Face Music - Archaelogy - Eurasia & Central Asia


Archaeological finds of steppe cultures of the Eurasian and Central Asian Area




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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 11-2014




Lifestyles, artwork and ornaments
Bronze Age: until 1200 BC and early Iron Age: 1200 until 1000 BC


available in German

Funeral finds help us recognize social, political, economic and religious systems. To find other interpretations of mound burials, it was necessary to keep an open discussion upright. Archaeological finds of steppe cultures in the Eurasian and Central Asian Area of the late Bronze and early Iron Age have allowed us to see how those peoples lived a nomadic and semi-nomadic life in the steppe. Archaeological sites in the steppes in the northern coastal region of the Black Sea are now associated with Scythian settlements. Well preserved burial mounds were found at the Wolga Don river and in the Transural region. These are regarded to be Sauromat settlements of a later period that are connected with the contemporary Sarmatic settlements.

- map sketch: Wolga-Don und Transural
Burial Eurasia

Chronology of early riding nomads:
– Cimmerians – Gimir - Gimirri: 8th and 7th centuries BC
– Scythians – Skyths (Saka - Sauromats - Massagetaes): 8th through 3rd centuries BC
– Sarmats - Sauromats: 6th century BC until 4th century AD
  • Sauromatian: 6th - 5th centuries BC
  • Early Sarmatian: 4th - 2nd centuries BC
  • Middle Sarmatian: late 2nd century BC
  • Late Sarmatian: 2nd - 4th centuries AD
- more information on the tribes see “History of the Equestrian Nomads

We know from ethnographic data that in the early stages of the development of a hierarchical society essential distinctions occur between members of the lower and higher social strata, particularly concerning rituals, values, and lifestyles. Under such conditions, material cultural artifacts, whose origins were initially still recognizable, began to develop a prestigious and symbolic nature. But these original forms changed over time. Ritual phenomena, artwork and burial rites included, received a new symbolic meaning. A changing, prestigious upper class decided their importance within societies. With the arrival or a forced entry of such elite strata, a sub-socium culture is formed. Burial sites confirm that an elite of the same ethnicity with inter-ethnic contacts originally existed. With increasing force or military engagement in these societies, leaders changed of and new claims to power developed. These changes can be seen in prestigious sign attributes of the material and spiritual culture systems, as artwork and burial rites were constantly changing. They developed symbolic and social prestige objects with different styles gained importance throughout different regions, like the “animal style” (see more information).

Relationships between forest steppe settlers, steppe settlers and settled and nomadic peoples are proven by the fact that the same anthromorphic sculptures (human-like deities), pre-Christian cave drawings (petroglyphs) and skull openings (trepanations) were used in cult and religious rituals and in funerals. In the same manner, textiles for clothing and daily use, practical objects and tools for the home and handicraft and metal luxury items and jewelry were traded supraregionally. They contained similar iconographic motifs can be associated with the different regions. On the other hand, there are no correlations to be found in weapons, war gear, chariots and carts with attached motifs.

In the area around the Black Sea, a Scythian population settled as a complete and complex discrete culture can be called a social and religious community. An autonomous Sauromatic population settled in the Volga-Ural region in the 8th through 7th centuries BC. For this reason, a Scythian culture in the Central Asian area should be dated before then. The discussions surrounding archaeological finds and sites of Cimmerian settlements that are mentioned in written documents are becoming more intense. European archaeologists are of the opinion that the Cimmerians and the manifold pre-Scythian finds are not connected. The finds of funeral sites of a Scythian population in kurgans in the Altai have led to new debates. Objects found in the kurgans of Arzhan in Tuva bear great resemblance to the objects of the Scythians at the beginnings of the 9th or 8th centuries BC. But many Russian archaeologists believe that these Arzhan finds originate from the 7th or even 6th centuries BC. Recently, researchers have created grounds for a hypothesis that the Scythians might originate from Central Asia. The have postulated that the formation of the Scythian and the Saka cultures could not have occured before the end of the 8th century BC.

