National Geographic Emerging Explorer
Art by Istvan Banyai
My team drove four days west from Ulaanbaatar toward the western border, near Kazakhstan, to work at an ancient burial site—almost a thousand miles through Mongolia’s central steppes, the Gobi, and the Altay Mountains. When we stopped in a village to ask for directions, we were told the site was cursed. It was a cemetery for royals from the Xiongnu Empire. The Great Wall of China had been built to keep the Xiongnu out.
As we drove up to the site, we had a feeling something was wrong. It was eerily quiet. Usually after a day of excavation, everyone is sitting around a bonfire socializing. Not here. The site was in the middle of the desert, yet it was swarming with mosquitoes. Some of the local team had been bitten so many times their skin was infected from scratching.
Another team had excavated the site decades before and had left huge craters behind. Over the years people have been injured and livestock and wildlife killed by falling into them. As I stood on the edge of one of these deep pits, I felt anxious, like someone was watching us. It was as if the place were angry we were there. I told the dig team we could study the skeletons when they brought them to the museum in Ulaanbaatar. Then we left.
Most people are uncomfortable being surrounded by the dead. My father, a scientist, has expressed concern that ghosts from excavated skeletons may follow me around. My response to him is that I am not disturbing these skeletons but remembering the ones who have long been forgotten. Besides, I told him, if I ever felt the skeletons did not want me there, I would leave. This one time I did.