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Central Kazakhstan Petroglyphs

The middle part of Kazakhstan is occupied by a vast mountainous and steppe country –Saryarka (Kazakh Uplands). The unique landscape of Saryarka houses material evidence of the region’s ancient history left by ancient Stone Age hunters and Neolithic people, by shepherds and metal makers and by nomadic tribes from the Early Iron Age, Middle Ages, and modernity. The evidence includes rock drawings, although such sites are less numerous on the map of the central part of Kazakhstan.

The area of the main watershed Saryarka is mostly represented by mountain rocks not very suitable for engraving. Those preserved are on isolated rocks at a great distance from one another, mainly on relatively smooth granites and diorites enclosed by natural ledges.
Dravert P.-L. Grotto in the Bayanaul Mountains is a famous rock art site, discovered in 1926 on the south-eastern shore of Zhasybay Lake by a Russian geologist and poet, after whom it was named. Several humans facing the entrance of the cave were painted in ochre on its roof, so they could be seen from the depths of the niche. Paintings similar in contents and technique were also discovered later in other shelters in forested areas of the lake. The main motifs on the walls and roofs include humans, but also isolated animals, birds, a bow with an arrow and unsophisticated geometric shapes or signs. It is difficult to date them; it is unlikely that most would date beyond the Bronze Age, a period of active peopling of the area with Andronovo and Begazy-Dandybaev culture tribes.

Rock paintings in central Saryarka were also made in another remarkable site–Tesiktas Grotto–located in the spurs of the Kyzyltau Mountains, in the upper reaches of one of the Sherubay-Nura River tributaries, far from Lake Bayanaul. Although the natural environment is quite similar, Tesiktas represents a different type of landscape and rock paintings.

Petroglyphs in Akbidayik and Olenty in the north-eastern periphery of Saryarka–a rare type of archeological site for the area– are among the northernmost rock art sites in Kazakhstan. They represent the earliest examples of steppe-tribes’ rock art from the 3rd to the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, which permits us to trace some pictorial traditions of the Bronze Age common in the southern regions of Saryarka (Northern Near Balkhash Area, Ylitau) and farther in the Karatau and Chu-Ili Mountains.

Terekty Aulie, 90km east of Zhezkazgan City and 20km north-west of Terekty Station in the Karagandy Region, is a remarkable rock art site in the south-west of Saryarka. It is small, both in terms of the space occupied and its number of petroglyphs on granite. The main series of Bronze Age petroglyphs is homogeneous and special. Many archeological sites belong to different periods, with Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age dwelling sites, Early Iron Age kurgans, remains of mining activities, a necropolis with medieval and 18th - 19th mausoleums. Terekty Aulie is one of the few rock art sites in Kazakhstan where rocks with ancient petroglyphs are part of a cycle of religious and cultic worship. The most ancient petroglyphs favor horse images. There are also two-humped Bactrian camels, bulls, goats, deer, snakes, a feline predator and a chariot. The integrity of the iconography and style of this Terekty Aulie rock art, attributed to the Seymin-Turbin pictorial traditions from parallels with items of those cultures, serves to identify rock art sites in the southwest of Saryarka (Baykonur Valley), south Kazakhstan (Karatau) and Central Asia (Fergana).

A vast mountainous semi-desert exists from the Northern Near Balkhash area to the south of the main watershed of Sary-Arka (Kazakh Uplands). The harsh weather of this practically impassable region has preserved some remarkable ancient sites including petroglyphs. Some were discovered in the 1960’s by Margulan A.-H., geologists Medoev A.-G. and Aubekerov B.-Zh. and studied in 2007 by Rogozhinskiy A.-E., but, in general, this area of Kazakhstan is considered as poorly researched. Two famous sites–Besoba and Kalmakemel–are good examples of the rock art in the Northern Near Balkhash Area.

The Most Important Sites of Central Kazakhstan
Tesiktas Grotto petroglyphs

Tesiktas Grotto is located in the Shet District of the Karaganda Region, 13km north-east of the district capital (Aksu-Ayuly), 5km north-west of Aktobe Village, in the foothills of the Kyzyltau Mountains.