Suitable geographic circumstances led to the development of moving forms of shepherd nomads with large herds that moved throughout the steppes of the Pannonian Basin (also called the Carpathian Basin in today’s Hungary) and the Yellow Sea (China) and bred cattle that grazed year-round (see map of the steppe and the Pontic-Caspian steppe). At the end of the Bronze Age, there was a development in the steppes through which carts and riders were first used to accompany the herds
. A new lifestyle of nomadic shepherds developed as a transport vehicle (oxcart) changed their thus far settled lifestyle. The hitherto existing half-nomadism with grazing grounds for summer and winter still existed. The year-round migration with large herds made the keeping of winter feeding grounds unnecessary. Instead it was now important to have comfortable and easily transportable family households. In the course of this process, tents were used for the first time and riders equipped themselves with weapons that had until then only been used for hunting. Units consisting of this new lifestyle quickly developed into an integral steppe culture. The breeding of horses, cattle and sheep was important, and the new nomadic lifestyle led to changes in the artwork. The supraregional connections brought people of different ethnicities together. Clan leaders or chiefs were elected, a military and religious aristocracy created, and new social strata developed. At the same time, nomadic communities came into existence that created complex religious systems, which led to a regulated order of communal living, funeral rites, symbols for riders, weapons and tools for daily use, and handicraft for ritual ceremonies. Examples for this can be found in diggings in funeral hills in Arzhan, Besshatyr, Pazyryk, Salbyk, Issyk, etc. In these places, tools and handicraft decorated with ornaments were found, beginning with basic forms made from horn, often as plaques, and later made from bronze in magnificent plates with beautiful reliefs and motifs like snow leopards. Well preserved finds from the Arzhan kurgan in Tuva can be found in the museum today. Finds in the Pazyryk style of the 7th century BC point to a widespread connection and exchange via trade routes (like todays Silk Road – topographical map – Silk Road -– travel routes). This is also confirmed by finds from Mongolia and Hungary.

Nomads began very early on to ride and therefore to develop riding halters. Three stages of keeping and developing horses are supported by archaeological finds. In the mid- to late 2nd century BC the use of draft horses and carts is proven. Finds in the European area show that this type of cart was originally pulled by oxen. In the Arzhan time, an early Scythian period, riding with a bronze mouth-piece and leather halter was introduced, as evidence from funeral finds in Tuva from the 11th through the 7th century BC show, and funeral rites with horse burials were introduced. In the Pazyryk time in the Altai (7th through 4th centuries BC) saddles and halters became more complex and rich. Horses originated from Turkmenian breedings (Akhal-Teke) and were given by inferior elders as gifts for the funerals of chiefs
. In the Altai region, magnificent horse halters were discovered that are decorated with pictures from Indo-Iranian mythology and are connected with shamanism. Traces in the iconography of theses pieces allow us to recognize the three worlds of the nomads: the Upper World, the Regular World and the Lower World. At the beginning of the 1st century BC, areas in Central Asia developed funeral rites that involved horses. The decoration of the horses turned into a cult in nomad culture in the Sayan-Altai region (horses). Handicraft in the “animal style” with portrayals of stag and sun images was especially popular. This is also shown by written sources relating to the Saka and Massagetae. Therefore it is obvious that this form was also practiced in areas that lie further east than hitherto known. Cultural communications became diversified, interacting with the tribes of the taiga (forest) on the north; and in the south with the civilizations of Central Asia, India, and urban China. This type of impulse through migration to the west did not occur until much later. It began in the late 1st millennium BC with the movements of the Scythians, the Saka, the Massagetae, and the Sarmatians. This largely changed the ethnic and cultural situation in Asia and Europe. Later the Hsiung-nu and the Huns became responsible for these changes. These movements also created the necessary preconditions for the development of trade routes between the various regions.
  • Hsiung-nu - Xiongnu: 3rd century BC until 4th century AD
    Huns:
    4th century until 6th century AD
- more information on the tribes see “History of the Equestrian Nomads

