Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Kyrgyzstan's Petroglyphs #1 - Issyk-kul Hollow

Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, will contribute occasional articles about her areas of interest.

Petroglyphs (coming from the Greek petra – stone or rock and glyphe – carving) date from the pre-literate epoch of humanity; these images reproduce the world-view of pre-historic peoples and there are many outstanding examples to be found in Kyrgyzstan.

European scholars started archaeological investigations of Central Asia in the 1870s, when the Turkestan region became part of Tsarist Russia. Central Asian rock carvings and cave paintings attracted the attention of eminent researchers such as A. Bernshtam, D. Vinnik and M. Masson. For modern researchers, petroglyphs represent a valuable source for studying the social, spiritual and economic lives of our ancestors.

Overview: technique and style of petroglyphs

Depiction of goats at Cholpon Ata's "stone garden", image L. Kas'yanova
Central Asia's most ancient petroglyphs are usually dated back to the Bronze Age. Regrettably some have been destroyed as the result of weathering, earthquakes, and rock falls. Images were carved on boulders and rocks only on occasions of the utmost importance. In certain cases, it is possible to distinguish markings of stone tools from metal ones.

A number of carvings were created on rock surfaces covered by desert varnish. Desert varnish is caused by the simultaneous influence of external agents such as ultraviolet rays, humidity level and temperature. These agents all favour the development of ferrous-manganese layers, which are used in combination with other factors to determine the age of the petroglyph.

Some petroglyphic depictions and scenes have been decoded, or, at least, varieties of versions of their meaning suggested by scholars. Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of scenes the meanings of which are unclear and have yet to be unveiled. Among the earliest motives are scenes with goats. The Soviet archaeologist A. Okladnikov related these depictions to the cult of fertility. It was identified that the Bronze Age tribes worshipped the sun and some animals, and had a fertility cult.

With the proliferation of chariots, a horse cult started to form. Horses became the principal means of conveyance and later, when a number of tribes started to lead a nomadic life, the role of the horse increased. A nomad could not imagine his life without his horse. In mythology, the deity of victory - Verethraghna - appeared in the likeness of a camel. For nomads the camel was an indispensable animal, however, the time of camel worship formation has not yet been identified.

In Central Asia the bull was the main symbol of sacrifice and creatures with mixed zoomorphic and anthropomorphic features, which are connected with the Paleolithic epoch, can be also encountered in the petroglyphic drawings of the late Stone and early Bronze ages. Archers portrayed by Mesolithic artists can be seen on stone canvases even in the late Middle Ages. The same refers to mythical beasts of prey and solar symbols.

kyrgystan art craft history, kyrgyztsan tours
Goat with solar symbol,  image L. Kas'yanova
The 1st millennium BC was marked by the beginning of “wild animal style”, which is an art of the Eurasian steppes. The Scythian-Saka tribes were the founders of this style.  Fine scrolls and winding lines fill the figures of animals. The carved images of these early nomads (mid-1st-millennium BC to mid-1st-millennium AD) are found in almost all petroglyphic art complexes. The carved images of the Turkic-Mongolian period (6th - 13th centuries AD) are attributed to the closing stage of petroglyphic art. Archers and horse riders holding lances and banners are typical images of the Turkic-Mongolian art of rock carvings.

Petroglyphs of Issyk-kul hollow 

Kyrgyzstan abounds in monuments of  prehistoric art. One of the most remarkable petroglyph sites is the Cholpon-Ata mountain area in the Issyk-Kul region. (Cholpon-Ata means "father of the morning star"). The Cholpon-Ata open-air museum, created in 1987 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located at the foothills of the Kungey Ala-Too Range, at an altitude of 1600 -1800 meters. This unique site covers an area of 42 hectares and comprises thousands of granite boulders adorned by hundreds of carvings.

Hunting with snow leopards, top right. Image: Berry King
There are about 400 stones with petroglyphs at the site. The stones, which were used as “canvases” by skillful ancient and medieval carvers, vary in size from 30 cm to 3 meters; they were deposited by mountain torrents at the locality. The images on the stones are stylistically diverse and are dominated by depictions of animals such as ibexes, deer, argali (mountain sheep), camels, horses and snow leopards. Hunting scenes, attacks of animals by beasts of prey, numerous images of horse riders and archers as well as depictions of nomadic tamga (emblem) can be encountered.

A great number of carvings at the site are from the Scythian-Saka epoch that flourished in the  8th - 3rd centuries BC. These are some of the most stunning examples of the Scythian-Saka “wild animal style” in Central Asia. According to the opinions of some scholars, the Cholpon-Ata historical site provides evidence of being an immense open-air temple used for solemn ceremonies that were a part of spiritual life of the early nomads. At the museum complex there are circular stone structures preserved as part of an ancient observatory. One of the local features is that there are ancient burial sites connected with the stone carvings.

There are scores of petroglyph sites which frame Issyk-Kul Lake, however, the images of the north shore outnumber those of the south and west sides. This is because the gorges and grottoes of the south shore have not been extensively explored. Nevertheless, there is one more exceptional locality of petroglyphs in the Issyk-Kul region - Ak-Chunkur (in Kyrgyz it means “White Cave”) situated 3000 metres above sea level. The occupation layer of the cave has a late Stone Age character. As the result of excavations, stone implements were discovered in Ak-Chunkur. The walls and cupola of the cave are decorated by depictions of animals and inscriptions in red iron ore and black dye.

Charming felted products from the JICA project
The Japanese development agency, JICA, is working with Kyrgyz women to produce high quality felt products using natural dyes and petroglyphic patterns. 

Passengers on an Uzbek Journeys tour to Kyrgyzstan explore Cholpon Ata's stone garden before heading to Karakol. It is a fascinating site. And you can also visit the the small boutique in Karakol that sells the JICA-supported items.

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru
Read all Lilya's articles.  

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