Research Status and Documentation

The Tesiktas Grotto paintings were examined in the 1940’s by Magulan A.-H.; in the 1980’s, the paintings were recorded by Novozhenov V.-A.(Novozhenov 2002). In 2007, the site was studied by Rogozhinskiy A.-E.

Archeological Context

A kurgan burial site, west of the rock with paintings on the adjacent plain, is dated to the Early Iron Age. Ten kilometers east of the paintings, there is a vertical stelae-shaped rock.

Typology and Dating

Two isolated towering granite rocks in the piedmont plain are at some distance from the low hills. The upper part of one of the rocks has a large open niche with paintings on its high arch. At the centre of the arch, one can see two short-horned oxen and several crosslike signs; nearby are amorphous spots of red ochre–traces of other unpreserved images, which could only be sketched in the 20th century. One of the animals was outlined, only part of the second remains. On the second surface of the arch, there is one more noticeable contour figure, possibly an animal depicted less realistically. Beyond the open niche, on the side rocky surfaces, traces of other paintings are nearly completely obliterated and indiscernible.

An opening forms a wide passage in the rock oriented south to north, while the legs of preserved animal images point to the east and their heads face south. Possibly, the orientation of the drawings in relation to cardinal points was less significant, since during the days of low solstice, one can observe rays passing through the opening in the rock lighting the paintings and creating an impressive view. The age of the Tesiktas paintings has not been determined but researchers attribute them to the Bronze Age (Margulan 2007: 20; Novozhenov 2002).

Akbidayik petroglyphs

Akbidayik Gorge is in the Ekiastuz District of the Pavlodar Region, 1.5-2km south-east of Maykain Station. The drawings were executed on the smooth reddish surface of a large (15- 25m) sandstone outcropping 0.5-0.7m above its surroundings. The central part of the rock with petroglyphs was severely damaged by the extraction of building stones; its western part, with several spectacular compositions, is well preserved.

Research Status and Documentation

Akbidayik rock art was discovered in 1990 by Mertz V.-K. (Pavlodar Archeological Expedition). In 2004, the exploration of the site and a baseline documentation were carried out in partnership with Rogozhinskiy A.-E. to file for state protection: an archeological map of the complex, an inventory list, indexed panorama, photos and copies from engraved surfaces were made; Iskakov K.-T. (assistant of conservation specialist) studied the state of preservation of the petroglyphs and recorded damages.

Archeological Context

More than 30 archeological sites were identified in the vicinity of the petroglyphs including dwelling-sites/workshops from the Stone Age (Lower Paleolithic, Neolithic and Eneolithic/Chalcolithic), settlements and burial sites (Bronze Age – Early Iron Age), petroglyphs as well as remnants of a railway embankment dated to the early 20th century.

Typology and Dating

At Akbidayik, there are engravings from three/four stages of cultures in the north-eastern periphery of Saryarka: Neolithic, Eneolithic, Bronze and Early Iron Ages. It is not improbable that some drawings may date to later periods. Nearly 100 petroglyphs in several groups were discovered on horizontal and inclined rock surfaces. The most expressive drawings are concentrated on the north-western surface; there are cases of superimpositions.

The most ancient petroglyphs include schematic humans with widely spread arms, legs and a pronounced phallus. Next to them are barely-discernible zoomorphic images. Some drawings are damaged due to wind erosion of the rock surface. Petroglyphs were apparently pecked with a rough stone tool. An archer is overlaid by a horse. These drawings may date to the Stone Age.

The most numerous group includes large animals realistically depicted, with a multi-figured panel including over 30 different images with large (30–75cm) figures of horses, Asiatic wild asses, oxen, goats, schematic humans and unidentified signs. On the right is another group of drawings with deer and horses. Naturalistic horses are prominent in most compositions. The same technique was used to peck their silhouette regularly. Despite the fact that many figures overlap, most were apparently created within one period in a specific order. Akbidayik horses have analogies in the eastern and south-eastern regions of Kazakhstan as well as in the Turbin-Seymin pictorial tradition at the start of the Early and Advanced Bronze Age.

