Archaeologist Dr. Julia Clark discusses decade-long career in Mongolia

Dr. Julia Clark is digging into the history of the nomadic lifestyle and how it can shape our understanding of modern Mongolia.


“There is some Indiana Jones in what we do,” says Dr. Julia Clark, an American archaeologist who has been working in Mongolia since 2007. “I’m not fighting Nazis, but I am on an amazing adventure.”

Between adventures, which Clark pursues as the director of the Northern Mongolia Archaeological Project, she serves as the cultural heritage coordinator at the American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS).

12088337_10204966603716100_8656527595296940953_n(1)“It’s more than a job. It’s a passion,” Clark says of her two positions. “That sounds so corny, but it is.”

Soon, Clark will be back in the field doing the “Indiana Jones” portion of her job. From July 5 to 26, Clark is co-helming an archaeological project in collaboration with the National Museum of Mongolia at Soyo, a site in the Darkhad Depression of northern Mongolia.

A continuation of her previous research, Clark believes the project will enhance our understanding of the interaction between ancient hunting and herding adaptations in the region.

Located at the intersection of the dense forest Taiga and the grassy steppe of the basin, Soyo has a unique depositional history. Windblown sand has stratified thick artifact deposits, creating a 7,000-year continuous record of human activity. According to a project description, “No other similar domestic sites that have such a long, well preserved occupational sequence” exist in Mongolia.

The UB Post sat down with Clark to get the scoop on her upcoming dig, as well as her decade-long career as an archaeologist in Mongolia.

When and how did you decide to pursue archaeology as a career?

I’ve always been interested in archaeology, but it took me a long time to realize it was a real job. Growing up, I loved history stuff and outside stuff, I loved looking for arrowheads. That was a big part of growing up in Montana. But I didn’t really think about it as a real job. I even knew an archaeologist [growing up], and I still didn’t think about it as a real job choice that
people can do.

In college, I took a couple of archaeology classes. I was really shy, but I loved the courses, so on the last day of the class, I went to my professor and said, “I really like this, what do I do?” Because unfortunately [Cornell], my small liberal arts college in Iowa, did not have any more archaeology classes. They just had one in the classroom and one in the field, and I had taken both of those. Thankfully, my professor was really receptive. He was like, “Let’s set up some independent study projects, let’s get you in the lab, let’s get you learning how to analyze artifacts.”

I started working with him and a geologist on an independent project basis. So despite my school not having an archaeology program, I had an amazing start because I had one-on-one mentors who helped me to get going.

When and why did you decide to focus on Mongolia?

Towards the end of my junior year of college… I knew archaeology was “it”. But you can’t just be an archaeologist. Archaeology is the study of people in the past, through their material culture – the things they leave behind. That covers anything from the people that just walked out of this restaurant, technically, to our pre hominid ancestors. So you can imagine you have to specialize [in an aspect of the field], at least a little bit.

So I did a lot of traveling around and figuring out what I wanted to do. [After working in contract archaeology for a while], I ended up coming to Mongolia – it was a choice between volunteering on a project in the Bahamas, volunteering on a project here in Mongolia and taking a job in Alaska. I think, “I could be in the Bahamas!” when it’s really cold or windy here,
but most days I’m really happy with my choice. I had been to the Bahamas on an anthropology class trip and it was amazing and beautiful, but I didn’t know anyone who had been to Mongolia. So, kind of selfishly, I was like,“I want the adventure. I want to go do something completely different.” And that’s why I first came here in 2007.

What was the first project you worked on?

It was called the Khanuy Valley Archaeology Project, and it was led by a guy named Jean-Luc Houle. He was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh at the time [where I would eventually earn my Ph.D.], working on his dissertation research here. I volunteered as a student at first and had a great year.

I thought, “That was an amazing experience, but I need to come back and see – was it just the fun camping experience or is this research really for me?” So I’ve been coming back, and I’ve been back every summer, except one, to do a project.

What is your specialty?

I came out to Mongolia not knowing a whole lot about what I was doing. I just wanted to dig and survey; I didn’t have a good research question for being here. Of course, that’s changed a lot. Graduate school really helped me to develop that.

I focus on Neolithic and early Bronze Age [eras] because I think this is the time when pastoralism was first introduced into Mongolia. And I don’t think they become the dominant economy for a while; I think it takes thousands of years. But this transition is really interesting because Mongolia today…the economy, the national identity, is really wrapped up in domesticated animals and herding. [These are the] seeds of change that kind of make Mongolia Mongolia in a lot of ways.

