Begash (Kazakhstan)

Evidence of 3rd Millennium International Trade

Begash in its Landscape Setting
Begash in its landscape setting, with the layout of the 2005 excavation trenches. © M. Frachetti 2005

Begash is a Eurasian pastoralist campsite, located in Semirch'ye in the piedmont zone of the Dzhungar Mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan, which was occupied episodically between ~2500 BC to AD 1900. The site is located at about 950 meters (3110 feet) above sea level, in a flat ravine terrace enclosed by canyon walls and along a spring-fed stream.

Archaeological evidence at the site contains information about some of the earliest pastoralist "Steppe Society" communities; the important archaeobotanical evidence suggests Begash may have been on the route which moved domestic plants from the point of domestication into the broader world.

Timeline and Chronology

Archaeological investigations have identified six major phases of occupations.

  • Phase 6 (cal AD 1680-1900), Historic
  • Phase 5 (cal AD 1260-1410), Medieval
  • Phase 4 (cal AD 70-550), Late Iron Age
  • Phase 3 (970 cal BC-30 cal AD), Early Iron Age
  • Phase 2 (1625-1000 cal BC), Middle-Late Bronze Age
  • Phase 1 (2450-1700 cal BC), Early-Middle Bronze Age

A stone foundation for a single house is the earliest structure, built at Begash during Phase Ia. A cist burial, characteristic of other late Bronze Age and Iron Age kurgan burials, contained a cremation: near it was a ritual fire pit. Artifacts associated with Phase 1 include pottery with textile impressions; stone tools including grinders and micro-blades. Phase 2 saw an increase in the number of houses, as well and hearths and pit features; this last was evidence of roughly 600 years of periodic occupation, rather than a permanent settlement.

Phase 3 represents the early Iron Age, and contains the pit burial of a young adult woman. Beginning about 390 cal BC, the first substantial residence at the site was built, consisting of two quadrilateral houses with central stone-lined fire-pits and hard-packed floors. The houses were multi-roomed, with stone lined postholes for central roof support.

Trash pits and fire-pits are found between the houses.

During Phase 4, occupation at Begash is again intermittent, a number of hearths and trash pits have been identified, but not much else. The final phases of occupation, 5 and 6, have substantial large rectangular foundations and corrals still detectable on the modern surface.

Plants from Begash

Within soils samples taken from the Phase 1a burial cist and associated funerary fire pit were discovered seeds of domesticated wheat, broomcorn millet and barley. This evidence is interpreted by the excavators, an assertion supported by many other scholars, as indication of a distinct route of transmission of wheat and millet from the central Asian mountains and into the steppes by the late 3rd millennium BC (Frachetti et al. 2010).

The wheat consisted of 13 whole seeds of domesticated compact free-threshing wheat, either Triticum aestivum or T. turgidum. Frachetti et al. report that the wheat compares favorably to that from the Indus Valley region in Mehrgarh and other Harappan sites, ca. 2500-2000 cal BC and from Sarazm in western Tajikistan, ca. 2600-2000 BC.

A total of 61 carbonized broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) seeds were recovered from various Phase 1a contexts, one of which was direct-dated to 2460-2190 cal BC.

One barley grain and 26 cerealia (grains unidentified to species), were also recovered from the same contexts. Other seeds found within the soil samples are wild Chenopodium album, Hyoscyamus spp. (also known as nightshade), Galium spp. (bedstraw) and Stipa spp. (feathergrass or spear grass). See Frachetti et al. 2010 and Spengler et al. 2014 for additional details.

Domesticated wheat, broomcorn millet and barley found in this context is surprising, given that the people who occupied Begash were clearly nomadic pastoralists, not farmers. The seeds were found in a ritual context, and Frachetti and colleagues suggest that the botanical evidence represents both a ritual exploitation of exotic foods, and an early trajectory for the diffusion of domestic crops from their points of origin into the broader world.

Animal Bones

The faunal evidence (nearly 22,000 bones and bone fragments) at Begash contradicts the traditional notion that the emergence of Eurasian pastoralism was sparked by horse riding. Sheep/goat are the most prevalent species within the assemblages, as much as 75% of identified minimum number of individuals (MNI) in the earliest phases to just under 50% in Phase 6. Although distinguishing sheep from goats is notoriously difficult, sheep are much more frequently identified in the Begash assemblage than goats.

