The Xiongnu Nomadic Empire

Narratives of nomadic polities are seemingly familiar stories, ones hinged upon fierce and charismatic leaders and presented as fragile fringe entities preying upon the civilized world. Their political formations are deemed historical enigmas that somehow arise despite inherent impediments of mobile pastoral lifeways. Yet these portrayals stem from accounts written by those outside of the steppes looking inward, and their dispositions have guided interpretations of historical records and archaeological remains alike. This is especially true for the world’s first nomadic empire – the Xiongnu of Inner Asia (2nd cent. bc – 2nd cent. ad) – which set the stage for later steppe empires as well as for the treatment of them by those outside of the steppes.

Miller’s current manuscript project addresses this early empire through reoriented examinations of Chinese historical records related to Inner Asian groups, syntheses of the vast corpus of archaeological material within Mongolia, North China and South Siberia, and recent archaeological fieldwork conducted in central, western and eastern Mongolia. The project accordingly aims to re-configure the narrative of the Xiongnu within a steppe-oriented and integrated historical-archaeological investigation and to re-present nomadic empires not as fierce and fragile political conundrums but as dynamic polities with complex social, cultural, and economic institutions.