Ornaments of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu))
In the ornaments of the Hsiung-nu, one can finde geometric forms have their origin in the development of the Scythian offspring. There was a quick change in the types of artistic expression in the Hsiung-nu clans. Their mythological tradition is based on a different ethnic, cultural and linguistic foundation. These were possibly also influenced by the surroundings of a Proto-Mongolian world. Different mythological and epic scenes and forms are related to these Mongolian clans. Some of the typical combinations were kept, possibly leading to certain ideological overlaps. But some shapes were changed so dramatically due to the involvement of the Hsiung-nu that they correspond to a unique aesthetic norm. So-called zoomorphic depictions made from bronze, like plaques (plates or mirrors) or buckles of various shapes, buttons and finds with various images of animals show, how expressive the handicraft of the Hsiung-nu was. Examples of this art were found in Transbaikalia, South Siberia, Mongolia and Northern China. These show parallels to the “Scytho-Siberian Animal Style”. A number of animals stand next to a symbolic tree and point to the fact that relationships between Scythian clans and Middle-East handicraft existed. This picture language in the art of the Middle East was copied from the beginning. The earliest and best-known examples can be found on cylindrical seals from Susa (in the time between the 15th and 9th centuries BC). These shapes are found on cylindrical seals and bronzes of the 9th century BC and on a chest from Hasanlu (a hill settlement in the Iranian province of West Aserbaidshan). It is believed that the scene has a religious meaning, and that it was a symbol of power and fertility. Both shapes in zoomorphic and geometric depictions have devleloped in a similar fashion. Animal representations on gold, bronze and buckle plaques seem to have a mythological origin and are quite characteristic of the Scytho-Siberian animal style. The comprehensive similarity, however, between all of these compositions is doubtless; in all cases a beast of prey and a bird of prey are tearing up an ungulate. It is probable that these scenes served as an inspiration for the Hsiung-nu masters and later metal workers, and that they were copied and recopied. A form of representation picked up from the Scythian time was recognized as the link between Hsiung-nu scenes in bronze and those of the Middle East. Scythian craftsmen were influenced by the Middle Eastern artistic traditions but the images were stylistically modified to a certain degree. Artistic scenes and characteristics of the Middle Eastern art reached various regions of the steppe zone, for example Siberia and Central Asia. This occured via the Scythian culture as well as through connections to cultures of earlier epochs. In this manner, the artwork received widespread circulation.

- Predator or a bird of prey in the snatch of a hoofed animal!

During the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries BC, the Hsiung–nu led a powerful alliance of stock-raising tribes and conquered a number of the provinces in the Central Asian and Siberian Scythian World. At some time the Hsiung-nu came into contact with Middle Eastern art, and images were adapted to nomadic art. In some cases, the scenes were mechanically copied, while in others they were stylized to form geometrical compositions. The rapid transformation of a number of initial zoomorphic scenes into geometric compositions may indicate that the Hsiung-nu craftspeople did not understand the content and meaning of the scenes. Consequently, they simplified the images and eliminated many of the details that were unfamiliar, while retaining or enriching the scenes more easily understood, specifically those depicting animals. It would seem, therefore Scytho-Siberian artistic traditions were radically altered by the Hsiung-nu. The aesthetic criteria of this important phenomenon of a spritual culture, art, have changed considerably. Its meaning changed in the Hsiung-nu community and outside of the Scytho-Siberian World. Scenes that show fighting horses (very typical for Hsiung-nu art) are believed to be examples that originated in the Indo-Iranian mythological stories. The early stages of the Hsiung-nu art technique may have been very different from its later form. The images were originally applied more often to organic materials like bone, horn or minerals. These kinds of representations are in contrast to the Scytho-Siberian forms of expression and were changed by the Hsiung-nu to scenes of the heroic epos. They hereby reflect the mythology of the Middle East and the epic legends. These scenes might be a result of the ethno-cultural and linguistic connection of the Scythians with the other Indo-Iranian peoples. This quick change of the artistic scenes shows that in a mixed clan community like that of the Hsiung-nu, the art of the Middle East with artistic and mythological traditions was changed to a unique ethnic, cultural, linguistic and possibly proto-Mongolian environment. Some of the prototypical compositions may have been retained possibly due to the existence of a certain degree of ideological overlap but other images became stylized and transformed by the Hsiung-nu to conform to their own aesthetic norms.

