The riddle of the Kalgut petroglyphs

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The riddle of the Kalgut petroglyphs
The riddle of the Kalgut petroglyphs

Petroglyphs very similar to each other were found in Altai and Mongolia. Archaeologists concluded that they can be attributed to the same style, which has much in common with the rock art of classical European monuments of the Paleolithic. 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

“There are no petroglyphs in Siberia and the Far East that experts would no doubt attribute to the Paleolithic era. The fact is that today there are no methods of direct dating of such monuments, and confirmed samples of rock art of the ancient era are mainly found in Western Europe. Nevertheless, I am sure that the images at the Kalgutinsky mine in Gorny Altai and at the Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa sites in Mongolia belong to the late Paleolithic, it does not 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 burial mounds of the Pazyryk culture were carried out on the Ukok plateau, which is located nearby. It was there that Siberian archaeologists found the mummies of the warrior and the "Altai princess" perfectly preserved in the permafrost. The images, barely noticeable against the background of gently sloping, polished by a glacier, rocks turned out to be no less interesting discovery.

The figurines carved in stone were different from those that experts had met in Altai before. According to the academician, they reminded him of the rock 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 foot people or horsemen, as well as animals that are found only in late rock art. The heroes of the petroglyphs of the Kalgutinsky mine are free horses, bulls, goats, less often deer, which could have been met by a prehistoric artist who lived both in the Holocene and much earlier.

The surface layer of the rock, on which the animals were stuffed, eventually became covered with a desert tan - darkened under the influence of ultraviolet radiation and other environmental conditions. As noted by archaeologists, this is also indirect evidence of the ancient age of the petroglyphs.

Unlike rock paintings, the pigments of which are dated using radiocarbon analysis, the exact age of petroglyphs - silhouettes carved into the rock - is extremely difficult to establish. This can only be done in case of great luck, for example, if fragments of rock with fragments of images are found in the cultural layer along with other artifacts. Therefore, scientists literally conduct an investigation, taking into account all the facts that can suggest dating.

A decade after the discovery of the Kalgutinsky mine monument, similar images were found in northwestern Mongolia in the valleys of the Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa rivers, on the territory bordering the Ukok plateau. Among other Mongolian petroglyphs, there are those that, most likely, denote mammoths, that is, representatives of the Paleolithic fauna. Ancient man could draw these animals only if he lived with them in the same era. Scientists have compared Mongolian paintings with classical cave paintings of mammoths from French caves and found significant similarities.


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

The handwriting of ancient artists

According to archaeologists, both petroglyphs are made 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 static and lack of perspective, which are often inherent in images of the Paleolithic era.

A noticeable similarity can be traced in how the individual parts of the animal's body are treated. For example, there are two options for transferring the head. In the first case, it looks like a triangle and connects to the neck at an angle of 90 degrees. This style is associated with the technique of printing a drawing, or picketage: 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 upper line of the head continues smoothly with the line of the back. The lower line of the head in both cases is made separately and is connected to the upper line in the area of the animal's mouth.

Two variants are found in the image of the hind leg. This is either a connection of two almost straight lines - the abdomen and the outer contour of the limb, in which there is no detail on the thigh, or a more realistic interpretation, which allows you to emphasize the convex abdomen.

The longest element of the petroglyph is usually the line of the back, it was performed first, and the rest of the animal's body was already collected on it. The back is often bent parallel to the arch of the abdomen, or vice versa - bent 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 the open air, as foreign researchers say). However, at the end of the 20th century, several such monuments were found at once in Western Europe, reliably dated to the end of the Paleolithic era. The most famous of them - Foz Côa - is located in Portugal.

According to scientists, the triangular head, the transition of the head line into the horn line, the lack of detailing of the thigh are special signs of the Kalgut and Mongolian petroglyphs, perhaps a regional feature. At the same time, in the petroglyphs under consideration, both a triangular and a more realistic version of the image of the head can be found with different ways of transferring the hind leg. This allows researchers to believe that before us are not two separate styles, but different artistic techniques within the same canon, which is very similar to classical examples of Paleolithic art.


