The riddle of Kalgutin petroglyphs

Petroglyphs very similar to each other were found in Altai and in Mongolia. Archaeologists have concluded that they can be attributed to the same style, which has much in common with the rock art of classical European Paleolithic monuments. Scientists called the style Kalgutin and described its main features. An article about this was published in the journal Archeology, Ethnography and Anthropology of Eurasia

Unique find
“In Siberia and the Far East there are no petroglyphs that experts would undoubtedly classify as the Paleolithic. The fact is that today there are no methods for direct dating of such monuments, and confirmed samples of rock art of the most ancient era are mainly found in Western Europe. Nevertheless, I’m sure that the images at the Kalgutin mine in Gorny Altai and at the monuments Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa in Mongolia belong to the Late Paleolithic, it doesn’t look like anything else, ”says the Advisor to the Director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the SB RAS Academician Vyacheslav Ivanovich Molodin.

Scientists discovered unusual petroglyphs in the mid-1990s. At that time, excavations of the mounds of the Pazyryk culture were carried out on the Ukok plateau, which is nearby. It was there that Siberian archaeologists found the mummies of a warrior and the “Altai princess” perfectly preserved in permafrost. Images, barely noticeable against the background of gentle rocks polished by a glacier, turned out to be an equally interesting discovery.

The figures carved in stone differed from those that experts had met in Altai before. According to the academician, they reminded him of the cave art of the Paleolithic monuments of France. However, among the characters of the Kalgutin petroglyphs there were no representatives of the paleofauna, such as mammoths and rhinos, indicating the ancient age of the monument. There was not a single image of walking people or horsemen, as well as animals that are found only in late cave art. The heroes of the petroglyphs of the Kalgutin mine are free horses, bulls, goats, less often deer, whom a prehistoric artist who lived both in the Holocene and much earlier could meet.
The surface layer of the breed on which the animals were stuffed, over time, became covered with a desert tan – it darkened under the influence of ultraviolet radiation and other environmental conditions. As archaeologists note, this is also indirect evidence of the ancient age of petroglyphs.

Unlike cave paintings, the pigments of which are dated using radiocarbon analysis, it’s extremely difficult to establish the exact age of the petroglyphs – silhouettes knocked out of the rock. This can be done only in case of great luck, for example, if fragments of rock with image fragments were found in the cultural layer along with other artifacts. Therefore, scientists are literally conducting an investigation, given all the facts that can tell dating.

A decade after the opening of the Kalgutin Mine monument, similar images were found in the north-west of Mongolia in the valleys of the Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa rivers, in the territory bordering the Ukok plateau. Among other Mongolian petroglyphs, there are those that, apparently, represent mammoths, that is, representatives of the Paleolithic fauna. An ancient man could draw these animals only if he lived with them in the same era. Scientists compared the Mongolian images with the classic cave paintings of mammoths from the caves of France and found significant similarities.

   Image of a mammoth at the Baga-Oygur monument in Mongolia

Handwriting of ancient artists
According to archaeologists, both of these petroglyphs are executed in an archaic manner and are stylistically close to many classical monuments of rock art in Western Europe. Altai and Mongolian finds are characterized by realism, deliberate incompleteness and minimalism, as well as the static and lack of perspective, which are often inherent in images of the Paleolithic era.

A noticeable similarity can be seen in the way individual parts of the animal body are treated. For example, there are two options for transmitting the head. In the first case, it has the form of a triangle and connects to the neck at an angle of 90 degrees. This manner is associated with the technique of stuffing the drawing, or the picket: after the artist painted the upper part of the head, sometimes turning into a horn, he changed the position of his hand and began a new line indicating the back of the animal. In the second case, the top line of the head smoothly continues with the line of the back. The bottom line of the head in both cases is made separately and connects to the top in the animal’s mouth.

Two options are found in the image of the hind leg. This is either a combination of two almost straight lines – the abdomen and the external contour of the limb, in which there is no detail of the thigh, or a more realistic interpretation that emphasizes the convex belly.

The longest element of the petroglyph is usually the back line, it was run first, and the rest of the body of the animal was already gathering on it. The back is often bent parallel to the deflection of the abdomen, or vice versa – curved in the form of a hump. The tail is absent or is a continuation of the line of the back, the legs are often incomplete and always without hooves.

For a long time it was believed that Paleolithic rock art was preserved only in caves, but not on open planes (or in an open-air, as foreign researchers say). However, at the end of the 20th century, several such monuments were found in Western Europe, reliably dated to the end of the Paleolithic era. The most famous of them – Foz Côa (Foz Côa) – is located in Portugal.

