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Eastern Kazakhstan petroglyphs

Eastern Kazakhstan occupies the south-western part of the Altai (Rudniy and Southern Altai Ranges), the Zaysan Basin, the Kalbi Plateau, the Saur and Tarbagatay Ranges, the Near Irtysh Plain and the eastern part of the Kazakh Uplands (Chingiztau). The region is part of the Arctic Ocean and Kara Sea basins and the drainage area of Lake Balkhash. The watershed stretches along the Tarbagatay and Chingiztau Ranges. The main river in Eastern Kazakhstan–the Irtysh–flows for 1,700km within Kazakhstan. The largest lakes include Zaysan, Markakol, Alakol, and Sassykkol. The Altai and Tarbagatay Mountains are the main places for rock art in Eastern Kazakhstan.

The history of rock art research in Kazakhstan began with the discovery of a series of sites in the Near Irtysh Area in the 19th century. Different researchers (Spasskiy G.-I., Vlangali A., Adrianov A.-V.) then identified dozens of sites in the Altai and Tarbagatay Mountains (Spasskiy 1818; Adrianov 1916)). In the 1930’s, Chernikov S.-S. continued their research; in 1971-1983, Eastern Kazakhstan rock art was researched and documented by Samashev Z., who systematized and summarized data accumulated by the end of the 20th century about the localization and chronology of petroglyphs. In 2008, certain sites in Tarbagatay and the Altai were explored by Rogozhinskiy A.-E.

The mountainous regions of Eastern Kazakhstan harbor a great many rock art sites, which distinguishes the region from others in Kazakhstan. Their chronology remains unclear in most cases, but the substrate, repertoire, and iconography reveal similarities with sites in the upper reaches of the Irtysh, in China. Some traditions of Bronze Age, Early Iron Age, and mediaeval rock art, well-represented in the Altai, the Minusinsk Basin and Tuva, in Russia and Western Mongolia, are identifiable among the petroglyphs on the right bank of the Irtysh and Tarbagatay. Bronze Age petroglyphs in the Seymin-Turbin tradition, commonly found from there westwards–in Central and Southern Kazakhstan– are present in many sites of the region. Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age petroglyphs in the Near Irtysh Area have few similarities with sites in the Chu-Ili Mountains, but are still found in large groups on Eastern Semirechie sites, in the Dzhungarian Alatau.

In general, the geographic location and natural specifics of Eastern Kazakhstan during the Late Holocene turned this region into a nodal place of continental communications and migratory processes that took place across the forest-steppe and arid zones of Central Asia.

The Most Important Sites in Eastern Kazakhstan
Akbaur petroglyphs

A grotto with rock paintings in Akbaur is located 28km south of Ust Kamenogorsk, 4.5km north of Besterek Village in the Eastern Kazakhstan Region, on the right bank of the Urankay River, in a small valley.

The left side of the valley is occupied by a rocky bald peak (the Akbaur). It is made up of of diorite and wind erosion has created bizarre stone figures with overhangs and spacious niches. A grotto with rock paintings is located at the foothill of the southern slope of the Akbaur. Despite its proximity to a main highway, a large regional capital and active visitation of the site by tourists, the grotto paintings and the surrounding landscape are well preserved.

Research Status and Documentation

The Akbaur paintings were researched and documented in the 1970’s-1980’s by Samashev Z. (Samashev 2006)). Transparent paper attached to the rock with plasticine, remnants of which still remain in large spots on the rock surface, were used to copy the paintings. In 1997-1998, the grotto was studied by a group of experts in archeology and astronomy led by Marsadolov L.-S. (St. Petersburg). In 2008, the Akbaru Valley and the grotto paintings were studied by Rogozhinskiy A.-E.

Archeological Context

Remains of ancient habitation sites with stone tools, ceramics of early nomads and Neolithic flint artifacts were found at the wide mouth of the valley along the northern slope of the Akbaur. Two or three compositions with horses, deer herds and humans are carved in a crust of desert varnish on an isolated rock detached from the massif. On the opposite side of the valley, a small concentration of petroglyphs is also carved on horizontal surfaces of shale covered with a brown patina. Petroglyphs at both sites are similar in style and technique and date to the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages (late 2nd – 1st millennium BC).

Typology and Dating

The grotto, located 5m above the surface, is easily accessible: inclined layers of rocks that compose the massif provide an ascent in steps. A wide oval cavity under the overhang is about 9m long and reaches human height only at the entrance. Daylight penetrating
through the opening is enough to see the paintings on the roof and internal walls of the shelter. The ground is inclined and rises to the wall so that one can only see all the paintings at once from the entrance; the height of the roof, where paintings are positioned, does not exceed 1m, so it is only possible to closely examine them sitting or lying-down on the uneven surface.

