New project to explore horse trade in ancient China and Mongolia

Project 'Horse Power' aims to test the hypothesis that horses from the northern steppe region were traded south in exchange for Chinese metals.

An international team of researchers are set to explore the interactions between the nomadic societies of the Eurasian steppe and the ancient Chinese state, with plans to excavate the world-renowned Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, home of the Terracotta Army.

A terracotta warrior from the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. IMAGE: courtesy of Oxford University

The region spanning from the northern steppe to the southern plains of China was once dominated by two major states: the Xiongu – who arose in 209 BC and became the model for mobile horse-borne states, and the basis for the Silk Road, through to the rise of the Mongols 1400 years later – and the Qin – the first dynasty of Imperial China, which ruled from 221 to 206 BC.

Supported by a €10.4 million Europe Research Council Synergy grant, the six-year project Horse Power will be led by the Oxford School of Archaeology’s Professor Chris Gosden, in collaboration with researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the British Museum, and the University of Bonn in Germany.

It will involve excavations of early burial complexes known as khirigsuurs – major features in the Bronze Age Mongolian steppe – which comprise a human burial encircled by hundreds of satellite mounds, each containing the remains (usually just the head and hooves) of a horse.

Excavations will also take place at the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221-210 BC), founder of the Qin dynasty and the First Emperor of a unified China.

Qin’s tomb was guarded by the world-renowned army of terracotta warriors, and accompanied also by bronze chariots and horses, along with terracotta figurines of courtiers and musicians.

Horse Power aims to test the hypothesis that horses from the northern steppe region were traded south in exchange for Chinese metals.

Dr Ludovic Orlando, Research Director at the French CNRS, said: ‘I am particularly excited about sequencing DNA from the horses that contributed to build the first steppe empire in history and the first Chinese Imperial dynasty.

‘This will not just reveal those biological traits that were essential to form large herds and to rise cavalries but also the origins and the main streams of animal exchange across the region.’

Jean-Marie Hullot A view of the Terracotta Army created to protect the First Emperor from attack. It was discovered in 1974 by local farmers. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Jmhullot

Dr Ruiliang Liu, of the British Museum, added: ‘Horse Power will contribute a range of vital scientific data to transform our understanding of how large-scale organisation such as a state gradually emerged in different geographical contexts in human history, particularly the rise of Xiongnu in the northern steppe and Qin in the southern plains.’

There are also plans to involve the public in the project through photography and art initiatives, and to showcase its findings in Mongolian, Chinese, and British museum exhibitions.