According to scientists, the triangular head, the transition of the head line to the line of the horn, the lack of detail of the thigh are special signs of Kalgutin and Mongolian petroglyphs, possibly a regional feature. Moreover, in the petroglyphs under consideration, both the triangular and more realistic versions of the head image can be found with different ways of transmitting the hind leg. This allows researchers to believe that this is not two separate styles, but different artistic techniques within the same canon, which is very similar to the classical examples of Paleolithic art.

   Leg tricks

Reliably dated Paleolithic analogs can be found on monuments in Portugal (Fariseo, Canada-Inferno, Rego de Vide, Costalta), France (Per-non-Per, Koske, Rukadur, Marsenac) and Spain (La Pasiega, Siega Verde, Kovalanas). Archaeologists note the similarity of some Mongolian images with painting in the “Cave of a Thousand Mammoths” by Ruffignac and even in the famous Chauvet.

Stubborn rhyolite
To understand what instrument the images were made: stone or metal, that is, later, trasologists were involved in the study. The Kalgutin mine has become a challenge for them. Scientists did not immediately manage to understand how it is possible to apply images to rhyolite – hard, like granite, granular rock licked by a glacier.

“Most often, petroglyphs are found on soft sandstones and shales. When a person knocks something there, there are small potholes, dents, holes, which you can understand how he worked. At Kalgutinsky mine, no such typical traces were visible. I worked in a team with some of the best trasologists – Hyuug Plisson from the University of Bordeaux and Catherine Cretin of the National Museum of the Prehistoric era in France, we conducted experiments on surfaces where there were no images, tried to repeat the technique using stone, but to no avail, ”says Researcher, IAET SB RAS Candidate of Historical Sciences Lidia Zotkina.

   The work of the trasologists Lydia Zotkina and Hyuug Plisson

On rhyolite worked only metal of very high quality, which mankind did not know until the Iron Age. At the same time, it is doubtful that an ancient man could afford to spend metal tools that were of great value in the past.

Recently, the team of Vyacheslav Molodin was able to determine from what time petroglyphs could be created. The rocks here were once covered by a glacier, so images could not appear before it disappeared. The dating was done by French geomorphology experts from the University of Savoy Mont Blanc. Scientists have studied the age of terrestrial cosmogenic nuclides. They are formed when the atoms of some minerals decay under the influence of high-energy cosmic particles and accumulate in the surface parts of the rock. By the number of accumulated nuclides, you can determine the exposure time of the rocky surface. It turned out that the glacier left the territory of the Kalgutin mine in the Paleolithic, which means that even then primitive artists had the opportunity to leave their mark there.

“Once we again took a local pebble, with which we had already experimented, but began to act differently: a little less power, a little more patience – and it worked. A series of small weak strokes turned out to break through the upper crust, and then you can already process the rock as you like. It should be noted that this is an atypical technique for other regions of Altai and for Mongolia, ”explains Lydia Zotkina. The trasologist notes that almost all the petroglyphs on this monument, with rare exceptions, are made with a stone tool, but this is more likely not a marker of the era, but a technological necessity, which is due to the specifics of the material.

Later, scientists found a lot of images made in the shallow embossing technique at the Kalgutinsky mine, which confirmed their theory. These petroglyphs darkened over time and were barely visible against the background of the rock. But when the pebble footprint is fresh, it contrasts with the surface, and there is no need to work the image deeper. It was such images that appeared on the monument in the majority. Another technique with which it was possible to violate the integrity of the crust was polishing, that is, rubbing lines, which is also not typical of the cave art of the region.

 From technology to style
If at the Kalgutinsky mine the manner of performing petroglyphs was dictated by the need to break through a solid rock, then a similar technology on the monuments of Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa in Mongolia cannot be explained by this. They are made on the outcrops of slate, where you can use almost any method of creating rock paintings.

“Unfortunately, we could not establish with what instrument the Mongolian petroglyphs were made. In many places, they were poorly preserved, the rock eroded, and the images were left without any traces, without any characteristic of surface modification. In other cases, the picket is very dense, because of which it is impossible to distinguish individual traces. But still, we were lucky: at some point, the light fell in such a way that we were able to notice images made using the same grinding and surface knocking technique as the Kalgutin ones, ”notes Lidia Zotkina.

Researchers suggest that the techniques developed when working with a solid surface were stable and were used even where there was no objective need for them. Thus, they, along with the pictorial manner of depiction, can be considered as one of the signs of a special style that scientists called Kalgutin. And the fact that mammoths are present in the plots of petroglyphs, and the pictorial style is close to European monuments, allows archaeologists to assume that they were made at the end of the Paleolithic era.

“This is a new touch to what we know about the irrational activities of ancient people in Central Asia. Science knows art of the Paleolithic era in the region. This is the famous series of sculptures in Malta in the Irkutsk region, whose age is from 23-19 thousand years, and several complexes on the Angara. The assumption that the Pleistocene inhabitant also included cave art on open planes fits into this context, ”said Vyacheslav Molodin.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x