In addition to these two groups of the most ancient petroglyphs at Akbidayik, there are images of bulls (Bos primigenius) with horns lowered and pointing forward, overlapping mountain goats, saiga antelopes, deer and other animals. These images date from the Eneolithic to the Early Bronze Age (3rd – early 2nd millennium BC) and to the Early Iron Age (7th – 4th centuries BC).

Olenti petroglyphs

The petroglyphs are on the right bank of the Olenti River, 10km south-west of Tay Village in the Ekibastuz District of the Pavlodar Region. More than 50 petroglyphs were found on 17 surfaces of large blocks of light-brown sandstone rocks on the slopes of the river terrace.

Research Status and Documentation

The Olenti petroglyphs were discovered in the early 1970’s by a regional ethnographer Mool O. In the 1990’s, the site was explored by Mertz V.-K.; in 2005, the petroglyphs were examined by Samashev Z.

Archeological Context

A systematic research of the district revealed a great number of temporally different archeological sites: Neolithic and Eneolithic dwelling sites, Bronze Age burials and kurgans of the Early Iron Age nomads.

Typology and Dating

All the engraved rocks are on the steep slope of a terrace; their surfaces are encrusted with a thick layer of lichen. Individual drawings are pecked, but in the soft rock, most engravings were created by using a technique of deep carving, some even appearing as basreliefs.

Petroglyphs form small compositions consisting of several animal and human figures. Often, the drawings are grouped around one or two images centrally positioned: a human is in the center of one of the rocks with a panther, oxen, and other poorly discernible images. There are erotic scenes. Animals include oxen with long horns curved upwards, horses with a fringe on their heads, deer, saiga antelope, and others.

According to their stylistic specifics and iconography, two major pictorial traditions were identified at Olenti. The first includes a series of humans (erotic couples, a birthing woman, archers) and oxen with horns either long or curving upwards, while the second one includes horses carved in a manner indicative of the Bronze Age Turbin-Seymin pictorial tradition.

Early images at Olenti have no accurate analogies among known Kazakhstan rock art sites; their repertoire, technique, style, and iconography are akin to images on bas-reliefs in the Apsheron Peninsula. These early Olenti petroglyphs are supposedly dated to the Eneolithic – Early Bronze Age, and thus related to the earliest images of rock art in Northern Saryarka.

Besoba petroglyphs

The Besoba Valley petroglyphs are located in the Karaganda Region, 45km north-east of Sayak City, on the right bank of the Turanga River, along the eastern slope of the Semizbugu Mountains.

Research Status and Documentation

Sites in the Semizbugu Mountains and Besoba Valley were discovered and researched in the 1960’s by geologists Medoev A.-G. and Aubekerov B.-Zh. An archeological and geomorphological map of the area was then made (Medoev 1979). In 2007, Rogozhinskiy A.-E. studied, recorded and photographed petroglyphs at Besoba, and drew up an archeological map.

Archeological Context

The Besoba plain stretches along the eastern slopes of the Semizbugu Mountains. A large complex of dwelling-sites/workshops dated to the Paleolithic and Neolithic, kurgan burial sites from the Early Iron Age, wintering grounds and cemeteries dated to the 19thearly 20th centuries were discovered. The topography of the sites points to an erratic frequentation of the region at certain historical periods. The most favorable conditions for life existed, apparently, in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Typology and Dating

Petroglyphs are pecked on diorite porphyries 2-3m above their surroundings. The rocks stretch from north to south in several rows along the valley for 5–10km and form natural galleries with ancient drawings. A total of about 300 surfaces with rock art were recorded with nearly 1,000 petroglyphs.

In some places, vertical and inclined surfaces of rocks stretch for tens of meters. There are many images on rocks closer to the river. Neolithic artifacts were also found. Petroglyphs are rarely found on sites far from the water.

