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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

'Nomadic Archaeology': Mobility, Modernity, and Primitivism in the Russian Empire and Early USSR

Ismael Biyashev

In a now-classic introduction to The End of Nomadism (1999), David Sneath and Caroline Humphrey proclaim that “the category of nomadism has ceased to be useful analytically.” They caution that nomadism as a concept has taken on too many unsavory connotations. For example: “nomads” could be and have been unjustly seen as technologically backward. Or, conversely, unduly elevated as paragons of some innate egalitarianism and simplicity characteristic of noble savages. The authors suggest a different term, “pastoralism” as a fitting alternative.[1] However, this call for a substitution has not brought about neither an analytical “end of nomadism” nor diminished scholarly interest in it. In fact, the ambiguity around nomadism as a scholarly category has expanded, and its application broadened. Some scholars identify seasonal migrant workers, tourists, and IT professionals as “neo-nomads” of the twenty-first century.[2]

Neither is there a scholarly consensus on how the past and material culture of ancient nomadic peoples is to be studied or interpreted. Contemporary professional archaeologists call for recognition of the complexity of historical nomadic societies and urge contemporary specialists and laypeople alike not to succumb to binary thinking which would equate nomadism with primitivism. To date, the “archaeology of nomadism” or “nomadic archaeology” has largely been understood by professionals as a set of techniques and practices of fieldwork for studying the material remnants and sites associated with ancient nomadic groups. In the field of Slavic studies, Michael Kunichika has used the term in his study of the relationship between prehistoric artifacts attributed to nomadic peoples and the aesthetics of the Russian modernist movement.[3] Building on both these historiographic trends and in response to ongoing professional debates, my PhD dissertation “Beyond Myths and Ruins: Archaeology and Nomadism in the Russian Empire and the Early USSR 1850-1920s” tells the story of the genesis and historical development of “nomadic archaeology” as a discursive problem and discipline in the Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union for the first time.

The very notion of a “nomadic archaeology” especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, appears paradoxical. Dominant scholarly and lay discourses of the time posited the “primitivism” of nomadic peoples as fact. And yet, by the early 20th century nomadic peoples made up a large portion of the Russian Empire’s (and later Soviet Union’s) subjects. Beginning as early as the Great Reforms of the 1860s, nomadic subjects of the Russian Empire lobbied for their inclusion in its modernization projects. Herein lay the first conundrum of a two-pronged paradox. Simultaneously, mobile nomads lacked a defined territory seemingly by definition, and therefore, in the dominant period discourse, could hardly produce a lasting imprint on a region’s material culture. So, ostensibly also by definition, “nomadic archaeology” could not exist. And yet, throughout the long nineteenth century self-styled specialists on nomadic cultures and antiquities often claimed to have discovered archaeological sites that they classified as “nomadic.” Herein lies the second part of what my dissertation identifies as the paradox of nomadic archaeology.

Figure 1: Map of Sites in the Dissertation Drawing on analytical concepts from New Imperial History and post-colonial theory, my dissertation uncovers a de-centered, yet interconnected network of practitioners of “nomadic archaeology” or “archaeology of nomadism” which emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and continued to exist well past the Bolshevik Revolution, throughout the Eurasian space. Key: Marker 1 = Otrar; 2 = Verkhnii Saltiv; 3 = Khara Khoto; 4 = Karakorum.

The dissertation’s narrative is structured by four case studies: Karakorum, in what is today Mongolia, Khara Khoto, in contemporary Inner Mongolia, Verkhnii Saltiv in today’s Ukrane, and Otrar, in what is today Southern Kazakhstan. In each case, period actors identified a given site as belonging to a “nomadic culture.” And every time they did so, the very objects of study - “material culture” and “nomadic cultures” – were semantically redefined and reconceptualized to fit the situational sociopolitical visions of the dissertation’s various protagonists.

The first case is centered on the Oblastniki [Regionalist] circle, a group of exile-intellectuals based in Siberia, who discovered the site of the fabled capital of Genghis Khan’s heirs in Mongolia, Karakorum, in 1888. They used nomadic archeology to objectify the view of Siberia as a hybrid birthplace of a superior mixed Russian “race”. In this sense, Siberia’s deep history reflected general developmental patterns in the empire. Based on this insight, they advanced a political program for Siberian development as a progressive “colony” converting its natural and human richness and hybridity into a paradigm of imperial modernity.

Figure 2: Siberian Regionalist and exile-scholar Nikolai Iadrintsev (1842-1894) [above] Types of Burial Mounds Discovered in Siberia and Northern Mongolia (1892) sketches by N.M. Iadrintsev [below] The Regionalists’ view of Siberia, which they substantiated in part through the findings of nomadic archaeology made at Karakorum, contradicted the established nineteenth-century narrative of the relationship between “Siberia” and “Muscovite Russia” based on “conquest” of the former by the latter.