Leg techniques

Analogs, reliably dated to the Paleolithic time, can be found on monuments in Portugal (Fariseo, Canadaado-Inferno, Rego de Vide, Costalta), France (Per-non-Peer, Coske, Rukadur, Marsenac) and Spain (La Pasiega, Ciega Verde, Covalanas). Archaeologists note the similarity of some Mongolian images with paintings in the "Cave of a Thousand Mammoths" Ruffignac and even in the famous Chauvet.

Stubborn rhyolite

To understand what tool the images were made with: stone or metal, that is, later, traceologists were attracted to the study. The Kalgutinsky mine has become a daunting task for them. Scientists were far from immediately able to understand how you can 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 out something there, there are small potholes, dents, holes, by which you can understand how he worked. At the Kalgutinsky mine, there were no such typical traces. I worked in a team with some of the best traceologists - Hugh Plisson from the University of Bordeaux and Catherine Cretin from the National Museum of the Prehistoric Era in France, we carried out experiments on surfaces where there were no images, tried to repeat the technique using a stone, but to no avail,”says Researcher at IAET SB RAS, Candidate of Historical Sciences Lidiya Viktorovna Zotkina.


The work of traceologists Lydia Zotkina and Hyuga Plisson

Only a very high quality metal worked on rhyolite, which mankind did not know until the Iron Age. At the same time, it is doubtful that ancient people could afford to spend so much metal tools, which were of great value in the past.

Recently, Vyacheslav Molodin's team was able to determine from what time the petroglyphs could have been created. The cliffs here were once covered by a glacier, so the images could not appear before it disappeared. The dating was done by French geomorphologists 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 disintegrate under the influence of high-energy cosmic particles and accumulate in the near-surface parts of the rock. By the amount of accumulated nuclides, it is possible to determine the time of exposure of the rock surface. It turned out that the glacier left the territory of the Kalgutinsky mine back in the Paleolithic, which means that even then the 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 strength, a little more patience - and it worked. With a series of small weak blows, it turned out to break through the upper crust, and then it was already possible to 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 Lidia Zotkina. The trasologist notes that almost all the petroglyphs on this site, 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 discovered at the Kalgutinsky mine many images made using the shallow knockout technique, which confirmed their theory. These petroglyphs darkened over time and were barely visible against the background of the rock. But when the pebble mark is fresh, it contrasts with the surface, and there is no need to go deeper into the image. It was these images that appeared on the monument in the majority. Another technique with the help of which it turned out to violate the integrity of the crust was grinding, that is, rubbing the lines, which is also not typical for the rock art of the region.

From technology to style

If at the Kalgutinsky mine the manner of execution of petroglyphs was dictated by the need to punch through a solid rock, then the similar technology at the sites of Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa in Mongolia cannot be explained by this. They are made on shale outcrops where almost any rock art technique can be used.

“Unfortunately, we could not establish what tool the Mongolian petroglyphs were made with. In many places they are poorly preserved, the rock has weathered, and the images have remained without any traces at all, without any characteristic of surface modification. In other cases, the picketage is very dense, which makes it impossible to distinguish individual tracks. Still, we were lucky: at a certain moment, the light fell in such a way that we were able to notice the images made using the same grinding and surface embossing technique as the Kalgutin ones,”notes Lidia Zotkina.

The researchers suggest that the techniques developed when working with a hard surface turned out to be stable and were used even where there was no objective need for them. Thus, they, along with the picturesque manner of depiction, can be considered as one of the signs of a special style, which scientists called Kalgutin. And the fact that mammoths are present in the plots of the 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 is aware of Paleolithic art in the region. This is the famous series of sculptures on the territory of Malta in the Irkutsk region, whose age is from 23-19 thousand years, and several complexes on the Angara. The assumption that the inhabitant of the Pleistocene had, among other things, rock art on open planes, fits well into this context, "says Vyacheslav Molodin.

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