– Examples: 010203040506
- more information: Ornaments of the Turk-Mongolian tribe (carpets, cloths, ceramics, handbags, tools etc.)
- more information: Ornaments of the Yakuts
- more information: Mongolian traditional (national) costumes
- more Information: History of Mongolian traditional art and artwork
- more Information: History of artwork of the Steppe Empires of Asia

Animal Style and Motifs of Early Shamanism
The Scythian animal style cannot be considered to be a barbarian derivative of antique art but rather it was a later offshot of northern nomadic peoples and an Asian art that survived. It is the art of the shamanic (1) world view. The artistic style was strongly encouraged and was the expression of the ruling elite in Bactria (Tillya Tepe). The art from the Bronze Age bore similarities in the Anatolic area to the Luristan, Mitanni and Hittite art. Depictions of animals were considered symbols with distinct meanings. The integration of zoomorphic forms in the art was a characteristic of this local art that was introduced by the leaders and can only be understood within the world view and religion of the time. A secondary art style developed, which was derived from Greeco-Roman art. The term “animal style” is also used to describe the art of the cultures of the Eurasian steppe belt during the 1st millennium BC. Several of the representative decorations of the upper leading class are well preserved, art carved from wood or made of leather and such pieces made of different materials can only seldom be found. Influences from the southern Eurasian area are recognizable in these handicrafts and were spread through the travels of the nomads. This lead to parallels with other peoples like the Achaemenids (Persians). There was lots of gold in the Siberian area, and this led to the creation of “wonderfully ostentatious artworks”. With the invasion of the Turkic peoples in this area the gold export to Europe stopped. They created clan communities with changing leaders and changed the world view during their migration with funeral rites.
  • (1) This means the opinion that every element in nature has a special power (soul) und therefore its own power. The shaman is in charge of creating and upholding a balance. The tensions between extreme factors and the human community are corrected by the shaman, who is a specialist for this. Shamans have special powers to manage situations and create a balance with the help of external forces like spirits, predecessors or souls. The shaman also has to protect the community from external negative forces. Active forces in the environment, also higher forces in combined forms or powers from several animals, are generally used for help. To make use of these external forces, the shaman needs the help of spirits. Normally these appear in animal forms or in combined properties of several animals. The shamans’ clothes and tools bear depictions of these helpers in the form of paintings, carvings, embroideries, plaques, etc. The shaman’s skin is also decorated with tattoos. This was part of a “survival culture” or “reality art” and was not a sign of prestige. Before metal was processed, these shapes were only seldom made from durable materials like stone or bone, which is why they did not survive their use by the shaman. Shamanic world views had developed with the appearance of settled communities and their social distinctions. With the development of metalwork these world views changed, especially in the earlier transitional period to the development of a warrior aristocracy. These early communities that achieved gain through trade or war, demonstrated the permanency of their affluence with symbols of power: artworks made of copper and bronze with gold and iron weapons. As the Saka and the Scythians traded with China and Greece, so the members of the Bactrian culture traded Assyrian-Babylonic artwork through their contact with Indus cultures and Luristan clans. They used zoomorphic symbols of a Stone Age past in their art that often depicted beasts of prey, stags, eagles owls and other animals on costumes and jewelry.
- more information: Schmanisums (Tengerismus) in Mongolia
- more information: Religion of the indigenous people of Siberia
- more information under: Tillya Tepe ("golden Hill")
- more information on the tribes see “History of the Equestrian Nomads

