D.Erdenebaatar: I keep unmatched rare artifacts in my safe-deposit box in a bank, this is a tragedy


Unuudur, a Mongolian daily paper, interviewed PhD D.Erdenebaatar, professor from the Department of Archaeology of Ulaanbaatar University, an affiliate of the National University of Mongolia, about archeological science and the current condition of the Mongolian archeological sector.

-Ulaanbaatar University owns an archeological museum. I heard that it is free of charge and open to public on weekdays. Can you give us more details?

-This small museum is the result of 15-years of hard work by the Department of Archeology. It is open to whoever wants see it, with no entrance fee. Various artifacts and finds which are of great significance to Mongolian heritage and culture are being stored in the museum. We have made requests to several state organizations to take these artifacts under protection and display them at larger museums to a wider audience.

-Did you contact the Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism, Ts.Oyungerel, about the issue?

-Minister Ts.Oyungerel and the Minister of Education and Science, L.Gantumur, have both visited our museum. But they had some misunderstandings. Minister Ts.Oyungerel visited to check whether I owned the museum and to whom the artifacts were registered to. I explained that all the artifacts and finds exhibited in the museum belong to the state, showing their registration documents to the Unique and Rare Heritage List of Mongolia and related government decrees.

The Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism (MCST) has recently announced that a National Archeological Museum will be established soon. If this is true, we couldn’t be more delighted. I want to say publicly that we want to hand over the artifacts and finds only to a reliable organization that guarantees a standard of preservation and display. These artifacts are directly connected to the history of Mongolia and Mongolians must preserve them. The artifacts and finds were exhibited at the Government Palace throughout the summer free of charge.

The people of Mongolia have a right to see and learn about them.

-We read about the latest discoveries or other important issues taking place in Mongolian archeology mostly from international news sources . Why don’t Mongolian researchers and scientists regularly report their discoveries and issues to the local press? Is it due to a lack of state policies that support publicity?   

-State policies are partially responsible for the lack of coverage by news reports. Furthermore, the institutes of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences do not operate consistently, which makes it impossible for archeologists to report new findings even to the national press.

I have reported to the public about the findings I’ve discovered during my field research  a few times before. But many national journalists seem to lack reporting skills, and spread misleading or incorrect information about my discoveries. Also, when we gave educational programs on history, science and archeology that were prepared by us to television networks, they charged fees for broadcasting. Generally, we conduct joint field research with foreign organizations. However, the foreign organizations publish and broadcast discoveries as if it’s their finding just because they finance the research. Mongolian organizations never finance these sort of research projects, but national high-ranking officials boast, “We are currently leading field research with international organizations.”

Jade Tag of Xiongnu Emperor

-The Mongolian Academy of Sciences (MAS) launched a book titled, “Xiongnu Heritage and Culture” but only one of your research projects was included. As far as I heard, the artifacts and findings you discovered are very rare and could potentially stir sensation among  international archeological circles. Your latest discovery was a jade tag, which is very rare and dates back to the Xiongnu Emprie. But why didn’t MAS include this artifact in the book?   

-The book wasn’t going to include any of the artifacts that I discovered. I could only publish a photo of a glass bowl that was used in the Xiongnu Empire, after begging and explaining that the bowl belongs to the Xiongnu people, not me.

It is pitiful to see them being so shallow about archaeology. I worked for the Institute of History of MAS for 19 years, so I know how its staff works. They focus on including their names in the book, instead of trying their best to make a book that embodies information about all the important artifacts and finds that all Mongolians should be aware of.

Sooner or later, information about all of these finds will be published in textbooks on Mongolian history. But with the current conditions, science will not develop as much as we want it to in this country.

-The rare archeological and paleontological findings, especially the Tyrannosaurus fossil skeleton “Bataar”, which originated here, has drawn international attention to Mongolia. Thanks to Bataar, the government of Mongolia started paying more attention to the sector. What are your thoughts on this matter?

