Researchers in Serbia have studied a collection of ancient petroglyphs revealing the relationship between a medieval nomadic culture and animals. The team of researchers from the Gorno-Altaisk State University has published a new paper in the scientific journal Archaeology, Ethnography and Anthropology of Eurasia presenting their study of medieval Altai rock art, located near the famous Pazyryk burial mounds.
Carved in shallow lines with pointed tools, the Altai rock art artisans created images of people holding different weapons in hunting scenes, and even ancient dwellings.
The Pazyryk burials are Scythian (Saka) Iron Age tombs located in the in Ulazhonsky District of the Pazyryk Valley, in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, close to the border with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Dating to the 4th–3rd centuries BC these “Scythian-type kurgans tombs” are barrow-like mounds with internal wooden chambers covered by large cairns of boulders. It was in these ancient burial vaults that the Altai rock art was created and left behind for others to understand.
Another surprise is the way figure-types and chronologies are distributed across the landscape. Against our initial assumption, petroglyph-makers here were not mere opportunists when it came to selecting spots for their creations. Instead, our data reveal interesting statistical correlations.
So, for instance, the proportion of ibex, by far the most numerous of all figure-types, is far greater on B3 as compared to B2; the opposite is true of anthropomorphic figures. Archaic petroglyph-makers strongly favoured Khuiten Gol Delta, whereas Bronze Age artists evince a predilection for Broken Mountain, Spring House Bluffs, B1, and B3 (in that order).
Iron Age image-makers overwhelmingly chose B2; those of the Turkic period favoured B2 and B1, completely ignoring panels at Spring House Bluffs, Khuiten Gol Delta, and Broken Mountain.
What began with an exploratory crew of two researchers and two assistants has grown into a long-term multinational, multidisciplinary project. My 2007 team conducted a detailed study of Biluut’s geology – ‘the rock of rock art’ – while carrying out an ultra-detailed laser mapping of B2 petroglyphs.
In the summer of 2011, supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Three-Year Collaborative Research Grant, 40 individuals worked together at Biluut; at season’s end, we discovered the delta petroglyphs. In 2012, we numbered more than 50.
During those two summers, our dirt archaeologists excavated 40 diverse sites: Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, Turkic, and medieval. Since 2014, with smaller teams of specialists I have focused on scientific dating (VML plus pollen analyses), photogrammetry, geomorphology, palaeoecology, and ritual or ‘sacred’ landscape.
A Visual Journal Of The Ancient Altai Nomads
Most images date to the Early Middle Ages and their motifs and themes have numerous parallels in Central Asian art. There are hunting scenes, armed fighting men, and pictures of bows and quivers which relate to a cult of weapons and militarism . Two warriors are shown holding spears with banners surrounded by mountain goats, reindeer, and boars. Some motifs even show ancient dwellings that look like “ yurts.” In another image a pair of male and female Siberian stags are running at each other and this has been associated with a fertility cult.
Read together, the ancient Altai rock art speaks of warriors, hunting scenes and weapons, and echoes of a violent, warring people who lived at the intersection of several ancient nations. But ultimately, the new study is a further volume in our understanding of life in the incredible Altai region , which the new study says “guards huge layers of life – sustaining activities of human civilization.”
Why this region is so important, historically, is because it is a place of “formation and cultural evolution” of ethnic groups that are today scattered across Eurasia.