By William Taylor
In the high subarctic steppes of Mongolia, extreme climate conditions sometimes produce strikingly well-preserved archaeological discoveries. These finds are responsible for much of our knowledge of early nomadic societies Central Asia. In particular, the mummified remains of horses and horse equipment—preserved over the centuries in a dry cave, or protected by permafrost by Mongolia’s cold, arid continental climate—yield a wealth of scientific data relating to the history of horse herding and riding in the region.
In 2015, a team of researchers from the National Museum of Mongolia were notified by local police of a looted cave burial near the town of Myangad, in western Mongolia’s Khovd province. From the looters, police seized a bow, arrows, horse equipment, and tools made of wood, leather, and horn. Based on the style of these artifacts, the burial may date to the time of the Turkic Khaganate (ca. 6th to 8th century CE)—a vast nomadic empire which once stretched from Mongolia in the east to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan in the west. However, similar artifacts have also been found as late as the 10th-11th centuries, so precise dating of the burial will require further scientific study.
Upon exploring the looted cave, a team of archaeologists (led by J. Bayarsaikhan) discovered the mummified remains of a horse and rider, buried together in the cliffside cave over a millennium ago.
The horse remains consist of a head (Figure 1), along with sections of the hide, spine, hooves, and tail (Fig. 1). Such “head and hoof” burials have a long history in Central Asian nomadic cultures, and were widespread in Mongolia beginning in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1300-700 BCE).
The hair and soft tissue still remaining on the Ulaan-Uneet horse tell an important story. The animal’s head was damaged over the years by both looters and natural processes, including a small mouse who had taken up residence inside the skull. Nonetheless, the mummy retains patches of beautiful chestnut-colored hair (Figure 2). Working with the museum’s conservator, D.Nyamsuren, we sampled hair, bone, and soft tissue for genetic sequencing. Results from this analysis will help clarify the evolutionary context of Mongolian horse breeding and use during the early Middle Ages.
During the conservation process, we discovered an intact margin of the left ear which appears to have been clipped (Figure 3C). Ear notches have been found on mummified horses dating back to the first millennium BCE, in the famous frozen tombs of Pazyryk in the Siberian Altai. Ear clipping is still practiced by some herders in contemporary Mongolia, used to indicate ownership for free-ranging livestock. The probable notch discovered on the Ulaan-Uneet specimen suggests that this practice has been important for several millennia in eastern Central Asia.
Based on the presence of large canines and sequential changes in the horse’s teeth, we were able to determine that the horse was a young male—around four years old at the time of death. A large bone exposure on the left side of the skull revealed important skeletal traits that may help researchers understand the history of horseback riding in Central Asia. For example, the horse’s first premolar, also known as a “wolf tooth,” shows wear and striations caused by a metal bit (Figure 3A). Additionally, the exposed surface of the horse’s nasal bones have been badly deformed on one side by a bridle noseband (Figure 3B).
By identifying cranial features such as these on ridden horses from different historical periods, we hope to develop new techniques for identifying horseback riding in more ancient archaeological bone assemblages (Figure 4).