During the time of the Bactrian rule numerous motifs were created in bronze: tigers, leopards, camels, horses, eagles or vultures, birds in a holy tree, dragons, snakes, frogs and other animals and pets. Bizarre masks, lions, leopards, eagles, dragons, monsters and the “master (or mistress) of the animals” were motifs from Luristan. Animal-style motifs of the Scythians and the Sakas show similarities but they developed differently in every region. East of the Altai, the tiger was the most important symbol of power, while it was the wolf in the west. North of the Black Sea the lion of the "Greeks" and the countries of the Middle East became more important. In the east, camels, bears, yaks and chamois were more dominant while in the west it was the stag, the elk and the sheep. Common motifs are the horse and the eagle that was often used in the form of a demonized griffin. Saiga antelopes and hedgehogs as well as groups of animals in larger scenes or different animals together were seldom represented. These motifs seem to express success or victory, but their exact meaning is not recognizable today. Several of these motifs can represent clans or traditions (tamgas 1). The scene with a large griffin or tiger as a victor over a camel might represent a previously occurred submission. These mythical robbers, sometimes winged, attacking an animal can also represent a hunting or fighting scene. Group representations as well as single animals with motifs from myths or fairy-tales were widespread. The stag with bent legs and his antlers laying across his back seems to originate in Mongolia and was also found west of the Danube. The coiled animal also comes from the east and represents a wolf that is feared even today in stories as an evil spirit. The shape of the animal, wrapped up almost to the shape of a circle, seems to be derived from a Chinese concept of rotating time. During the 4th millennium BC, the dragon – still worshipped today in China as a symbol of force – was representated as a coiled animal in the Hongshan Culture of Mongolia and Manchuria. This symbol of worldly supreme power has reappeared since then in many variations, e.g., as a sign in pictoral writing or on reliefs or sculptures. The Sakas copied the Chinese version and adapted it to their own traditional art. Even more unusual is the adaptation and modification of the powerful Eastern Asian motifs found in Saka art. These were incorporated during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, and became the symbol of a dynasty or a war with the “Black Warrior from the North”. The Chinese version combined a turtle with a snake or dragon. This image was incorporated into popular myths, which claimed that only female turtles existed, and in order to propagate they must copulate with a snake. In nomadic art, this motif was changed to the combination of a snake and a hedgehog because hedgehogs eat snakes. Nomads also incorporated the snake and the wolf. This version of the symbol was carried west together with the triumphal scene of the tiger above the camel; the giant bird carrying a human skyward found its way as far west as Sicily, where it appears in Norman art (north people from the "vikingtime").

(1) Tamgas: A kind of mark to identify the owner of an item or the belonging of cattle to a certain clan; it was most often used as a cattle branding or stamp.

The oldest known version of a bird with a man or a woman dates from the 1st millennium BC, as proven by finds in the funeral site of
Tillya Tepe (“golden hill”) in northern Afghanistan and parallel to this in Nevali Cori (a Stone Age settlement) in the southeast of Turkey. The scene illustrates a giant bird holding a human head in its claws. A myth notes that Etana, the king of Kish (an island in the Gulf of Persia) tried to fly on an eagle to the star of Ishtar (the Babylonian love goddess). A second version of the Etana motif surfaces in the Sumerian art of the 3rd millennium BC (1). Here we know of portrayals in poetry. The image reappears in relief on a golden vessel from Hasanlu, northwestern Iran, dated to approximately 1000 BC (2). The same form represents the Garuda bird in India. The motif was used in China during the Chou period, and in Greece where it illustrates the abduction of Ganymed by the eagle of Zeus. In the Chinese version the bird appears to have “ears” so that it can also be interpreted as an “eagle owl”, a motif that plays an important role in Siberian shamanism. The same bird appears on earrings made in the steppes, as well as in the “Ascension of Christ” painted in the Cappella Palatina at Palermo. A derived form of this image depicts the personage reduced to a mask carried by the owl. The shamanistic tradition has the same significance as the Christian painting: the ascension into the upper world. Prototypes for this image could have been taken from the Hongshan Culture (Neolithicum) in Mongolia and Manchuria; they show falcons with cat-like heads that are described in the Egyptian hieroglyphics. This image is accompanied by another: the bird with a long “feather” at the posterior of its head. This motif was known from pottery from Xiabaogou in southern Mongolia dating into the 4th millennium BC, on Hittite reliefs from Alaca Hüyük dating from 1500 BC (also from Alaca Höyök, a hill settlement in the province of Corum in Central Anatolia); and on Thracian silver work of the 4th to 3rd centuries BC. It could be that the same concept was the foundation for this motif. The “rolled” feather found at Bashadar in the Altai became transferred to the gryphon with a high crest known from Pazyryk. The latter motif resembles the eagle-headed demon from Assyrian art and is similar to the peacock demon in Mitanni poetry. It is also similar to the gryphons found in Northern Syria and Greece that have two curls that hang behind their heads. These represent a new type not found in zoomorphisms.