All figures (about 80) are painted in a reddish-brown ochre and are similar to each other, with linear drawing, simple shapes and unified compositions, suggesting their simultaneity. The paintings predominantly fill the even surface of the roof that resembles a large shell containing the most informative paintings: a two-wheeled cart with a pole facing the entrance, a goat, and two or three humans, as well as signs that resemble a primitive tent flanking the remaining paintings. On the foreground, a rhomboid sign is divided into four sectors with a central dot in each next to a human figure; two lines branch out from vertices of this sign. Other paintings depict silhouettes and contour triangular shapes as well as lines connecting some images. The composition borders are framed with cross-like figures. Archeologists use the two-wheeled cart to date the Akbaur grotto paintings to the late 3rd - early 2nd centuries BC. In any case, the Akbaur cart is the most ancient image of a wheeled vehicle in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

Terekty petroglyphs

The painted shelter is 50km north-east of Kalzhir Village and 2.5km north of Terekty Village (former Alekseevka) in the Markakol District of the Eastern Kazakhstan Region, on the right bank of the Irtysh, in the south-eastern spurs of the Kurchum Range, in the Terekty River valley.

Research Status and Documentation

Rock paintings in the vicinity of Terekty Village were discovered by local residents; only a shelter with paintings in red, yellow and black ochre was known prior to the 1990’s; it is now ruined. In the 1980’s, these paintings were examined by Samashev Z. and Rogozhinskiy A.-E. at different times. In 2008, Aktaylakov E. and Rogozhinskiy A.-E. discovered and studied paintings on another site.

Typology and Dating

The shelter with paintings is in a small gorge; the paintings were preserved on a vertical surface (2x1.5m) under a granite dome. Contour figures of two horses, deer, two wild boars, humans and several less distinctive images were painted in red ochre on the rock; all animals are shown moving from right to left. On the right of the composition, two humans differ in size, manner, and color: the smaller is painted red-brown and is apparently later than the other paintings. To the left of the humans are horses and two wild boars. A vertical line painted in the same brown crosses the upper animal’s back, like a spear with a pointed end. Traces of later additions to the paintings are present on the left part of the composition: three small brown crosslike figures partially overlap the hind legs of the horse. The left side of the panel is severely damaged: the granite surface spalled in some places and many painted figures are preserved only fragmentarily. The painting, apparently, depicts a hunting scene.

The Terekty paintings show great similarities with paintings in North-Western China shelters, in the upper reaches of the Black Irtysh. It is suggested that the paintings in Eastern Kazakhstan are to be dated within the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Moldazhar petroglyphs

The Moldazhar Valley is 100km south-east of Ayaguz City, 85km south-west from the district capital (Aksuat Village) in the Tagbagatay District of the Eastern Kazakhstan Region, in the south-western spurs of the Tarbagatay Range in the Kyzyltas Mountains.

Research Status and Documentation

The Moldazhar petroglyphs were discovered by an artistregional ethnographer, Sadykov S., and studied by Rogozhinskiy A.-E. in 2008. A large complex of habitation sites, burials and petroglyphs dated to the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Early Iron Age, Middle Ages and to the 19th - early 20th century are in two adjacent valleys (Moldazhar and Tekebay). An archeological map of the district was drawn up, the petroglyphs in the main concentration were recorded, and copies of several surfaces were made.

Archeological Context

Neolithic and Bronze Age habitation sites are located in the upper reaches of the valleys. Stone fences with Bronze Age burials and Early Iron Age kurgans constitute small groups in high piedmont areas and on ancient terraces. The ruins of stone buildings for the
wintering grounds of Kazakhs from the 19th -early 20th centuries are found everywhere around rocks on extended areas of dry erosion valleys; ceramics of early and medieval nomads are also often found there.

Typology and Dating

Ancient engravings occur on sandstone rocks covered with a black patina. The most significant concentration of petroglyphs (over 2,000) is located in a watershed in the middle part of the Moldazhar Gorge. The slopes and top of a large dome-shaped bald peak are interspersed with numerous fragments of sandstone of morainic origin.

The most ancient Moldazhar petroglyphs date to the Bronze Age, but were, apparently, created at different periods, since several groups differ by style and content. The earliest ones depict wild horses with an overhanging mane as well as oxen and very rarely humans. Relatively few and concentrated on the southern slope of the mountain, they are attributed to the culture of early cattle-breeders and metal-makers from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC and are known in many Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan rock art sites. Their geographic range encompasses the southern and central regions of Saryarka as well as the Tarbagatay and Near Irtysh Area.

