Meet the Smithsonian Scientist Studying the Mysterious Mongolian Deer Stones

Archaeologist William Fitzhugh has spent the past two decades documenting carved stone monoliths in the Mongolian countryside to uncover the secrets of an elusive ancient culture

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The Director of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, William Fitzhugh, has spent over 20 years conducting fieldwork in Mongolia and researching Bronze Age art and archaeology. William Fitzhugh

Miles into the remote Mongolian steppe, there is nothing but grass as far as the eye can see.  Off in the distance, a series of stone pillars rise above the bare landscape.  Morning sunlight illuminates the faces of ancestors carved in the stone thousands of years ago, ancient leaders left to watch over their land until the end of time.

The Mongolian deer stones, named for the striking deer carvings that cover their narrow frames, were first described by Russian researchers in the late 1800s.  Created by an ancient people during Mongolia’s Bronze Age between 1400-700 BC, most early archaeologists did not know what to make of the mysterious monuments.  That is, until William Fitzhugh, the director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History, and his Mongolian partner, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, began applying new archaeological methods to an old problem.

For the past two decades, Fitzhugh and Bayarsaikhan have been diligently searching the Mongolian countryside for clues to help them understand this ancient culture and connect it to the traditions of living populations today. Their research on the stones has helped create a visual biography of the people who created them so long ago

This year, Fitzhugh and Bayarsaikhan are releasing the results of their decades of work.  Their books, “Deer Stones of Northern Mongolia” and Archaeology of Bronze Age Mongolia: A Deer Stone Diary, as well as a feature in Current World Archaeology magazine chronicle their experiences among the deer stones. To learn more about Fitzhugh’s rich research career and the captivating stories from his time spent on the Mongolian steppe, join us for our newest installment of Meet a SI-entist.

You created the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center in 1988.  What drove you to highlight Arctic cultures and why are they significant areas of study?

The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska hosts student groups to learn about Arctic cultural heritage. Anchorage Museum

My main question as a curator of Arctic cultures has always been ‘how do we connect the collections that we have with the living people in the north today?’ When I first arrived at the Smithsonian, we had these beautiful collections from Alaska that had never been studied at length.  Through the Arctic Studies Center, we have been able to take those collections out, put them on exhibit, send them to museums around the country, and get them back to Alaska.

The biggest accomplishment of my career was creating our Alaska office and being able to reconnect Indigenous people with the Smithsonian and their ancestors’ collections.  I feel very blessed, having arrived at the museum at a time when so many things were possible and we could do exhibits, publishing, travel, and exchanges. This has been a kind of “Golden Age” for the Smithsonian.

Ancient Mongolian cultures have remained mysterious for centuries.  What about this region piqued your interest and led you to uncover some of these ancient secrets?

Discovering the origins of the northern peoples, who we used to call ‘Eskimos,’ has been central to my research since the beginning.  I spent most of my early career studying the ancient Inuit cultures in Labrador and wondering about their connections to Asia.  Unfortunately, there is a huge area in Northeast Siberia that's not well known, and hardly studied archaeologically.  Sea levels have risen, destroying many of the sites, and most cultural records have been swamped or eroded away.

So, we had a huge gap in knowledge.  We knew that people had been living in the Mongolian steppe forever. By the time of the early Eskimos around 3000 years ago, Mongolia was already a nomadic pastoral society with horses.  But we really didn’t know much else, so after failing to find early Eskimo cultures along the Arctic coast of Russia, I turned to Mongolia as the place where we might find clues to the foundation of Eskimo culture and art.  One of the pieces of that puzzle seemed to be lurking within the images of deer with their sprawling antlers on the deer stones.

How has your recent research transformed your understanding of what the deer stones represent and why they are significant in understanding ancient Mongolian Culture?

Deer imagery is widespread across Bronze Age Mongolia, and likely represented a major deity linking the earth and the sky, watching over the people. William Fitzhugh

Our research is exciting because there are many indicators that suggest these deer stones were representations of real people who lived thousands of years ago instead of mythological ancestors or deities. Arranged in orderly lines, the stones display earrings, necklaces, and belts with hanging tools. The images of deer with large wave-like antlers and the heads and beaks of birds that cover the stones’ torsos probably mirror tattoos on the bodies of those they represented. 

The artwork gives us a good idea of the ideological basis and social structure of these communities, and the deer figures were likely a form of spiritual defense that protected the people against things that might hurt them.  They were using tattoos in the same way someone might wear a Christian cross around his or her neck.

Every deer stone image is individualistic, and the stones are lined up in north-south rows that seem to depict chronological successions of clan leaders.  If these interpretations are accurate, the deer stones can help us construct a ‘biographical history’ of specific linages and cultural groups that lived in Bronze Age Mongolia.  Pooling the information from the nearly 1500 deer stones known in Mongolia could tell us a great deal about this elusive society.

You have spent over 20 years conducing fieldwork in the Mongolian steppe.  What is daily life like in the field?

Fitzhugh’s archaeological team excavates the “Khushuugiin Devseg” deer stone and dwelling site in the hills of the remote Mongolian steppe. William Fitzhugh

Our surveys followed in the footsteps of Vitali Volkov, who published a book on deer stones in 1980.  We would pack our gear and set off driving, usually starting in northern Mongolia and working our way south from site to site.  In early July we would encounter the Mongolian national holiday, Naadam, famous for its horse races, and our students often took part in the wrestling matches or archery contests that went on in the villages.

We enjoyed meeting Mongolian people everywhere, including the students who joined our teams.  Mongolians are great storytellers and singers, and we discovered we were no match for their cultural abilities.  We did what we could, but “Oh, Susanna” does not measure up to their intricate and traditional repertoire.

One day we had had two Mongolian youngsters come by while we were making a cast of a deer stone using blue separating latex.  This wide-eyed little girl, around 8 years old, asked ‘why are you painting our old stone men?’  She didn't like what she was seeing!  We explained that the blue rubber would peel off and everything would be returned to normal. You'll have your stone man back. 

Congratulations on the books that you and Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan have recently published!  What do you hope that people will take away from your research?

Deer stones with carved faces of ancestors watch over the Mongolian countryside, shedding new light on the history of the ancient culture that created them. William Fitzhugh

I am thrilled that Bayaraa’s book analyzing deer stone art is out and mine has just been published!  My book describes the deer stone sites and the ritual and mortuary systems that guided these ancient Mongolians.   I also include passages from my diaries that place our deer stone research together with the lives of the Mongolian herders and families whom we met along the way.

We have made a big contribution to the heritage of Mongolia and given faces to its 3000-year-old leaders.  We now have visual biographies of those ancient people.  And as another benefit, we've trained a lot of kids to become archaeologists, curious and respectful of their heritage.  It has been a great pleasure to help give Mongolians a past that they didn’t know much about and reconnect them with their ancestors in the form of these old stone men.

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