  • (1) In various cuneiform scripts, Etana appears in the Underworld or is defined as a deity of the Underworld. It is unclear how Etana arrived in the underworld, thus far no recordings of this have been found. In Etana we find the motif of the vegetation god that stood by the side of the Great Goddes, the original mistress of the entire circle of life, in early patriarchal times als her son-lover. He symbolized the dying nature that arose again in the spring. The king accepted his role during the Holy Wedding. The power of the king had to be renewed or reconfirmed in a yearly ritual.
    Etana appears again in a late Arcadian version of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, whose oldest version is credited as the oldest recording of a myth. In the text “Death of Gilgamesh”, Gilgamesh’s companion Enkidu dreams of the Underworld.
  • (2) Hasanlu Tepe or Tappeh Hassanlu is a hill settlement in the Iranian province of West Aserbaidshan. It lies south of nearby Lake Urmia. The hill settlement contains among other things an antique, possibly Mannaean city. It was destroyed by Urartu in the late 9th century BC, probably under Ispuini or Menua.

    - more information under:
    Tillya Tepe ("golden hill") and Bashadar grave hills

The grave ceramics from Xiabaogou (Southern Mongolia) force us to rethink previous interpretations. They are very similar to the Scythian animal style and combine protomes of mammals (a sculpture that portrays the front section of an animal or human). Stags and antelopes or birds’ heads with fish tails are similar to those found in the animal style dating to the first millennium BC yet they are older by about three millennia. It appears difficult to place both groups into one artistic tradition. Creatures with zoomorphic juncture (mixed creatures) were, and are, the shamanic assistants still found in eastern Siberia in the present day. The animal style disappeared in the steppes during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD after having reached its climax in the polychrome (multi-colored) style of the Alans, the Saka, and the Sakaraukes as represented at Tillya Tepe and Azov as “Siberian Gold.” An invasion by Turkic tribes may have introduced discrete burial rituals; great treasures were no longer added to the burials, instead they became royal treasures as indicated in the Avar and Western Turkic traditions. Such treasures were taken as bounty and given to the new ruler when the original owners were defeated. When the gold and silver works were melted or remelted or stolen, they became lost forever. It is possible, also the westward movement of Turkish tribes cut off the old trade routes that had originally brought the Siberian gold westwards.

The forest areas of Eurasia preserved the funeral ritual in which the treasures were given into the grave with the deceased; however, these burials lacked the richness and splendor found in the earlier burials of the nomadic tribal chieftains. Grave pillaging may also be considered accountable for this. The art of the Seljuks included a new dimension to the art of empires by using the double-headed eagle of the ancient motifs, as well as the Ascension symbol until the 12th and 13th centuries AD. The Mongolian expansion brought new eastern and northern Asian elements to the west, particularly to Iran and the Middle East; these elements had forms that were connected to shamanism and became adapted to express aspects of Islamic mystical art, and western and southern European feudal symbolism.

Petroglyphs and motifs of early shamanism
Originally, petroglyphs (rock art) were perceived simply as images adorning rock surfaces. New insights find it relevent to consider the surfaces on which the pictures were carved or painted with segment color and their location in the landscape to understand important information about their use and meaning. Researchers have discovered a change in the type of petroglyphs; they are part of a material culture and could have played an important role in society. They are reflections of the myths of old peoples. The drawings are dominated by horses but there are also bulls, camels, goats (caprids) and seldom depictions of humans and cats and also beasts of prey, drawings of horses’ hooves and human footprints.(Petroglyphs).

