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Abstract

It would seem that pastoral nomads have ceaselessly occupied a distinct space in our world, imaginations, and academic discourse, often revolving around the concept of periphery. Pastoral nomads inhabit interstitial spaces, adjacent and secondary to urban centers and the refinement of civilization. Further, pastoral nomads are caught in popular imaginations as simple, barbarous, warlike, and constantly peripatetic—characteristics perceived to be antithetical to sedentary agriculturalists. These essentializations of pastoral nomadism have had real consequences in academic scholarship, and it is here this dissertation makes its intervention. Accordingly, early North American and Soviet intellectual trajectories in archaeology and the social sciences led scholars to have a predisposition to burial excavation and seriation, solidify false connections between subsistence and political forms, and to focus on the pastoral nomad’s connection with urban centers. In the examination of political economic shifts in prehistoric Late Bronze to Late Iron Age Mongolia (ca. 1200 BCE-100 CE), I place nomads at the forefront of inquiry looking to detail internal dynamics and mechanisms of social change at work over time. I ask: How did the adoption of pastoralism alter economic practices on the landscape, and what were the rhythms? How did shifts in economic life change political structures and the social processes used to (re)make those relationships? In short, I advocate for the analyses of malleable and active social processes over concepts that employ static systems of change. This study brings together the results of 76 km² of pedestrian survey and the recovery and recording of thousands of features and artifacts in Bayankhongor province, Mongolia. These data are scrutinized through an epistemological framework called occupational landscapes which finds its strength in breadth of focus and flexibility of scale. As such, the tripartite scheme of occupational landscapes takes an ecological, vocational, and semiotic approach to artifacts and assemblages, utilizing scales of analysis ranging from a single chemical element to the regional spatial patterning of material culture. In doing so, each aspect of the occupational landscape emphasized various social processes that encourage a reevaluation of pastoral nomadic communities themselves, and as members in wider social entanglements. Thus, this dissertation attempts to revise the way in which we investigate, discuss, and chronologically represent pastoral nomadic communities, refracting cultural change through active and agentive social processes. As such, the social processes that are explored in this study include: (im)mobility, place-making, flake and stone tool production, habitation patterning and pasture politics, semiotic usurpation of funerary rites and messaging, the production of ceramic and chains of craft-knowledge, skill or specialization, and the navigation of unsolidified extents of (de)centralized authority. In contrast to a reliance on ideas of a “grand narrative,” linear neoevolutionary progress, or burial forms as the preeminent marker for cultural change or replacement, I find that the shifts in political economy during the Mongolian Late Bronze and Late Iron Ages are subtle, yet intricate and vibrant. In pursuing a people-centered approach to prehistory, I argue that the first-half of the first millennium BCE in Bayankhongor Mongolia was a time fraught with uncertainty, experimentation, and fluidity—both economically and politically—and should not be continually described using linear temporalities of complexity or the diachronic presence or absence of particular burial forms.

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