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Researcher seeks answers on ancient Mongolian horse rituals

William Taylor scans a horse skull with his three-dimensional scanner. Photo: University of New Mexico

William Taylor scans a horse skull with his three-dimensional scanner. Photo: University of New Mexico

An American researcher will spend this summer in Mongolia studying how those who inhabited the region 3000 years ago interacted with horses.

University of New Mexico undergraduate William Taylor is interested in people from the region’s ancient Deer Stone-Khirigsuur culture, who lived on the Mongolian steppes.

Little is known about these ancient people, named after the elaborate stone obelisks carved with images of flying deer they left behind.

It is not clear why, but people of this culture also ritually buried the heads of horses in groups around their stone monuments.

With so few clues to the culture, anthropologists have to use every means they can imagine to try to learn more.

Taylor hopes to learn if these horses were ridden, or used to pull chariots, and is seeking clues from the skulls of horses found in ritual burials.

“For the last year or so, I’ve been doing a comparative project where I examine North American feral horses on the Navajo reservation, and on the east coast, where they have a famous population called the Chincoteague ponies,” he said.

“These are horses that we know have never been ridden or subjected to the stresses of human use.”

He has compared those horses with those he knows have been put to particular use, such as farm horses, or military horses. Using a three-dimensional scanner, Taylor has sought a quantitative signal he could use to distinguish between wild horses and ridden horses.

Now, he has packed his portable 3D scanner and is traveling to Mongolia to examine horse skulls.

“There’s been some scientific debate about how these ancient horses were used,” he says. “Were they just wild horses? If they were domestic, were they riding them or just keeping them for food, or what was going on?”

He hopes comparing the scans he already has of horse skulls with those in Mongolian museums will yield some answers.

Western anthropologists have been able to travel and work in Mongolia only for the last few decades.

Taylor says that many projects are ongoing in the country, but for anthropologists that isn’t a long time. “There are easily several lifetimes of work for whoever wants to work there,” he said.

Taylor first became interested in Mongolian horses when he worked with Dr William Fitzhugh, an anthropologist who has worked with the Smithsonian and who is the leading US expert on the ancient “deer stone” culture.

He traveled to Mongolia with Fitzhugh in 2011, excavating burial sites and felt an instant connection between the people he met there and the culture he knew back home in Montana.

He says the landscape is about the same, and he found cultural similarities between Montanans and Mongolians.

Taylor looked at the University of New Mexico when he was ready for graduate school since his mother and grandfather were both former students.

He found a mentor in E. James Dixon, director of the Maxwell Museum who is also an expert in arctic cultures.

Over the last several years, Taylor has studied under Dixon and co-chair Dr Emily Lena Jones, an archaezoologist who specializes in the study of ancient animal remains.

This summer he will be working with the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. His research will be funded by the American Institute for Mongolian Studies, the university Department of Anthropology and its Graduate and Professional Students Association.

Taylor’s research has been awarded the Patrick Orion Mullen Award in Archaeological Science from the University of Wyoming’s Frison Institute, as well as the R.E. Taylor Award from the Society for Archeological Sciences.

Taylor will be back at the university in the fall to continue to work toward his doctorate, and he hopes to have mountains of new data to analyze.

By Karen Wentworth

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