:: Stone sculpture and petroglyphs of Central Asia ::

By Tjalling Halbertsma


One of the delights of travel in Central Asia is the sheer number of ancient monuments to be found in its original surroundings, preserved by remoteness and obscurity. Chance encounters range from deer stones of the iron and bronze ages to ancient burial sites, graves and thousands of petroglyphes carefully carved in canyons at the foot of sacred peaks in the Altai Mountain range. To walk through Central Asia is to walk through time.

Most frequently though, one will stumble upon stone sculptures erected by Turkic tribes in Central Asia. The statues, balbal in Turkish, are scattered over what is now Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, western China, Russia and Mongolia. The stones are as diverse as the Turkic people that carved them and the distribution shows how wide the practice had become by the 8th century. Originally preserved by awe and ritual, the statues are now permanently guarded but remain in situ.

The balbal depict male figures with highly idiosyncratic features but they have one thing in common, they all face east. Often, two lines of stones form a ceremonial walkway accentuating the direction towards sunrise. Today they are used as beacons for travelers, but originally the stones are believed to be grave markers as many balbal stand at grave and burial sites. The graves consist of piles of stone boulders and are often surrounded by rows of rocks positioned in a square. Sometimes several graves are lined up sideways all guarded by individual balbal. The sites are easily distinguished from the much earlier kurgan graves which are circular in shape and date back over four thousand years.

But above all the Turkic figures are stunning works of art and engineering. The faces have delicate features with almond shaped eyes, curly moustache highlight the Turkic origins. Nose bridges are articulate and prolonged and mine carvings reveal earrings and other jewelry. The robes, draped over sturdy limbs and broad shoulders, differ from area to area. Hands clutch a vase or vessel and tools, such as knives or flints for making fire, dangle from decorated belts. The craftsmanship is clear: after fourteen centuries it is astonishing that the features can still be seen at all, for the sculptures stand in one of the fiercest climates in the world. Temperatures in Central Asia can drop from 40 degrees C. in summer to minus 40 degrees C. in winter, and in spring frequent sandstorms shape the sculptures rough edges into smooth lines.

Erecting the sculptures must have taken great effort because for every two meters above the ground at least one meter is buried in the sand and many of the stones measure well over three meters in height. Some of the statues have tilted slightly or fallen but most remain as they were positioned originally: Central Asia remains the world’s largest open-air museum in Asia.

In Mongolia the balbal, called khuuni chuluu in Mongolian or ‘stone man’, are predated by bagan chuluu, spectacular deer stones from the iron and bronze ages. The stone pillars also seem to be positioned towards the east and feature exquisite carvings of deer with enormous antlers rolling down their backs and elongated snouts. The few deer stones that have human faces are amongst the earliest depictions of human beings in Central Asia.

Most of the bagan chuluu are found in the heart of the Mongolian empire on the southern shores of Lake Huvsgul where they tower over three meters high. The pinnacles of granite cluster around graves from the same period but it remains unclear if they should be interpreted as grave markers or were erected for other rituals or commemorations.

The stones echo an era of two dimensional petroglyphes which be found in Bayan Olgii Province, a remote region situated at the heart of Central Asia. It is a landscape dominated by the peaks of the Altai Mountains, stretching from Russia via Mongolia to western China. At the foot of these sacred mountains over ten-thousand petroglyphes and rock engravings, depict an ancient world dominated by deer, bears, hunters, wolves and life stock. The engravings measure from a tiny argali sheep of two centimeters, to a life-size horse in full flight. The images are often cut through oxidized rock making use of the colors of different layers of the rock to make the carvings stand out from their surroundings.

Petroglyphes in Bayan Oglgii include an image of a deer attacked by wolves, hunting scenes and scores of wild animals. Others depict more domestic scenes of yaks dragging carts, the wheels and horses flattened sideways like hieroglyphs, and two-dimensional herders on horseback.

Though respective government have now taken measures to preserve the artwork from looters and decay, the sculptures and rock carvings remain in situ on the steppes and in the sacred Altai Mountains of Central Asia.


Tjalling Halbertsma (www.halbertsma.com) is based in Asia and frequently writes on Mongolian and Chinese art




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