Enigmatic pit structures in Mongolia identified as permanent settlements from the Qing era

Lost Cities in the Steppe project publishes first results in the international journal Antiquity

Lost Cities in the Steppe project publishes first results in the international journal Antiquity
Kiel University students excavating a test trench at one of the pit structure (photo: S. Jagiolla, Kiel University).

Non-sedentary lifestyles are a typical feature of Mongolia–even today. However, cities have been an integral part of Mongolian nomadic society for more than a millennium. Abandoned urban sites from various periods dot the land. They testify to a colorful history of lost empires and alliances.

A collaborative project between the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Dresden University of Applied Sciences and the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS at Kiel University, is studying these abandoned urban sites. The project named "Abandoned Cities in the Steppe: Roles and Perception of Early Modern Religious and Military Centres in Nomadic Mongolia" is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS. It combines archaeological, geographical, historical and ethnographic approaches to identify facets of urban life in early modern Mongolia. The project also examines how their physical and mental traces continue to impact the modern landscape and shape cultural memory.

Preliminary results of the project's first research campaign in 2019 have now been published in the international journal "Antiquity". As the team of authors around Henny Piezonka from the Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at Kiel University and Cluster ROOTS writes, the excavations revealed for the first time that pit structures in the central Mongolian Khangai Mountains close to the Orkhon Valley were at least partly permanent settlements or garrisons of the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911) era.
These pit structures—unusual, large settlement forms with structured layouts hidden in secluded mountain valleys—were discovered by a survey programme 2008 to 2011. They were initially interpreted as short-lived, seasonal marching stations. The analysis of the 2019 excavation has now corrected this assumption.

The Orkhon Valley, part of the UNESCO World Heritage since 2004, and the adjacent mountain regions preserve traces of various urban centres that include Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD. Much less is known about the period of the Qing Dynasty, when Mongolia had fallen under Manchu dominance. This is the era in which most modern Mongolian cities are rooted, but subsequent political developments led to the abandonment or destruction of many of these urban sites.

Further interdisciplinary research at the investigated sites is planned.  


Piezonka, H., Ethier, J., Ahrens, B., Chadraabal, E., Oczipka, M., Ressel, C., & Sampildondov, C. (2023). Lost cities in the Steppe: Investigating an enigmatic site type in early modern Mongolia. Antiquity, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.8


The Lost-Cities programme of the Gerda Henkel Foundation
The project on the website of the Cluster ROOTS


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