Dating the taiga forts – Field survey for radiocarbon samples in the West Siberian forest

In July 2021, Tanja Schreiber conducted a field campaign to the West Siberian taiga as part of the subcluster ROOTS of Inequalities project “Dating the Taiga Forts - Eight millennia of defensive hunter-gatherer monumentality and human-environment interaction in Western Siberia” (Projects T2_1 & T2_2; links). The project takes place under the scientific direction of Henny Piezonka in cooperation with Ekaterina Dubovtseva of the Ural Branch of the Academy of Sciences in Yekaterinburg.

Dating the taiga forts
Fig. 1: The (E)Neolithic fortified settlement Imnegan 2.1, located on a remote promontory in the Agan River area (photo by K. Karacharov).

The aim of the project is to create a reliable chronology of the phenomenon of the fortified hunter-gatherer settlements in West Siberia from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. Currently, this region still largely lacks comprehensive series of absolute dates, despite being a key area in North Eurasian development through time. Therefore, the project is dedicated to the collection and radiocarbon dating of approx. 50 samples retrieved in previous excavations and in new field activities. Besides sample collection from various archives, two sites were targeted in the field campaign in Siberia in July 2021 in order to acquire new sample materials.

One of the two sites is the exceptional Barsova Gora archaeological complex. Situated at a high river bank of an Ob’ tributary, this complex encompasses hundreds of prehistoric and protohistoric hunter-gatherer settlements, of which more than 60 are fortified. The other site is the Stone Age fortified settlement of Imnegan 2.1, situated about 300 km further north in the basin of the Agan River on a floodplain promontory.

The archaeological investigations at both sites were carried out by a small team of four excavators, including the Russian cooperation partner Ekaterina Dubovtseva and excavation helpers Aleksey Lusin and Aleksey Leont‘ev. While constrained by administrative regulations, which limited excavation to re-opening old trenches by 1-2 m² and to areas at risk due to cliff erosion and looting, the work enabled the team to document several house profiles within open and fortified settlements. The presence of thick charcoal layers revealed during the excavations was of pivotal importance to the project’s goals. These layers were carefully and exhaustively sampled to collect suitable material for radiocarbon dating.

Besides charcoal, the collected materials also included bones and ceramic charred crusts. Additionally, the team took part in fishing activities to gain local freshwater fish samples for comparative isotope analyses. A total of eleven sites was investigated at the Barsova Gora complex. While in some of the archaeological pit houses only few or even no objects were found, settlements like medieval Barsova Gora II/13, exhibiting one of the mightiest fortification systems in the region, revealed a large number of finds including metal artefacts, bones, ceramics and slag.

The second part of the field campaign aimed at obtaining secure dates for one of the potentially earliest hunter-gatherer fortified sites worldwide: the settlement Imnegan 2.1. This site is dated to the 6th/5th millennium BC, although no absolute dates were available prior to this field campaign.
The small team was warmly welcomed to stay in a nearby excavation camp led by Konstantin Karacharov of the association “Severnaya Arkheologiya”, which was conducting rescue excavations in that area. Here, two old trenches of 1 m² each were opened in order to retrieve samples, revealing charcoal, ceramics as well as layers of red ochre. In addition to a severe mosquito plague, bad weather conditions complicated the work, but the team kept up good spirits nonetheless and succeeded in acquiring the necessary samples to better understand the unusual phenomenon of the taiga forts.

Altogether, the team was able to acquire more than 100 samples for C14 dating, deriving from 22 sites, twelve of which came from the fieldwork in 2021. After two intense working weeks, the team set off for Yekaterinburg, a journey of over 2000 km with a two-day car trip to the south.

I had the great pleasure to work with Ekaterina Dubovtseva, Aleksey Lusin and Aleksey Leont‘ev. Many thanks for the adventurous and successful field campaign in the Siberian taiga! I would also like to thank Konstantin Karacharov, who provided us with a great amount of help and hospitality during our second field survey in the Agan Basin.

Dating the taiga forts
Fig. 2: Project partner Ekaterina Dubovtseva taking samples from the thick charcoal layers within the medieval fortification system of the site Barsova Gora II/13 (photo by T. Schreiber).

Dating the taiga forts
Fig. 3: The large rampart of the medieval fortified site Barsova Gora II/13, which is clearly visible in the relief up until today (photo by E. Dubovtseva).

Dating the taiga forts
Fig. 4: Ornamented ceramic sherds from the medieval fortified site Barsova Gora II/13 (photo by T. Schreiber).

Dating the taiga forts
Fig. 5: The small excavation team documenting a profile within the largest dwelling of the Stone Age fort of Imnegan 2.1 (photo by K. Karacharov).

Dating the taiga forts
Fig. 6: Showing several excavation obstacles: mosquito plague and unfavorable weather conditions in the Agan River area (photo by E. Dubovtseva).


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