The most numerous and remarkable series consists of Late Bronze Age petroglyphs, whose themes and style differ from those of earlier engravings. Horses also dominate, but the repertoire was enriched by skillfully carved figures of animals, birds, and humans. The best works of the period were created on the most convenient broad surfaces. A distinctive feature is the decorative manner of depicting horses: the body is filled with non-recurring combinations of straight lines and zigzags; several of these geometric motifs correlate with the ornamentation of Late Bronze Age ceramics in the south of Siberia and Kazakhstan. Humans stand out in the panels along with images of “marvelous” horses tamed or protected by humans from the attacks of predators. There are frequent images of single combats with warriors armed with bows, spears and clubs, and chariot battle scenes; many details of armor (forms of quivers and bows, arrowheads and spearheads) are depicted quite realistically, which permits comparisons with artifacts and dates them to the turn of the 2nd - 1st centuries BC. Close analogies exist with petroglyphs at Eshkiolmes in Eastern Semirechie, but, in general, this series of engravings at Moldazhar is unique.

The Tarbagatay petroglyphs from the early 1st century BC show great similarity with Altai, Tuva, and Western Mongolia rock art. Isolated deer images, in the style of the Western Mongolian “deer” stones in Moldazhar, are scattered on different slopes of the mountain and occupy secondary surfaces of rocks free from drawings from previous epochs. Almost similarly, the creators of petroglyphs in the Early Saki period, distinguished by the uniqueness of their animal style and a specific repertoire, had a limited choice. Images of wild animals–deer, wild boar, predators in traditional hunting and chasing scenes– supplement skillful engravings of horses with riders and a rare motif for petroglyphs: imprints of horse hooves; based on many analogies, these drawings date to the 8th - 6th centuries BC.

The medieval epoch is less distinctly represented among the Moldazhar petroglyphs. No figures of mounted standard bearers, indicative of ancient Turkic rock art, are known, although there are tamgas such as those found from the early medieval period in the Altai, Western Mongolia and Semirechie. Some hunting scenes depicting dashing animals, executed in a unique ancient Turkic “animal” style, also date to the same period. A single combat scene of two warriors with long sabers can be dated to no earlier than the 10th century.

Among the latest Moldazhar petroglyphs, numerous Kazakh tamgas are carved on different rocks with ancient drawings and are grouped in a specific order. All signs are similar in technique, size (2–4cm) and paleography, and resemble tamgas reproduced on documents from the 18th - 19th centuries. In three cases, three “sultan” tamgas are depicted together; six tamgas of a different type are carved together on another rock. They are attributed to lineage signs of Kazakhs from the Middle and Greater Zhuses.

Dolankara petroglyphs

The Dolankara Mountains are located 115km south-east of Ayaguz City, 70km southwest of the district capital, Aksuat Village, in the Tarbagaray District of the Eastern Kazakhstan Region, in the south-western spurs of the Tarbagatay Range. Groups of petroglyph sites are predominantly at the mouths of several gorges on the left bank of the middle reaches of the Bugas River.

Research Status and Documentation

The Dolankara Mountains petroglyphs were discovered by artist-regional ethnographer Sadykov S. and studied in 2008 by Rogozhinskiy A.-E. who drew up an archeological map of the area and carried out a selective documentation of the petroglyphs.

Archeological Context

The area is classified as mid-hill terrain (1,010-1,070m above sea level) and traditionally used by cattle-breeders as a place for wintering. Different groups of settlements, burial sites, irrigation structures, stelae, statues, petroglyphs and inscriptions are dated to the Neolithic, Bronze Age and early 20th century in a number of gorges. Cemeteries have the usual stelae with the tamgas of various Kazakh lineages from the Nayman tribe dated to the second half of the 18th - early 19th centuries.

Typology and Dating

Petroglyphs from ancient periods are rare, but include some expressive images of Early Saki art related to the pictorial tradition of “deer” stones. The most diverse are petroglyphs of the early medieval period, found both on rocks that surround dwelling sites in the mountains and among ancient drawings in isolated locations. Engravings of a chimerical predator and a serpent-dragon overlap Bronze Age bulls. Medieval tamgas of several types are repeatedly drawn along with traditional hunting scenes near settlements. Tibetan, Oirat prayer inscriptions and various images dated to the middle of the 17th - first half of the 18th centuries make a special group. A panel with engravings depicting Oirat warriors/knights-at-arms and heavily armored riders date to the same period.