January 8, 2006

Mongolia Sees Scientists As Job Creators

BAGA GAZRYN CHULU, Mongolia (AP) - Archaeologists and dinosaur hunters are digging up Mongolia's vast countryside, seeking to retrace thousands of years of history in this storied but still mysterious land.

It was from here that Genghis Khan's armies conquered China and threatened Europe some 700 years ago, and where untold herds of dinosaurs once roamed.

"Mongolia is still a big question: Who was where? Who was doing what?" says Jargalan, a 22-year-old archaeology student who is working on a tomb dig at Baga Gazryn Chulu in the Gobi Desert and like many Mongolians uses only one name.

"Mongolian archaeology is just a baby," he says.

Mongolia, a former Soviet satellite, is now a desperately poor country eager for foreign investment. It is welcoming archaeology and paleontology expeditions as a way to create jobs and train Mongolia's growing corps of homegrown scientists.

"Beyond the artifacts, we are trying to build scientific potential," says Jean-Paul Desroches, head of a joint French-Mongolian archaeological expedition. "That's the invisible part of what we're doing."

In centuries past, European adventurers carted their treasures home. Not anymore. Desroche's team has uncovered cloth, gold and bronze artifacts from as early as A.D. 10 that are being restored in France and will be returned to Mongolia to add to its national heritage.

But tomb raiders are also active, seeking to sell treasures to rich foreign collectors. Even dinosaur bones are on offer at Mongolia's tourist markets, along with official-looking maps of the excavation sites.

Officials and non-governmental groups are reaching out to the country's poor herders, telling them not to help tomb raiders locate historic finds.

"We are working with the country people to help them understand this is their heritage, too," says K. Tsogtbaatar, head of the paleontological museum and laboratory at the Mongolia Academy of Sciences.