Session I: Salvage Archaeology, Bioarchaeology and Field Conservation

800 year old textiles recovered from looted grave

800 year old textiles recovered from looted grave

The stone coffin of a looted grave is left open after the thieves depart

The stone coffin of a looted grave is left open after the thieves depart


Dates: June 17 - July 7, 2019

Fee: $2,900 USD (For support in applying for external funding, please contact us.)


Skills: archaeological excavation and survey; drones and GIS; basic artifact cataloging and conservation; textile conservation, and bioarchaeological analysis

Logistics: We will camp near several known looted cemeteries, but may travel from time to time to survey and monitor areas farther afield. Participants should bring their own tent and camping equipment. Water may be purified from nearby rivers and lakes. Project cooks will prepare all meals. 

Description: The illegal looting of ancient burial sites has become a big problem in Northern Mongolia. During the summers of 2017-18, the NOMAD Science team witnessed 100’s of instances of new looting, including the complete destruction of several medieval cemeteries- bits of metal and wood artifacts, human bones, and clothing fragments were strewn on the surface and would not survive long without our intervention. Thieves get away with priceless cultural heritage objects that will likely never be recovered, while completely disrespecting the final resting places of ancient people. Archaeologists are concerned because looting permanently destroys our ability to continue answering research questions for the benefit of humankind. Mongolia has created strong anti-looting laws supporting cultural heritage preservation, but the vast areas of the countryside, low population density and economic challenges make enforcement problematic.  Though no systematic monitoring has been conducted, some of the looting may in fact be inspired by our own research activities. Therefore, NOMAD Science will spend Session I in the summer of 2019 solely investigating and combating looting activities in the region where our regular fieldwork is conducted. We intend to do so through monitoring, research, and salvage efforts.  

The main specialized skills taught during session I will be artifact (especially textile) field conservation and bioarchaeology (detailed below).

Human bones left in a recently looted grave

Human bones left in a recently looted grave

Bioarchaeology: Led by Dr. Alicia Ventresca-Miller, our biomolecular research focuses on several important issues for populations that regularly interact with other groups through ever expanding networks of trade and exchange. As globalization introduced commodities and cuisine, imperceptible microbes and pathogens were also transmitted. The impact of biotic exchange could negatively impact the population, while simultaneously creating resilient economies based on diversified diets.

This project seeks to clarify life under the Mongol Empire through the application of biomolecular methods including stable isotope analyses, investigations of ancient proteins in dental calculus, and ancient DNA of pathogens. These methods hold great potential for understanding how communities engaged with the Empire and how this impacted their lifeways.

Of particular interest is the consumption of milk and the domesticated species that was favored for milking. The role of pathogens in the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire is also of significant interest, particularly as disease plays a major role in building sustainability. This project also explores cuisine and dietary intake through isotopic and proteomic research. Our aim is to understand these populations in terms of their biomolecular history at the intersection of diet, cuisine, and disease.


Conservation: Collaborating with leading textile conservators (Ms. Sandra Vanderwarf and experts from the Smithsonian Institution), the team will work to conserve and study the rich textile assemblage from the looted graves that is particularly vulnerable to decay, and to recording fiber analysis, technical analysis of weave and yarn structures, and the overall condition of the garments. This collection of artifacts is potentially the most important archaeological collection of medieval garments ever recovered form this period (Mongol Empre 12-15th centuries) as preservation is not expected. However, local soil conditions and climate have preserved these treasures in remarkable condition to the present day. The collection ranges from small fragments to nearly complete garments, many of which retain their original strength, weaving characteristics, and decorative patterns.


This approach will provide us with the information necessary to combat looting activities related to antiquities trafficking in northern Mongolia and will save irreplaceable cultural heritage resources that are currently endangered. These archaeological sites are non-renewable – there will never be another Neolithic site made in the world – and contain an enormous amount of information that might help us to understand our human past, adaptation to climate change and economic shifts, the origins of complex political and social organization, and so much more. Archaeologists must work hard to study not only the lives of ancient peoples, but also how they impact people today in order to prevent looting.