-I haven’t seen a remarkable change yet. The world wants to know about what Mongolia discovered from its soil and how those findings are enriching the world’s history. Mongolian researchers are always invited to international activities. However, they are not able to participate in any of them because they lack financing.

I haven’t gone to any international events associated with archaeology lately. We represent Mongolia when we go abroad, so we can’t take financing from foreign investors all the time.

-You discovered a glass bowl made by a Roman Empire craftsman and a jade tag of a Xiongnu Emperor found in the tomb of a Xiongnu royal family, located in Noyon Mountain in Tuv Province. But we learned about it from international media too. Why didn’t we hear of it from local press first?

-The Archaeological Museum of Ulaanbaatar University exhibits both of them now. As I have mentioned before, I had to beg to have the photo of the jade tag published in the book. We found three bowls made during the Roman Empire from that specific tomb. Two of them were broken, but the other one was preserved very well despite a little crack.

I delivered a speech about this bowl at an international conference in Germany before, and said it was evidence that the Xiongnu and Roman Empires were very connected by trade through the Silk Road. But a German scientist told me, “These kinds of luxury artifacts were not made for trade. Only a few royal families of the Roman Empire used them.” If it is true, the royals of the Xiongnu and Roman Empires must have met, which could signify that they had cordial relations.

-Chinese state officials listed its ancient emperor tags under its state protection, while one of the few jade tags in the world is being displayed in a small private museum. It shows that Mongolians are very careless about such precious items of heritage. What is your opinion on this matter?

-Some Chinese researchers once told me, “How does the Mongolian government protect you? In China, the government takes both the finding and its discoverer under state protection,” while I store such important artifacts in my private safe-deposit box in a bank. It is a tragedy, but this is the reality in Mongolia.”

-I fear that the finds might get stolen or smuggled. Aren’t you obligated to transfer all finds to state ownership after discovery?

-As I said, the artifacts transferred by us to the state haven’t been displayed to the public. I’m planning to release a book with full information of all the finds that I have discovered by the end of this year. The reason that we are publishing the book is to spread information about these findings and prevent further smuggling of such precious items, as they will be catalogued in the book. Smuggling of finds from museums is mostly because of lack of information about them and an official catalogue.

-Prospecting, excavating, staying in the countryside for many days, operating and feeding a whole team must require a large amount of money. But I learned how complicated it is to conduct field expeditions and research only after watching the documentary, “Gol Mod-2, Xiongnu History and Cultural Heritage” that was produced by you. Are there any organizations that provide financial support for your research?

-I normally have to go around asking for financial support for expeditions from various organizations. Since 1995, I have been trying to take allocations from the state budget for my research.

I provided all required documents and did everything I could, but wasn’t successful. It is almost impossible to receive support from the state budget unless you have connections with those who are in charge of the budget plan or able to bribe high-ranking officials.

I think Kh.Battulga, the Minister of Industry and Agriculture, is the person that has provided the biggest investment to Mongolian scientific history from his own pocket. I first met him in 2011, by chance and explained my situation. He gave me over 150 million MNT without demanding any collateral for my studies.

As a result, we finally extracted precious artifacts from the tomb of a Xiongnu Emperor after working on it  for over 10 years. If it wasn’t for Kh.Battulga, we couldn’t have done it. I want to stress that Kh.Battulga hasn’t demanded anything in return, as I heard some absurd gossip with the intent to defame his reputation.

One of the main reasons that I produced the documentary is to show the public that we can conduct and complete similar large-scale field research on our own. Ten years ago, I worked on a joint research and excavation of the Xiongnu Empire royal tomb which was discovered in Arkhangai Province by French archaeologists.

I produced a similar documentary back then as well. I conducted a thorough study of the artifacts that were found and filmed footage explaining their origins and significance. I thought that the documentary would promote our joint efforts to discover the world. But when I saw the documentary, it gave the impression that only French archaeologists studied and discovered the artifacts, while myself and other Mongolian researchers stood around watching them.

I submitted a complaint to the officials of the Institute of History of Mongolian Academy of Sciences (MAS) only to be criticized. They sided with the French documentary makers instead and blamed me for criticizing an “influential French researcher.” Since then I have never agreed to collaborate with French researchers.

