This
round structure marks that confluence as significant; tipped to
the south on its slope, it directs our attention to the high peaks
on the south side of Khurgan Nuur, thus joining confluence to
distant mountains.
By contrast to Bronze Age monuments, Turkic memorial
enclosures are bound, above all, to the easterly direction and not
to large features in the landscape. Occasionally, however, east
coincides with an unusually impressive physical feature and the
memorial structure seems to take advantage of that spot to borrow added meaning.
2.38 Standing stones, Bronze Age One of these two massive stones has now fallen and the frame is broken, but the
view from the site is spectacular. In the far mid-ground are visible several large khirigsuur on Ketnes. The high mountains at the
Chinese border rise in the distance. The standing stone measures 1.38 m, the fallen stone measures 1.65 m.

South

ndr Khairkhan Uul


3,914 m

Dayan
Nuur

Tsa

an
t
ga
As

do
Go

ga

2.36 Round khirigsuur, Late Bronze Age This khirigsuur at the

Go

confluence of Godon and Khovd gol shifts our attention to the south and
to ndr Khairkhan Uul, one of the highest peaks on the Chinese border.

Khurgan
Nuur

Gol

Turgenii

Ikh

Kh

oto

Nu

ur

SSI A

Gol

IN

Kho
vd

Kh
a

rg
an
t

Standing Stones

View shown in photo above


Areas visible from artifact

ol
MONGOLIA n G

RU

10 km

North

2.39 View shed from standing stones in 2.38, looking south

2.37 Standing stone, Bronze Age Located on a high and protected


terrace above Tsagaan Salaa, this stone is virtually invisible unless
approached from above. However, the stone seems to have been placed
with careful intention, for it looks directly east down to Shiveet Khairkhan
and the glacial stream that feeds Tsagaan Gol.

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

33

Monuments
Within Space

2.40 Old circle, Bronze Age (?) This muted


circle, set on a high terrace on the east face of the
sacred mountain, Shiveet Khairkhan, may have
been constructed in the Bronze Age. It seems
intended to carry our attention out to the east and
the flow of the milky Tsagaan Gol.

2.41 Square khirigsuur, Bronze Age


Set within the large plain known as Ketnes and
surrounded by mountains, the round mound of
the khirigsuur is contrasted by its squared frame.
At each of the four corners, small altars reaffirm
the cardinal directions.

2.42 Standing stones, Bronze Age


These four massive stones, each of varying
coloration, are set within a rectangular frame
oriented from north to south. Not only do the
stones insist on the four directions, they also point
down slope to a number of large khirigsuur and
beyond to the marshy valley of the middle Khovd.

34

he surface structures and standing stones reviewed in


these pages encode ancient understandings of meaningful space. Even if we cannot say for certain what those
understandings were, analogies with other elaborate spatial diagrams allow us to infer that they were intended and loaded with
cultural significance.
A round khirigsuur obviously has no specific spatial orientation: with or without rays, it suggests a concern for the possibility of infinite extension from the center (2.46). With the
addition of rays to the four quarters, circularity is integrated with
the indication of earthly directionality. When the khirigsuur is
squared (2.41), the same integration occurs through the central mound and external frame. As a whole, the khirigsuur thus
becomes a supreme sacred diagram; by analogy to later Chinese
or Tibetan formulations, it suggests a deliberate figurative joining of Heaven and Earth, of eternal and delimited time. When
an entrance, standing stone, or altar is added on the east side of
the frame (11.25), one senses that the cosmic integration of circle and square has been qualified, and that the direction east carried some overriding importance with reference to the afterlife.
Variations on these themes may be expressed in the heavy
mounds with collars and adjoining altars (4.12, 11.26) as well
as in the four-cornered mounds of the Bronze Age. Massive
standing stones set within rectangular frames offer a somewhat
different spatial configuration (2.42). Stones and frames affirm
the four cardinal directions, but when there are multiple stones
together, they add an insistence on a north-south axis as well
as on the vertical axis implicating infinite extension above and
below. Deer stones reflect a similarly encoded space, but they
insist on east as the dominant direction (7.5). With the rows of

A r c h a e o l o g y a n d L a n d s c a pe i n t h e M o n g o l i a n A lta i

2.43 Burial mounds, Early Nomadic Period


There are seventeen burials within this long line
of mounds extending from north to south on the
sloping terrace of Khara Zharyg. On the west side
of the mounds are visible several altars of black and
white stones. A single line of black balbal extends
to the east from one of the more northern mounds,
right background.

2.44 Image, enclosure, and balbal, Turkic


Period This memorial grouping is located in the
valley of Sogoo Gol. The simple image looks out to
the east and toward the sacred mountain, Khuren
Khairkhan Uul.

burial mounds from the Early Iron Age (2.43), we find an even
greater complication of familiar patterns. The rounded mounds
recall the circularity affirmed by the khirigsuur, but their spatial
distribution indicates an ancient preoccupation with the polarity
of north and south. That axial order is balanced by the altars on
the west side of the mounds and the balbal extending to the east.
The regularly recurring layout of mounds and their adjacent elements indicates that each direction must have had its own meaning within the cosmology of the Early Nomads, and that east was
probably related to renewal, and west and north to death.

2.45 Thin khirigsuur and altars, Bronze Age The mound


and paved disk of the khirigsuur are so low that they are difficult to
distinguish. Outside the disk one can see some of the altars indicated in
the diagram on the right, as well as modern Kazakh burials and a large
khirigsuur mound in the background.

When we come to the memorial enclosures, images, and


balbal of the Turkic Period, it is certain that the cosmos was conceived in terms of the orderly extension of the four quarters and
that eastthe direction toward which the images face and the
balbal extend (2.44)must have been associated with a principle of renewal. The diagram encoded in the Turkic memorial
structures suggests an understanding of the cosmos in terms that
were bound to principles of order and delimitation and within
which the infinite cosmic extension expressed in the khirigsuur
was eschewed.

2.46 Diagram of khirigsuur, Bronze Age

Drawing: Lynn-Marie Kara

Art, Archaeology, and Landscape

The disposition of a variety of altars around a thin


khirigsuur (2.45) demonstrates the extreme sense
of spatial organization embedded in many of the
ancient monuments.

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