Earlier this month, the National Geographic featured the National Museum of Mongolia’s discovery of the mummified remains of a horse and rider, buried together in a cliffside cave over a millennium ago.
J.Bayarsaikhan, who led the team of archaeologists that found the rare mummified remains, spoke about their discovery and exploration in Myangad soum of Khovd Province in the interview below.
Your team of archaeologists discovered the first mummified remains of a horse and rider in Mongolia. When did your team set off to Khovd Province? How long was the duration of the exploration?
The local police in Khovd Province notified the National Museum of Mongolia that they seized some artifacts from a group of looters. Soon afterwards, a professional team was sent to examine the items and explore the cave where the goods were first discovered in.
In May, we explored the site for around 10 days and found very well-preserved mummified remains of a horse and rider buried together.
You mentioned that locals had looted the cave. Can you describe what the cave looked like when your team arrived?
The first thing we did was examine the items the local police had confiscated, which consisted of a vase, bowls, a bow, arrows, wooden saddle equipment, and tools made of wood, leather, and horn. With further examination, we could tell that the artifacts were from a cave burial from its perfect condition. Organic materials can’t be preserved so well underground so it could only be from a cave. The police notified the local administrative office and we headed to the cave, located on the southwestern cliffside of a tall mountain named Urt Ulaan Uneet in Myangat soum of Khovd Province. When we arrived, some areas had been looted and destroyed. We found an ancient horse mummy, specifically its head, neck, four hooves and tail wrapped in leather at the mouth of the cave. It was undeniably a historic artifact.
What else did you discover in the cave?
It was difficult to identify some artifacts because the cave had been ransacked and looted. We discovered torn pieces of a deel. Upon entering the cave, we found a half-dried human mummy, wooden coffin, a deel made of leather, and two leather bags with items inside it. One of the bags contained a round wooden toy inside. The other one seemed to have had powder and liquid inside it because the content had stuck together and dried up. We still haven’t examined it yet but we will be able to identify the contents with a laboratory research. We moved the artifacts from the cave and took samples from the cave. We transferred the seized goods from the local police to Ulaanbaatar in accordance with relevant regulations and laws.
Your team found the ancient horse and rider mummies in May but the Mongolian public became aware of it only recently. Why didn’t you announce your discovery at the time?
Immediately announcing archaeological findings has become a trigger that leads to bad things. There are many ancient items in Mongolia. More and more people are starting to think that they could make some money by trading these items. Exaggerated news is making people avaricious and giving them wrong ideas. Most people don’t understand that even the smallest crack on a tiny vase or a rip on a clothing could be significant for a research or a study – it’s not all about money. This sort of misconception is making people see cultural heritages with greedy eyes. Therefore, we didn’t want to make our discovery a huge deal back then.
…The horse mummy has been identified to date back to a very ancient time. It’s very significant for getting information on ancient cultures of Mongolians who lived near Myangad soum of Khovd Province around that time. As it is an ancient horse mummy, it’s attracting a lot of attention…
How would you assess Mongolia’s protection of cultural heritages?
I would say it’s extremely poor. Cultural heritages are practically discarded. Right now, cultural properties in remote and desolated places have all been looted. I’m appalled and disheartened by this. People are desolating cultural properties, and the cultural sector is becoming unsupervised. As a researcher, I believe it’s time for the state to pay attention to this. The new draft bill on cultural heritages, which is currently under discussion, ensures that people who loot or destroy cultural properties and heritages are held accountable. I assume that the situation will improve when the bill is adopted and implemented. At the moment, Mongolia doesn’t have a system which holds people accountable for looting or destroying cultural property.
Below are photos of the mummified head remains found in Ulaan Uneet cave, Khovd Province
Where is the ancient horse mummy now? Is it being examined?
We’re doing restoration work on fragile artifacts such as deel, clothing and mummies before moving onto research and examination work. Other artifacts have undergone vacuum treatment and are being stored in the National Museum of Mongolia’s inventory. The coffin and saddle are being restored at the Center of Cultural Heritage.
What have you found through scientific study? Have you determined the precise dating of the burial?
We plan to conduct that study overseas soon. So far, we believe that the burial and artifacts may have originated around 400 years ago. Based on the style of the wooden coffin, saddle and bridle, they may date to the time of the Turkic Khaganate (552 – 756) or later centuries. The findings are very valuable considering the way it has been preserved and the historic information they could provide. The bow still had its string attached and the saddle girth was still intact. We rarely find artifacts in such good condition.
…Most people don’t understand that even the smallest crack on a tiny vase or a rip on a clothing could be significant for a research or a study – it’s not all about money…
Were similar artifacts found in Mongolia before?
Archaeologists believe that the culture of cave burial flourished between 6th and 10th centuries. Cave burials are considered scientifically valuable because they were preserved over the centuries in a dry cave and protected by permafrost attributed to Mongolia’s cold, arid continental climate. Cave burials yield a wealth of scientific data, which can’t be acquired from underground burials. In fact, artifacts found from caves or those protected by permafrost are considered the most significant archaeological findings throughout the world. Permafrost prevents human interference from damaging goods and preserves human mummies in perfect condition for thousands of years. You can still see tattoos of some world-renowned mummies.
Mostly artifacts from cave burials are found in Mongolia. Previously, items dating back to the Middle Ages, including horse saddle, a bow and arrows, were found from Artsat Del cave in Bumbugur soum of Bayankhongor Province. They are now being stored at our museum.
What’s special about the recently discovered horse mummy?
The horse mummy has been identified to date back to a very ancient time. It’s very significant for getting information on ancient cultures of Mongolians who lived near Myangad soum of Khovd Province around that time. As it is an ancient horse mummy, it’s attracting a lot of attention. This finding tells an important story about how Mongolians revered horses and preserved their remains, namely head, four hooves and spine, which were usually wrapped in hide or leather, back in the Middle Ages and Khunnu Era.
The remarkable preservation of the horse mummy made it possible for us to sample hair, bone, and soft tissue for genetic sequencing. Also, the deel made from pig skin is an unprecedented discovery. The pattern is slightly different from what was used by Mongolians during the Middle Ages. We have some torn pieces of deel so we will join the pieces together, restore it and then share the results of the analysis. Samples of fur on the deel have been sent to a laboratory for analysis.