There is another documentary where the former President of Mongolia, N.Enkhbayar, is visiting and learning about the Mongolia-Russia-Germany joint field research in the Altai Mountains.

It was no different from previous documentaries and the roles of the Mongolian researchers were not mentioned. A renowned scholar of Mongolia, D.Tseveendorj, who led the Mongolian team of the expedition was shown only briefly, almost accidentally.

Therefore, I have decided to produce a documentary that shows that Mongolians can successfully lead and complete field research on our own. It is not done yet, but we will release it by the end of this year.

-You are very enthusiastic about your job, although you have to make an endless effort to find resources for each of your expeditions? How does it benefit you personally in the end?

-Though research doesn’t bring us any financial gain, we still seek to learn more about our history. This is the thing that we can pass down to our descendants. You could say I’m addicted to my job.

Once you get to know a little about our mother country’s rich history, it is inevitable that you grow attracted to it. It is too late for anyone to make me give up my job. As I’m doing field research in countryside most of the time, I’m hardly at home. My wife once criticized me, “You have been away from your home for 226 days out of 365 days a year.”

Out of all the Mongolian tribes and empires, Xiongnu’s history is the most overlooked.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tuva have all marked the 2,222nd anniversary of the Xiongnu Empire and held various activities, released research reports and films related to the Xiongnu people. They have even organized an international conference, while Mongolians, descendants of the Xiongnu people, held an anniversary conference and nothing more.

What I’m suggesting is not a massive celebration, but more in-depth studies into our own history and a wide-range of public promotion. What will you do if someone says, “This is mine,” while pointing at a thing that belongs to you? Will you let him take it, or prove that it is yours? This is why I’m devoting my life to prove that the Xiongnu people were our ancestors.

-How do you make catalogues and register the discovered items? It seems that it wouldn’t make a difference if someone was intent on smuggling them for profit?

-Students majoring in archeology work for our team. They would not do such a thing. I trust their morality. In addition, the excavations fields are not an abandoned or messy place. We record each one of the discoveries with photos or footage.

-How do you find tombs?

-You have to be aware of where the ancient Mongolians buried the departed and their traditions for burial ceremonies. We prospect for tombs based on such knowledge and information. For instance, people who lived during the Bronze Age buried the departed above the ground, while the people of Xiongnu and Mongol Empire buried them underground. Burials of the Great Khaans (Emperors) are hardly ever found as their burials were conducted in secret.

Xiongnu Empire artifacts

-I heard that not all researchers can discover tombs and precious artifacts. How long have you been taking part in field research and how many tombs and burial mounds have you discovered?

-I have taken part in discovery of over 200 tombs since 1985. Around ten of them were buried with artifacts. I found a bronze horse sculpture on my first ever field research. I think it was a symbolic event and it seems that the horse led my way.

After that, I found a bronze helmet which dated back to the Bronze Age from a square tomb in Bulgan Province in 1992. It was the first artifact that was used by Mongolians during the Bronze Age used. It is being stored at the Institute of Archeology of MAS. My beloved teacher kissed me out of delight and said, “I haven’t found such a precious artifact in my 40 years of research.” What he said was the biggest prize for me.

An empty tomb doesn’t mean it is useless. Every tomb gives us some knowledge. For instance, the position of the buried and the direction it is put represents the buried person’s lineage, social rank and taboos of the burial date.

-Speaking of taboo, do you get scared or worry that it might bring you misfortune to dig out tombs?

-No I don’t, because I haven’t done anything wrong. It is my job and duty to study and find out more about our history. That is why many people generously support our work. A humble trader once gave us ten sacks of rice and an old herdsman gave us a sheep to feed the expedition team. Many others helped us in transportation issues and an old man once gave us 100,000 MNT from his pension without a second thought. I will never forget their help. This shows that “you reap what you sow.” If you have a strong will and follow the right path, your work turns out well eventually. I always tell this to my students.

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