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Lasting Impressions

Scientists cast tall shadows but find themselves hard pressed to explain the blues to Mongolians

Two Mongolian children, wearing traditional felt tunics and riding shaggy ponies, showed up on the scientists’ second day of fieldwork. "They wanted to know one thing," recalls William Fitzhugh. ‘Why are you painting our stones blue?’"

This past summer, Fitzhugh, 59, who is chairman of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his team convened at Ushkin Uver, an archaeological site in a broad, short-grass valley rimmed by the mountains of north-central Mongolia. (Ushkin Uver translates as LungMountain, referring to a perception that the peaks in the distance resemble, in form and color, a sheep’s lung—mutton being a dietary staple in these parts.) There, a squared-off, gray granite column rises eight feet out of the sandy soil of the steppe. The stone monolith, 2,500 to 3,000 years old, is inscribed with ancient images of deerlike creatures as well as a series of circles. The top of the shaft bears a mysteriously playful rendering of a human face, its mouth puckered in an artfully rounded O. The pillar is known to scholars as a deer stone, one of about 600 similarly ornamented Bronze Age monoliths representing strange, hybrid hoofed mammals possessed of antlers and duck-bill-like snouts. The ornately embellished monuments, erected by unknown peoples, lie scattered across northern Mongolia and southern Siberia.

But why were scientists painting this one blue?

Fitzhugh explained to the youngsters that the Ushkin Uver specimen is the only deer stone bearing a human likeness. In order to preserve an image of the artifact, which is deteriorating under exposure to the elements, Fitzhugh’s team got permission from the Mongolian government to make a museum-grade cast. The blue "paint," Fitzhugh says, was actually liquid latex that would dry to create a rubbery reverse impression of the stone. The latex would pick up every feature, down to the tiniest nick, in the ancient rock. When dry, it would be peeled off and taken to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., where a cast could be made and displayed. Fitzhugh assured his audience that the undamaged stone, which the Mongolians regard as the talisman of an ancient heritage, would remain in place. And stay gray.

In mid-July, a precise, eerily imposing replica of the Ushkin Uver stone was unveiled in an exhibit hall at NMNH. "What the heck is that?" many visitors ask before reading a description of the stone: "Across the windswept steppes of northern Mongolia, stone monuments (like this replica) stand in silent tribute to a mysterious past."

"We’re very pleased with the results," says the rangy, bespectacled Fitzhugh, sitting at a map-strewn table in his office at the museum’s ArcticStudiesCenter, which he oversees. "Thanks to our exhibits department, the stone has just the right color and heft."

Scientists hypothesize that the deer stone represents a small totem from an embattled culture, the Tsaatan (tsaat means "deer"). The Tsaatan are the last remnants of a once-thriving community of reindeer herders inhabiting the landscape north of the Ushkin Uver of the Mongolian grasslands. Under increasing pressure from a number of factors, including a reduction in grazing range for reindeer, their population today hovers at a perilously low 500 individuals.

"The Tsaatan are the southernmost reindeer herders on earth," Fitzhugh says. "Global climate change is diminishing the growth of lichens and mosses that feed their reindeer." In addition, the Tsaatan have, over the past several decades, come increasingly in contact with villages and cities. "People find they must abandon the herding life for the economic security of jobs in settlements." At present, Fitzhugh adds, "we’re talking about only 40 families or so still living traditionally. We want to document that way of life before change overtakes it."

Starting the summer before last, Fitzhugh and his team of anthropologists, botanists, entomologists, paleoecologists and biologists began making the two-day horseback trip from the nearest Mongolian city, Muren, to spend several weeks with the Tsaatan. They are attempting nothing less than documenting everything from Tsaatan archaeology to contemporary culture. They’ve even managed to befriend a 96-year-old female shaman, who is sharing her stores of ethnobotanical knowledge, demonstrating the use of plants and roots in traditional medicines. (In addition to the treatments she employs for ailing humans, many of her remedies are also used to treat sick reindeer.)

During last summer’s visit, Fitzhugh began excavating a prehistoric burial mound and a 1,300-year-old pit house, unearthing some ancient charcoal—which will more-precisely define the early culture, using carbon dating—as well as bones from what appears to be a cremated horse.

In the meantime, the deer stone remains singularly evocative. The pursed lips of the ancient visage, Fitzhugh believes, may depict the rounded mouth of a shaman, perhaps blowing evil spirits away. "Look at the trunk of the stone, dense with depictions of deer or elk, each shown sleeping or leaping into the air," he says. "One scholar, art historian Esther Jacobson at the University of Oregon, believes these images may link the stones with ancient Scythian art in central Asia. There’s so much about these artifacts that we don’t really know yet."

The back of the stone is equally intriguing. Carved on a monolith at a point that could be considered waist high is the representation of a belt, replete with detailed depictions of Bronze Age tools, an ax, a knife and other implements. "There’s nothing like this anywhere else on earth," Fitzhugh says.

He approaches the artifact with a sense of urgency. "The local people recognize the value of their history," he goes on. "But they don’t understand the archaeological significance or monetary value of these stones. Several have already disappeared, taken from their sites because they could be great rarities for collectors." Plenty of other threats exist as well. "Frost and cold have spalled some, causing chunks to break off. Livestock rubbing against the monoliths have worn down some of the stones." Fitzhugh adds that he and his team want to help "protect the stones from an increasingly intrusive world beyond the Tsaatan."

"We’re hoping," he says, "that our studies of the Tsaatan will demonstrate links to other Arctic peoples, creating an understanding of a more uniform circum-Arctic culture. The deer stones aren’t that different from totem poles and other native art of the American Arctic and the Pacific Northwest. More extensive studies of the Tsaatan, and of the deer stones, may help us make those connections.

"We may be archaeologists studying the past," he says, "but we focus on the future as well, on the survival of the Tsaatan and other threatened far northern cultures."

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