No sites from the 2nd millennium BC were identified, but more than half the Besoba petroglyhs date to the Bronze Age. Images include numerous horses, scenes with humans and a two-wheeled cart.

The Early Saki petroglyphs, which are rare, are hammered on good horizontal surfaces. They often include contour figures of deer and panthers as well as horses hooves, many re-carved in later periods. Drawings of the Saki Period are nonexistent, thus suggesting a gap in rock art tradition in the second half of the 1st millennium BC.

During the medieval period, artists often re-carved and modified ancient petroglyphs, for example Bronze Age horses were refreshed with added details of harness and riders. Lineage tamgas form a special type of petroglyphs.

A final period of rock engravings dates to the 19th - early 20th centuries and is attributed to the settlement of Argyn Kazakh tribes in the region. Their tamgas are found near wintering grounds.

Images of horse hoof tracks were replicated many times, and ancient images were also re-carved at that time.

Kalmakemel petroglyphs

The Kalmakemel Mountains are in the Karaganda Region, 70km north-west of Sayak City.

Research Status and Documentation

In 2007, the Kalmakemel petroglyphs were researched and documented by Rogozhinskiy A.-E. who drew up an archeological map and photographed the petroglyphs.

Archeological Context

A broad valley, with habitation sites dated to the Neolithic, the Middle Ages, and the 19th - 20th centuries, and Early Iron Age kurgan burial sites, intersects with a low mountain massif from east to west. The most ancient sites include two identified dwellingsites/workshops from the Upper Paleolithic. On the left slope of the gorge, petroglyphs are found in especially large quantities in the middle part of the valley, with a total of about 2,000 images, which makes it the most important Northern Near Balkhash Area site.

Typology and Dating

Most engravings date to the Bronze Age, with numerous horses, hunting scenes, solar signs and others. Other periods are represented to a lesser degree, but also with expressive images, such as deer in Early Saki style, a medieval image of a dog in a heraldic pose,
and others.

The most ancient Kalmakemel petroglyphs are superficially pecked, apparently with a stone tool. Hundreds of images are of horses; other animals were rarely depicted – ox, deer, dogs; images of humans are sporadic. The horses, similar and realistic, are short-legged with a drooping abdomen and a massive head with a small mane. They are followed by mares with foals. Their legs are connected to one line below. Humans are shown controlling the animals by flinging a rope on their necks or hunting and striking them with an arrow. The opposition between humans as masters and animals is emphasized by specific drawing techniques or the skillful use of nuances on the surface. A couple of harnessed horses proves that ancient Kalmakemel petroglyphs depicted a community of early cattle-breeders, where animal hunting and taming went along with the use of domesticated animals.

Iconographic and stylistic parallels with artistic bronze objects of the Seymin-Turbin type date the petroglyphs to the first half of the 2nd century BC. Among Kazakhstan rock art sites, the Akbidayik engravings of northeastern Saryarka are closest in content to the Kalmakemel petroglyphs. In the south-east of the region, analogies include engravings at Terekty Aulie and Baykonur River Valley, distinguished by the presence of Bactrian camel images.

Late Bronze Age engravings are prominent, even if not very numerous, at Kalmakemel with horsedrawn chariots, battle scenes and solar scenes –i.e. the whole range of Kazakhstan themes for that period.

The repertoire of petroglyphs from early and medieval nomads is much richer than at Besoba, but their quantity is still small, with isolated silhouettes of a deer, horse hooves and other animals in the style of Western Mongolia and Altai “deer” rocks. A composition with human figures vividly resembles original drawings of the Tagarian culture in the Minusinsk Basin. Medieval petroglyphs are inexpressive, but they include tamgas, also found on other sites from the Altai to Tarbagay to the Chu Valley. Later petroglyphs are concentrated near wintering grounds dating to the late 19th - early 20th centuries, represented with quite realistic engravings; Kazakh tamgas are frequent.