These depictions are said to have portrayed the shamanic rituals of the ancient baksy (shamans or priests) and their interaction with the spirit world. Today Islamic pilgrims visit a shrine next to such rock art as part of their religious practice. Contemporary interactions keep up the holiness of the space or magical place and demonstrate its existence since prehistoric times. In this manner, petroglyphs still marke a special place in the landscape today and are still an active part of experiences and practices that are created through the social realities, and depict these. The petroglyphs are a material reality that has been passed down and had a real influence on the social life of that time. The power of the animal in petroglyphs influences the real world and healed local pilgrims that were plagued by sickness. The bull is a symbol for an older depiction in the Central Asian area is attached to the old belief of the world view of the time the world is flat as a disk and is carried on the horns of a bull.
Terekty Aulie in Kasakhstan was a place of magical powers. Today it is a place of religious pilgrimage that is also visited by the sick. In the Sayan-Altai Mountains there are many such magical places with rock art dating to pre-Christian times. In today’s Russian Altai in the Chuya steppe close to Kalbak-Tash (that is a semi-autonomous republic today, the Republic of Altai) and in the west in the Mongolian Altai in Aimark Bayan Olgii (Tsagaan Gol – white river) this kind of petroglyph can be found (see map).

- more information: Petroglyphs – Prehistoric Rock Paintings

We can interpret the meaning of this power with the help of practices and experiences of the baksy (a term for shamans or priests was used by the Kyrgyz). Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Turkmen and Kazakhs knew these practices outside of the islamic tradition. These were employed for the everyday problems of clan members. The baksys’ role was multifaceted during this time. Every community in Central Asia knew the numerous rituals that were adapted locally. Researchers define the baksy equally as singers, poets, musicians, fortune tellers, priests and healers. They were the upholders of religious traditions and the keepers of old legends. In many ways, the baksy were similar to the kam (shamans) of the Mongolians, Buryats and Uighurs: sorcerers, magicians, healers and keepers of the rituals. They locked spirits that were responsible for disease out of the patient’s body by conducting trance rituals and healed people with the aid of spirit helpers. Some baksy used the music of a string instrument to reach the trance state much in the way that the kam aided their travels with a drum. In this manner, they summoned magical powers and asked them for help in banishing harmful spirits. The baksy of the Kazakhs and Karakalpaks primarily played music on the kobyz (a two stringed lute – also called dömbra) was simultaneously their spirit helper. To summon important spirit helpers, the baksy used magical formulas accompanied by music. Some baksy of the Turkmen and Kazakhs were both singers and storytellers. Like the kam, these baksys were also chosen by spirits or dead shamans to heal or to perform a bardic role within their communities.

Petroglyphs depicting camels, goats, snakes, and other small animals turned into spirit helpers. Camels are important animals in contemporary Central Asian societies and they have connections to liminal powers. A ore-Islamic belief amongst the Kirghiz involving the veneration of ‘spirit masters’ is still predominant in particular localities. These ‘spirit masters’ can take the form of animals including camels. The Kyrgyz acknowledged a spirit in the form of a young white camel that was equal to the ‘master’ of sacred springs and trees. The Kazakh baksy also called the kobyz by the name of nar-qobïz (in which nar means ‘camel’) and according to a Kazakh legend, the first baksy made the first kobyz from the hide of a camel. The baksy also used the assistance of snakes and other small animals in their healing rituals. The snake spirit, for example, was summoned by the Kazakh and Karakalpaks with the help of a baksy. Goats were important sacrificial animals among Turkic speaking peoples and the Altaians. They were sacrificed to powerful spirits. Taking all these elements into consideration, the ‘antenna’ scene in rock art was the vision of the spirit world of an ancient baksy. The petroglyph camel in the circle assisted the baksy with the power to traverse into the other world. The other animal spirit was sent out by the baksy to capture the soul of a sick person. In the various orally transported epics of the Central Asian peoples, the horse was an important method of transportation for the hero or shaman to travel to other worlds. The horse-hoof petroglyphs could mark the passage of spirit horses who carried the ancient baksy into the Otherworld. Similarly, the petroglyphs of human footprints could have been the footsteps of a baksy. As part of their initiation, the baksy must endure the trials of walking in the snow barefoot and lick red-hot iron objects with the tongue. This was done to prove that the baksy had strong spirits that protected them from harm during these and other trials. The footprints indicated the power of the baksy, who had reached these goals as they walked into the spirit world. Cobwebs or nets in rock art are deduced from unusual visions and images during a trance. The selection of the specific geometric forms refers to the person that experienced this trance. The meaning of the pictures was influenced by the expectations and the contemporary world view in the community. The grid or cobwebs with stags show how the power was connected with animal spirits. The grid was a physical manifestation of a power that was deduced from invisible powers. These petroglyphs portrayed powerful images of spirits, they were visible manifestations of the magical power in the landscape that the ancient baksy used for their work. Animals were also carved into the walls and floors of grottoes. These caves and grottoes were also places, in which the baksy crossed borders with their spiritual rituals and travelled through the worlds. In Tartar tales, water was associated with the Underworld, where the souls of the dead lived. When these were reborn, they returned in different shapes like for example that of a horse. The horse petroglyphs could represent the wandering souls of the dead or the stolen souls of a sick person. The baksy’s job was to find and capture these, which would lead to a healing. Water holes were this kind of penetrable border.


