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THE XIONGNU CIVILIZATION: A SIZEABLE CHALLENGE

For more than ten years the French Archaeological Expedition in Mongolia, working in close collaboration with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, has carried out a vast research program on Xiongnu civilization. Since this involves using archaeological evidence to reexamine one of the least understood aspects of the history of the Asian steppes, the challenge is a sizeable one. We know that the Xiongnu confederation managed, during the third and second centuries BC, to rule an immense territory extending some 3,500 km from east to west, from Manchuria to the Altai Mountains, and 1,000 km from north to south, from Lake Baikal to the loop of the Yellow River. This territorial supremacy played a role in modifying the regional geopolitical map. In response to the threat that they represented, the first Chinese empire, created in 221 BC, sought protection behind sections of what would become the Great Wall of China. It would take the Han, their successors, until the mid-first century AD to dismantle the supremacy of the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu civilization apparently did not have a form of writing, and the only information that has come down to us is from the Han historian Sima Qian (145–86 BC) and his successors, all official court historians. In Chapter 110 of his Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian describes the Xiongnu in great detail. Although these documents are precious, they remain accounts written by the Xiongnu's adversaries. Validation work carried out on the Mongolian territory itself has resulted in a number of modifications to what appears in the written sources. Nevertheless, with the exception of the abundance of the archaeological finds made by P. K. Kozlov at Noin-Ula in the 1920s, the subsequent data gathered in Mongolia had not permitted to form new hypothesis.

Using a multidisciplinary scientific perspective, the French Archaeological Expedition in Mongolia is currently studying the question. It is continuing the work begun by Ts. Dorjsüren in the late 1950s. Support for its work comes from France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as a number of grantawarding organizations; in particular, the EDF Foundation and the Grimaldi Forum-Monaco have been unfailingly generous. Aware of the historical significance of the research, the French and Mongolian presidents have also provided patronage for the Expedition.

After several archaeological campaigns in the cemetery of Egiin Gol in north Mongolia, the Expedition decided to explore the Gol Mod necropolis in the Arkhangai province in the centre of the country. The following year, in 2001, it began excavation of a monumental tomb. This principal sepulture remains one of the largest Xiongnu projects opened in our time. In 2005, the floor of the burial chamber of a second large tomb was reached, more than eighteen meters below ground level. Both of these tombs held a chariot. Between these two discoveries, a complete survey of some four hundred tombs in the necropolis was carried out, thirteen satellite sepultures were studied, and earlier neighboring funerary sites were mapped, among other projects. Since 2006, the Archeological Expedition has created a new laboratory in Ulaanbaatar where human and animal vestiges, as well as artifacts are examined, restored and preserved. In all, more than 500 pieces have been excavated, including stones, ceramics, metals, and organic materials—a set of objects that is currently being analyzed, studied and published.

These years of research in collaboration with numerous scientific partners have progressively altered the previous view of this people, who were thought to be mainly nomadic. Sites such as Gol Mod include large funerary ensembles whose characteristics could well be those of a more sedentary tradition. As regards the richness and variety of the funerary objects, they attest to an international trade network underpinning a State-like infrastructure—a sort of prelude to the Türk (5th–7th centuries) and Genghiskhanid (13th–14th centuries) Empires.

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