Cattle are the next most frequently found, making up between 18-32% of the faunal assemblages throughout the occupations; with horse remains not present at all until ca 1950 BC, and then in slowly increasing percentages to around 12% by the medieval period. Other domestic animals include dog and Bactrian camel, and wild species are dominated by red deer (Cervus elaphus) and, in the later period, goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa).

Key species at the earliest Middle and Bronze age levels at Begash indicates that sheep/goats and cattle were the predominant species. Unlike other steppe communities, it seems apparent that the earliest phases at Begash were not based on horse riding, but rather began with Eurasian pastoralists. See Frachetti and Benecke for details. Outram et al. (2012), however, have argued that the results from Begash should not be considered necessarily typical of all steppe societies. Their 2012 article compared proportions of cattle, sheep and horses from six other Bronze Age sites in Kazakhstan, to show that dependence on horses seems to varied widely from site to site.

Textiles and Pottery

Textile-impressed pottery from Begash dated to the Early/Middle and Late Bronze ages reported in 2012 (Doumani and Frachetti) provide evidence for a wide variety of woven textiles in the southeastern steppe zone, beginning in the early Bronze Age. Such a wide variety of woven patterns, including a weft-faced cloth, implies interaction between pastoral and hunter-gatherer societies from the northern steppe with pastoralists to the southeast. Such interaction is likely, say Doumani and Frachetti, to be associated with trade networks postulated to have been established no later than the 3rd millinennium BC. These trade networks are believed to have spread animal and plant domestication out of the along the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor.

Archaeology

Begash was excavated during the first decade of the 21st century, by the joint Kazakh-American Dzhungar Mountains Archaeology Project (DMAP) under the direction of Alexei N. Mar'yashev and Michael Frachetti.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Steppe Societies, and the Dictionary of Archaeology. Sources for this article are listed on page two.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Steppe Societies, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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d’Alpoim Guedes J, Lu H, Li Y, Spengler R, Wu X, and Aldenderfer M. 2013. Moving agriculture onto the Tibetan plateau: the archaeobotanical evidence.

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Doumani PN, and Frachetti MD. 2012. Bronze Age textile evidence in ceramic impressions: weaving and pottery technology among mobile pastoralists of central Eurasia. Antiquity 86(332):368-382.

Frachetti MD, and Benecke N. 2009. From sheep to (some) horses: 4500 years of herd structure at the pastoralist settlement of Begash (south-eastern Kazakhstan). Antiquity 83(322):1023-1027.

Frachetti MD, and Mar'yashev AN. 2007. Long-Term Occupation and Seasonal Settlement of Eastern Eurasian Pastoralists at Begash, Kazakhstan. Journal of Field Archaeology 32(3):221-242. doi: 10.1179/009346907791071520

Frachetti MD, Spengler RN, Fritz GJ, and Mar'yashev AN. 2010. Earliest direct evidence for broomcorn millet and wheat in the central Eurasian steppe region. Antiquity 84(326):993–1010.

Outram AK, Kasparov A, Stear NA, Varfolomeev V, Usmanova E, and Evershed RP.

2012. Patterns of pastoralism in later Bronze Age Kazakhstan: new evidence from faunal and lipid residue analyses. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(7):2424-2435. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.009

Spengler III RN. 2013. Botanical Resource Use in the Bronze and Iron Age of the Central Eurasian Mountain/Steppe Interface: Decision Making in Multiresource Pastoral Economies.

St. Louis, Missouri: Washington University in St. Louis.

Spengler III RN, Cerasetti B, Tengberg M, Cattani M, and Rouse L. 2014. Agriculturalists and pastoralists: Bronze Age economy of the Murghab alluvial fan, southern Central Asia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany in press. doi: 10.1007/s00334-014-0448-0

Spengler III RN, Frachetti M, Doumani P, Rouse L, Cerasetti B, Bullion E, and Mar'yashev A. 2014. Early agriculture and crop transmission among Bronze Age mobile pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1783). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3382