- Petroglyps and Shamanic Paintings

The San peoples in southern Africa believed watering holes to be magical places at which animals gathered to drink and chose their location to conduct shamanic rituals. Water buffalo were thought to be inhabited by rain-bringing spirits and were captured by the San shamans to perform rain ceremonies. When the San needed to summon rain from the clouds, the shaman ritual began with the decoration of the bulls with a feather. The celebration could only be performed with this kind of rain bull. The baksy, like the San shamans, had to penetrate the watering hole to convince the rain spirits to send rain. During the Middle Ages, Turkish and Mongolian shamans were respected rainmakers. Wind or snow was summoned with the help of magic stones. One incident even mentions a Turkish soothsayer (Kahin) who produced hail and snow from the clouds in order to attack others. Among the Turkmen, not only the basky, but also the yatçi (fortune tellers) predicted the weather for the tribal leaders. They knew how to summon rain, wind or hail with the help of magic stones. Instead of using magic stones, the surface of a rock could also contain magical powers. The baksy often used the power of the rocks to change the weather in order to provide water for their cattle or to bring ill weather upon rival shamans or tribes.

Old Turkic petroglyphs in North-Eastern Anatolia
In East of the province of Erzurun, there were found in a cave tamgas (1) carved in rock by Oghuz tribes, Uyghur tribal marks as well as Old Turkic graphic characters. The symbols are supposed to have been carved in rock in the 12th or 13th centuries AD, representing a sign for the large migrations of Turk tribes when settling in their new homes in Anatolia. This “Cunni cave” is situated 2,300 m above sea level in the planes of Karayazi (Karayazi düzü). These caves might have been a Christian cult site before the invasion of the Seljuks. Five symbols may be compared with Uyghur family or tribal marks (see Erzurum – Turfan), such as those being applied to legal documents in Turfan texts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries by contractors and witnesses. These have to be clan or tribal marks, as the same signature seals were frequently used by various persons. It has been known that the use of seal marks has played a rather important role in the social Uyghur life, that these have been actually cultivated by these people. One reason therefore might be that they were bound even more than other Turk peoples by their integration in clan or tribal societies. Their semi-nomad way of living has laid more focus on the community in bloods than on any political units.

These signs are probably associated with the alphabets of the old Hungarian realm, the Pegenegs and the Comans; and these have undoubtedly shared a connection with the Székley scripture. The characters of the Talas script engravings are quite similar to these alphabets, and especially to the Szèkely script. Rather obvious, however, is that they are different to the characters found in the Orchon, Yenissei and Eastern Turkestan. The wheel cross is a rather ancient symbol sign, which may be found from China up to Scandinavia in petroglyphs and especially on tombstones. In regard to the lunar deity, it represents the four cardinal directions and has been used as an orientation guide on the journey to the next world (see drawing).

(1) ad Tamgas: The cross variants may definitely be expressions of the Christian belief. In the 11th and 12th centuries, this religion spread from the centre of the Uyghur Christians, the village of Bulayïq in the East of the Turfan oasis, as far as Mongolia. Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity took over the place of Manichaeism, a belief the Uyghurs had adopted some 300 years before.

© Albi –Februar - Dezember 2011– Revidiert von Hermelinde Steiner - Februar 2012
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