Inora Newsletter #45
A NEW PETROGLYPHIC COMPLEX IN BAYAN ÖLGIY AIMAG, MONGOLIA
In the course of documenting surface archaeology in mountainous Bayan Ölgiy aimag, northwestern Mongolia, in summer 2005, the members of the Cultural Atlas project identified a hitherto unknown rock art complex of significant size. This complex is located on the upper Khultsotin Gol, under the east flanks of the sacred mountain, Tsengel’ Khairkhan Uul, and at an elevation of approximately 2600m. The complex extends along the rocky outcroppings on either side of the turbulent Khultsotin Gol for approximately 4-5km. To the best of our knowledge, this complex was hitherto unknown to any but the small population of Urianghai herders who summer in this high valley.
The approach to the complex is over a rough track that leaves the Sagsay Valley above Buyant and winds westward up the side of Khultsotin Gol and over a long moraine of rough granitic boulders. A few petroglyphs can be found along this stretch of the valley, but in general the granitic stone does not seem to have encouraged rock art activity. Extensive petroglyphs begin to appear only at the upper end of the moraine, where bedrock begins to appear under the precipitous cliffs to north and south. These outcroppings of greywacke bear all the signs of extensive past glacial activity: marked by a surface patina of a deep mahogany color, they have been extensively polished, scraped, and crushed by millennia of glacial action. Imagery is found most extensively on the left bank of the river, but in places it also appears on the right bank. In addition to the pecked imagery are a number of khereksur (round and square altars), single mounds (probably ritual in nature), and, in at least one place, several mounds aligned from north to south and indicating burials of the Pazyryk period (1st millennium BC).
More than any of the other petroglyphic complexes we have documented, that of Khultsotin Gol seems curiously lacking in ancient cultural continuity. As a whole, the images in the complex are sharply divided between an archaic (pre-Bronze Age) period and the period of the Early Nomads of the late Bronze Age.
The archaic images are exemplified by a large number of frontal stick-like figures executed in a very rough pecking technique (Fig. 1). Some of these have horned protuberances on their heads; some are posed as if in a birthing position; and some suggest, by their postures, dancing figures. We have found a few similar figures at other regional sites, most particularly in the large complex of Tsagaan Salaa/Baga Oigor (TS/BO). In TS II, for example (Jacobson, Kubarev, Tseevendorj 2001: Vol. II, pl. 80), we recorded a worn boulder with the barely visible images of a large birthing woman and several horned, frontal figures posed as if dancing. (At last investigation, that boulder seems to have disappeared, probably destroyed in the course of a rough attempt to smooth out the local track.) Remarkable here at Khultsotin Gol is the size of these figures, their number (we counted at least 30 in one stretch of the complex), the archaic aspect of their patina and pecking technique, and the ruined character of the stone surfaces on which they have been executed. Other than these images, we recorded several animal images executed in a style and manner indicative of considerable age. A sturdy caprid (Fig. 2) with beard and unfinished body is one example of this material; another is offered by an argali, also unfinished. Its large belly and static profile recall archaic images from the Bayan Ölgiy site of Aral Tolgoi (Tseveendorj, Kubarev, Yakobson [Jacobson] 2005: p. 15, Fig. 113). A particularly perplexing image is found on a badly damaged, horizontal surface. The animal’s heavy hindquarters and body are not those of either a boar or a bear; they rather recall the body of a rhinoceros, but the head is too damaged to be distinguished and the body seems more fully articulated than is the case with the rhinoceros from Aral Tolgoi (Idem, p. 145, Fig. 144).
The second largest number of images and compositions from Khultsotin Gol are marked by large bovids, sometimes alone and sometimes herded. These animals are typically represented with the heavy body, thick legs, and lowered head of yak. Subject and style clearly associate these with Early Nomadic cattle herders of the late Bronze Age. In one large panel (Fig. 3), the animals are clearly part of a caravan scene. One carries a large load, the other carries a basket in which a child is visible. A single male figure on the right reaffirms the domestic nature of this scene, but a number of wild animals and two massive bear on the left situate the caravan within a wild setting possibly even that of the upper valley itself. It is curious that between the archaic images mentioned above and the large group of cattle and yak-related compositions from the late Bronze Age, there are relatively few that can be confidently dated to the full Bronze Age. This situation suggests that between an archaic period (late Pleistocene? Early Holocene?) and the late Bronze Age, few pastoralists came into this high valley, or if they came few left their marks. How to explain this lacuna is puzzling, but one might hypothesize that the extremely rough moraine between the ample grasslands of the Sagsay Gol and the high valley of the complex would have discouraged pastoralists dependent on small animals (goats, sheep). With cattle and yak, however, it perhaps became more practical to make the long journey up the Khultsotin Gol and over the rugged moraine to the high pastures under Tsengel’ Khairkhan Uul.
In addition to the two principle groups of images referred to above, there are many representations of animals and people that by subject and style indicate a date in the late Bronze and early Iron Ages. A good example is offered by a fine late Bronze Age boar (Fig. 4), several early Iron Age deer of the stylized ‘Mongolian’ type, and an intriguing portrait of a warrior wearing the helmet and carrying the shield and sword of a Mongolian warrior. With visual inspection alone it is impossible to determine whether this lightly engraved image was actually done in the Mongolian period or whether it represents a modern rendition of an ancient warrior by an unusually talented local artist who had the opportunity to consult a popular representation of such a figure.
The Khultsotin Gol complex is unusual among the rock art sites we have recorded in Mongolia in being “rich” in individual images and relatively “poor” in narrative compositions. Nonetheless, it must be joined to a number of complexes that have been identified and recorded in mountainous Bayan Ölgiy. These include two of the largest complexes in North Asia, Tsagaan Salaa/Baga Oigor (TS/BO; Jacobson, Kubarev, Tseevendorj 2001) and Tsagaan Gol (publication forthcoming). Possibly the oldest and largest accumulation of imagery from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene is found at Aral Tolgoi (Tseveendorj, Kubarev, Yakobson [Jacobson] 2005). A large site on the north shore of Khoton Nuur, called Bilüüt, has been identified and is being recorded (INORA, 41, 2005). Smaller sites have been identified in the Khar Yamaa valley (INORA, 17, 1997) and along the Khargantin Gol. In addition, several small, scattered sites have been identified along several other rivers. As a middle-sized complex, the Khultotin Gol site reconfirms the probability that mountainous Bayan Ölgiy aimag is one of the richest repositories of rock art in North Asia.
Although the imagery at Khultsotin Gol has parallels elsewhere, particularly in the large complex of TS/BO, the sheer number of archaic figures and the strange cultural and chronological gap between them and most of the rest of the imagery makes this complex particularly interesting and well worth further study. In the time available to us this summer 2005 we were able to record a large number of the outcroppings in the complex. A more thorough survey and documentation will continue in the near future with the collaboration of the Institute of Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Ulaanbaatar.
University of Oregon
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