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Western Kazakhstan petroglyphs

Western Kazakhstan includes four administrative Regions–Western Kazakhstan, Atyrau, Aktyube and Mangistau. This vast territory is an aggregation of high and low plains bounded only in the north and south-west by relatively small mountain formations. Rock art sites are known in the Mangyshlak Peninsula (Mangistau), Ustyurt Plateau and Mugodzhari Mountains that are southern spurs of the Ural Range.

The total length of Mugodzhary from the north towards the south is 200km, their median altitude is 450-500m. The mountains mainly consist of magmatic, metamorphic, and occasionally pressed sedimentary rocks. Mugodzhary is classified as low-hill terrain and, in its southern part, consists of low mountains and rolling hills that resemble the Saryarka terrain. Several rivers –the Emba, Irgiz, Or, Tobol, Taldy–originate there, but most dry out.

The Ustyurt Plateau is a vast high plain (up to 370m above sea level) with uniform leveled surfaces bounded by steep precipices up to 150m high. The plateau is structured by horizontally embedded marine deposits, limestone, and dolomites, where karst developed. Ustyurt is classified as an argillaceous desert with a sharply continental, extremely dry climate with an annual precipitation of 100–150mm.

The uniqueness of the Mangistau and Ustyurt natural environment influenced the development of rock art, particularly the almost non-existence of durable rocks as a substrate. Ancient images on soft limestone may only be preserved on closed-in natural surfaces or in a fossilized archeological condition (Koskuduk). The majority of rock drawings date to the late medieval period and modernity (16th – early 20th centuries). At the same time, the properties of the local rocks enabled the creation of excellent drawings filled with ethnographic details. Finally, the widespread use of rock surfaces in funerary and cultic structures for thematically-rich artistic creations also pertains to the specifics of rock art development in the region.

The Most Important Sites in Western Kazakhstan
Toleubulak petroglyphs

Toleubulak Grotto is located near the Egindybulak Villages in the Shelkar District of the Aktyube Region, in the upper reaches of the Emba River, on the right bank of the Zhem River, on the southwestern end of the Mugodzhary Mountains. The site, discovered in 1999 by a Russian-Kazakh expedition led by Taymagambetova Zh.-K., was studied in 2005 by Samashev Z. (Samashev 2006).

The grotto of aeolian origin is located in the western part of a rock massif made of siliceous sandstone. It contains a significant quantity of petroglyphs on its floor. There is another cavity with petroglyphs 400m northwards. Near the grotto under an overhang is also a group of pecked images of a camel and horse, and humans on a separate boulder 100m westwards.

The largest grotto with petroglyphs is the most interesting; its wide entrance opens to the south, its surface is 20m2 and it is up to 0.70m at the highest part near the entrance. Practically, the entire floor is occupied by petroglyphs. The drawings are deeply carved into the surfaces; some figures are additionally abraded. There is one case of overlapping of figures, but, in general, the entire pictorial complex is homogeneous.

Three zones approximately equal in area and with similar images have been identified from the top part of the surface inclined towards the entrance. The upper zone is covered with rows of carved sub-parallel lines sometimes intersected by crossing lines. The second group consists of often open circles with lines inside. The second includes cup-holes that are up to 6cm deep and 17-25cm in diameter. The second or middle zone comprises well-preserved phallic figures; there is also a large number of cup-holes there, mostly abraded. The third zone represents large images of a bean-shaped fruit or horse hooves. The drawings were incised then abraded. The specificity of the panel is the absence of human or animal images and the prevalence of linear-geometrics and cupholes.

According to its topography and repertoire, the Toleubulak Grotto has no analogies in Central Asia, but researchers find it comparable to the Kamennaya Mogila grottos in the Northern Near Azov Area. Its images are tentatively attributed to the first half of the Holocene, no later than the Neolithic. Stone Age dwelling sites and other sites from different periods were discovered in the area.

Koskuduk petroglyphs

The site is located 7km from Aktau City on Caspian Sea riverside rocks, on the territory of settlements from the Late Neolithic called Koskuduk I. The site was discovered and explored in the course of archeological excavations at the dwelling site by Astafyev A.-E. (Samashev 2006).

Two snakes were engraved on a horizontal limestone surface within a Neolithic habitation site. The images are deeply carved and 1.5-2.0 cm wide; the snake heads are rounded cavities. One figure is 67cm long, while another one, in a worse statue of preservation, is 23cm long. Both snakes are depicted as crawling side by side. To the left of the large image, 8 aligned cup-holes are 3-3.5cm in diameter.

The images include grooves, two crawling snakes and, possibly, a fish 150m south-east of cliffs near the sea. The snakes are 160 and 250cm long; an extension near the head of one of them resembles a cobra’s hood. Three artificial cavities were possibly meant to collect rainwater, 10m from the horizontal surface of the cliff; the capacity of the reservoirs is about 30 liters.

The images were discovered in an archeological context, which permits dating them to the Neolithic, i.e. when the habitation site was used.

Ustyurt and Mangistau petroglyphs

Rock drawings were found in the Ustyurt and Mangistau cretaceous mountains (Akmaya, Ayrakty) on open surfaces and in caves of Zhygylgan Cape on the north-eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. They were carved on a soft cretaceous substrate. The location of most drawings in the Akmaya Mountains is related to traditional hunting trails and ambush places. They represent horses, camels, hunting scenes for wild animals (big-horn sheep, mountain goat, and cheetah) with the help of a primitive firearm, battle scenes, horse races, and others. Many of these engravings are carved with great mastery, but human images are sketchy, while the main emphasis was on depicting the belongings of a mounted warrior. Frequently, they are accompanied by Arabic inscriptions. From the accurately depicted realistic details (armor, horse harness, and a rider) and the epigraphy, most images are dated to the period of modernity (18th - 19th centuries).

Ethnographic graffiti on the walls of cultic and funerary sites–mausoleums, headstones, mosques, and others–are in a special category, specific to Ustyurt and Mangistau and widely spread there. Depending on the dating and location of the sites, those images can be attributed to Turkmen and Kazakh tribes.

In the specific natural environment of Mangistau desert areas, that served as a habitat for various ethnic groups of relatively modern nomads, a special type of site with lineage signs-tamgas on rocks is known under the common name of “tamgalytas”. As a rule, they are near wells or good pastures and are found in the Tyupkaragan Peninsula near Ustyurt Chink (Masat-Ata, Tanbalytas). Quite often, in addition to tamgas, there are images of animals, riders, and geometric signs. The signs of Turkmen and Kazakh tribes are predominant among these accumulations of tamgas. They are dated to the 17th - 19th centuries, but some of them may belong to an earlier period.