When you change from hunting, which had existed in Mongolia for tens of thousands of years before herding was introduced, to herding, you’re changing what goes in the pot. You’re changing what you’re eating, what you’re putting on the table, but it changes a lot of other things too.

[Researching] settlement patterns is a lot of what I do. What kind of settlement patterns do you see, because they’re accessing different kinds of resources, need different kinds of things for herds, [they’re] changing their relationship to other people – how do I display wealth and power and prestige, and set up trade and exchange? All of that changes when you change the economy.

What is the excavation process like?

In a lot of places in Mongolia, the material is shallowly buried. There are regions of the world where you get meters and meters of sediment buildup. Generally, that’s not the case in Mongolia. The sites are pretty shallow; they’re within the first 20 centimeters or so. [Within that 20 centimeters] of earth [are materials] that go way back. So it’s not deep. It’s not a lot of digging. There’s a number of techniques that we can employ.

Sometimes there’s enough movement in the soil that you do see a couple shards or a couple bits of stone tools and the stone debris that comes off of them on the surface. When that’s not the case, you do have to do some subsurface testing. That means using an auger. You make a round hole that you dig with this kind of bucket- looking thing that digs into the ground and brings up some soil.

In other areas, we’ve employed what we call shovel testing. These are 50 cm by 50 cm squares – you can put your arms around it. [It results in] lots of small holes spaced in such a way that you kind of get a little bit [of excavation] all over the grid. And when they come up with some material in it, it’s “positive”. When you then go to your map and see where all the positive holes are, you can kind of start to see site clusters and then you can further investigate the areas where those sites are located.

Tell me about your upcoming project.

It’s more of a continuation of an existing project, but this year is very exciting for us because we have a lot of experts joining us. We have a person coming from Australia who’s going to do some geophysics for us. What that means is he’s using these very fancy, amazing machines [to perform] ground penetrating radar and use drones and differential GPS and magnetometry. And using all of these, we are able to kind of see below the surface of the ground without digging. We can then be more efficient in our digging efforts.

The site is some 400 meters long and there’s other sites around there that we’re interested in, so there’s no way that we’re going to dig it all, nor should we. We should leave some things intact because archaeologists years from now are going to have much better methods than we have.

We also have a paleoethnobotanist coming, and she does microscopic analysis on what we call phytoliths. Inside of plants cells are these tiny little stone deposits, and they’re a particular shape and size for a particular species of plant. So she’ll use this kind of analysis to tell us what kinds of plants were at the site in whatever period we’re interested in.

We have some ethnographers coming who are going to help our ethnoarchaeological component and understand what people are doing today. Not to say that this is [the same thing that] people were doing way back in the past, but rather get ideas and inspiration; are we seeing patterns in the archaeology that match what people are doing today? And if it doesn’t match, why?

Finally, we have a paleoclimatologist coming, who is going to sample these boulders that we have and we hope that this will tell us how the climate has changed there.

What do you think your most significant findings have been over the course of your career?

A mentor told it to me this way and I kind of use it myself: the kinds of things I’m finding are not particularly beautiful and amazing on their own. For the kind of research I’m doing, it’s not about what I find, it’s about what I find out. So the kinds of physical things I’m pulling out are amazing – because no one has seen them in thousands of years. To be able to be holding on to a piece of pottery that somebody used to feed their children or to celebrate their religion, and nobody has seen it or touched it or known about it for 5,000 years, that’s amazing in itself. But it is these kind of brown, crumbly little pieces of pottery that are not going to be on display at a traveling exhibit around Europe.

In Mongolia, for 100 years or more, people have been really taken in by the burial and the ritual cultures here. And the work that they’re doing is amazing. However, there’s been so little attention paid to campsites and domestic settlements from these early periods that when we see what these houses, what these village sites look like; [researching them] really expands our knowledge.

We have people trying to say what life in the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age looked like using only burials and rituals. That’s a huge part of life…but the majority of your time is not spent at a funeral or at a ritual. You’re living life in your home. You’re out doing hunting or making pottery or all these other activities that you have to do, and we know so very little about the stuff that doesn’t end up in burial context, in ritual context.

That’s why I’m interested in that, even though they’re a lot harder to find [than burials]. My approach is not to stop digging burials and forget about what those people did. It’s to add what these people are doing by adding the whole social-domestic sphere to what’s going in
the burials.