RASHAANT, KHUVSGUL PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Perched high on a mountain, Davaasuren Mishigdorj peers through a pair of binoculars. The herder is guarding her animals in the same spot her ancestors have patrolled for generations. But about five months ago, a scattering of rocks joined the sheep under her watch.
The stones in Khuvsgul province, in northern Mongolia, are the unexpected bearers of ancient human history. Etched into their surfaces are faint yet discernible images of deer with branched antlers, herds of elephants and humans — rock carvings, known as petroglyphs, dating back some 3,000 years.
Today, these prehistoric records are in danger of vanishing. The Khuren Tolgoin Khad, which means “brown hill rocks,” are among nearly 90,000 Mongolian relics that have been identified as threatened “immovable historical and cultural memorials.” Decades of neglect have left these memorials — including petroglyphs, graves and statues — open to widespread abuse, misuse, vandalism and looting.
In response, Khuvsgul — home to the country’s biggest concentration of immovable memorials — is turning to its herders for help. Through a new preservation effort launched this year, the local government offers herders incentives to protect the relics that dot some of the country’s most secluded spots.
“When I go herding my sheep and cattle, I always look here and there to protect the rocks now too,” says Davaasuren, who lives in a nearby ger, a circular felt-covered tent traditionally used by herders in Mongolia. “I feel proud to live near these ancient monuments and want to pass them on to the next generation in good condition.”
Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia
A rewards-based system could motivate more citizens to take an active role in preserving Mongolian culture, says the 55-year-old, who also chairs her local council.
In April, Davaasuren became one of 46 herders appointed as heritage guardians in Khuvsgul — the first such plan in the culturally rich province. For their work, which includes overseeing sites and reporting suspicious behavior, they will each receive a voucher for firewood worth 53,000 Mongolian togrogs ($18.60) or a 25-kilogram sack of flour.
Herders can monitor monuments tucked in mountains or steppes that are often inaccessible for urban officials, says Baasansuren Khurelchuluun, a heritage specialist with the Khuvsgul provincial government. “By training herders about cultural heritage, we can help reduce crimes.”
Mongolia only adopted a robust law to protect its cultural heritage in 2014, replacing an ineffectual one passed 13 years earlier. Under the legislation, there are new layers of accountability to manage memorials at a local level, as well as new systems to classify and safeguard monuments.
The country’s first nationwide inventory of immovable memorials took place the following year, listing 86,000 relics for state protection in nearly 10,000 different sites.
A study about memorials in Khuvsgul that same year revealed how little citizens understood preservation, Baasansuren recalls.
Ancient rock art had been chiseled afresh and daubed with splashes of paint. Prehistoric statues were being used as hitching posts for horses. Some people were worshipping Kurgan stelae, upright stone carvings some 5,000 years old, as deities. “Many had been smeared with butter” as an offering, eroding their original form, Baasansuren says.
But despite the momentum sparked by the new law, progress on safeguarding memorials has been slow in the 31-year-old democracy wedged between China and Russia.
The worry is there will be little left to protect unless urgent measures are taken throughout the country, says Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav, an archaeologist and former director at the National Museum of Mongolia, who has witnessed firsthand the damage wrought on precious relics.
Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia
In 2018, he led a team to study ancient burial grounds on Khorig mountain, close to the Mongolia-Russia border, also in Khuvsgul province.
Their excavation uncovered more than 70 graves and tombs containing human remains alongside remarkable artifacts, including lanterns holding clotted cream, silk cloths, and sun and moon figures made from gold. They had been preserved for more than 700 years under permafrost.
But the team found they were not the first to make the discovery: Each of the sites had already been looted.
“There were very few undamaged findings,” Bayarsaikhan says. “Metal artifacts hung on trees. There were vases broken all over the place. Human bones had been thrown outside. And the fabrics were all covered in dirt.”
Despite the destruction, the findings were “wonderful expressions of cultural and ritual continuity of nomadic Mongolians,” the archaeologist says.
They also offered an unprecedented insight into the secretive funerary rituals practiced during the Mongol Empire of the 13th and 14th centuries.
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“Researchers used to think that the burials [at this time] were not on the mountains at all,” he says, explaining how excavators focused on the nation’s vast valleys and steppes. On Khorig mountain, the team believes they have unearthed the final resting place of high-ranking officials from that era.
Bayarsaikhan estimates that hundreds of graves are pilfered annually in Mongolia. Thieves are on the hunt for treasures to sell in the lucrative underground antiques trade, run by organized crime syndicates in Mongolia and China.
Herder-based protection efforts are part of the solution, Bayarsaikhan says, but should be expanded. Barely a third of Mongolia’s cultural heritage has been registered, he adds, even after the landmark 2015 survey.
“We fear tremendously that unregistered memorials will be looted before we even find them.”