Meanwhile, working some thirty years later, (1905) the self-proclaimed modernizers of the Kazakh steppes, led by a close associate of the Regionalists, Alikhan Bokeikhanuly (fl. 1866-1937), chose to completely ignore the ruined and abandoned city of Otrar, excavated by imperial archeologists in what is today southern Kazakhstan. Thrust into a similarly “colonial situation” but faced with a different lived experience of colonialism, he consciously eschewed “nomadic archaeology” generally as means of making political claims, but not due to ignorance of archaeological discourses or methods. Rather, the Alash modernizers consciously presented the history of Kazakh-Russian relations as an “imperial contract” through the renegotiation of which Alikhan Bukeikhanov and his confederates hoped to reify their people’s position in what Jane Burbank has called the “imperial rights regime” of the modernizing Russian Empire.

But, for instance, when the catacomb burial of Verkhnii Saltiv (Verkhnii Saltov) was discovered and identified as a “nomadic site,” nationalist-minded intellectuals calling themselves Ukrainofily sought to synthesize the site’s nomadic roots and a nascent conception of a “pure Ukrainian nation” with mixed results.[4]

Figure 3: Viktor Vasnetsov “Boi Skifov so Slavianami” (1881) The presence of nomadic peoples in the ancient steppe region of today’s southern Russia and Ukraine was well-known fact as far as the would-be interpreters of the Saltov site were concerned. However, the precise nature of the relationship, and the question of how to accurately demarcate temporal and cultural boundaries between nomadic and sedentary cultures became a key paradox which the Ukrainophiles were ultimately unable to resolve, even though it had been on their scholarly agenda since the 1870s.

Despite an initial flurry of interest around the site at the time of its discovery in 1902, less than a decade later the site was abandoned as a potential locus of nationalist mythmaking. As I demonstrate, a new master-narrative of Ukrainian history had emerged in at the turn of the 20th century in the Ukrainian lands, which competed with local visions of Verkhnii Saltiv’s past and the role of nomadic cultures in it. The competing interpretation stemmed not from hostile or anti-Ukrainian pundits in St. Petersburg or Moscow, but from the members of the Ukrainian nationalist network itself, working in Kyiv and Lemberg [L’viv].

The final case study of my dissertation concerns the so-called “dead city” Khara Khoto, in what is today Northern Mongolia, which became widely popularized and exoticized in fin-de-siecle Russian culture, all the while remaining a political and scholarly challenge for both imperial and local elites.[5]

Figure 4: The Walls of Khara Khoto (circa 1908) At Khara Khoto the paradox of nomadic archaeology came to head when a site with all the perceived attributes of an “urban complex society” – walls, irrigation canals, earthenware artifacts etc., - was discovered in a place inhabited by “primitive” nomads. In this case, neither the members of the academic establishment, nor members of the indigenous intelligentsia could come up with a unified “reading” of the site.

Taken together the case studies demonstrate that the centers of political and discursive power in the case of the Russian Empire do not necessarily overlap and reveal a situation where knowledge was exchanged “horizontally” through unofficial networks of citizen-scientists, rather than “vertically” through centrally-curated projects.[6] My project also polemicizes with the idea that archaeology as an especially-useful discipline and praxis for the construction of specifically national and nationalist narratives. Several case studies I have undertaken – Karakorum and Khara Khoto especially – have demonstrated that it was possible to construct national and nationalist narratives using sites and artifacts explicitly identified with nomadic peoples. Conversely, archeological knowledge was used to construct the vision of empire as a supra-national polity more advanced than any nation-state and better fitting the future Eurasian modernity.

Ismael Biyashev is a historian of empire, and a specialist in Russian Imperial and Early Soviet History. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois - Chicago in 2023. His current book project is the first attempt to reconstruct the scholarly field of nomadic archaeology that emerged in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century and to chart its historical development, change over time, and global networks. He can be reached at or through

[1] Caroline Humphrey and David Sneath, The End of Nomadism?: Society, State, and the Environment in Inner Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999). [2] Matilde Callari Galli, ed. Contemporary Nomadism: Relations Between Local Communities, Nation-States, and Global Cultural Flows (Münster, Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2007). P. 15; Sergei Oushakine, “O Liudiakh Puti: Nomadizm Segodnia: Vvedenie k Forumu Priglashennogo Redaktora,” Ab Imperio 2012, no. 2 (2012): 53–82. [3] See also: Michael Kunichika, “Our Native Antiquity”: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Culture of Russian Modernism. (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2015). [4] For more on the Ukrainophile movement consult Faith Hillis, Children of Rus’: Right-Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). [5] Ismael Biyashev, "Between Modernism and Archaism: "The Dead City of Khara Khoto" and Nomadism as an Archaeological Problem in Late Imperial and Early Soviet Russia." Ab Imperio 2020, no. 4 (2020): 131-160. [6] For more on the notion of citizen-science networks see: Joseph Bradley, Voluntary Associations in Tsarist Russia: Science, Patriotism, and Civil Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).; Marina Mogilner, Homo Imperii: A History of Physical Anthropology in Russia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013) Pp. 54-102.

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