Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly
Petroglyphs Within The Archaeological Landscape Of Tamgaly
Cultural Kazakhstan Asia And The Pacific Almaty Oblast

The dense and coherent group of petroglyphs at Tamgaly, with sacred images, altars and cult areas, together with their associated settlements and burial sites, provide a substantial testimony to the lives and beliefs of pastoral peoples of the central Asian steppes from the Bronze Age to the present day.

The gorge and its surrounding rocky landscape have attracted pastoral communities since the Bronze Age, and have come to be imbued with strong symbolic associations. Rock petroglyphs on unsheltered rock faces are the most abundant monument. They are formed using a picking technique with stone or metal tools. No painted images have been found. Over 5,000 images have been recorded in 48 different complexes. Overall the petroglyphs appear to cover a period from the second half of the 2nd millennium BC right through to the beginning of the 20th century. The images have been associated with five distinct phases:

  • Middle Bronze Age - Tamgaly type petroglyphs The most exceptional engravings come from the earliest period - large figures deeply cut with a wide repertoires of images including solar deities (sun-heads), zoomorphic beings, syncretic subjects, disguised people, and a wide range of animals. They date to the second half of the 14th and the 13th centuries BC.
  • Late Bronze Age - transitional These are much smaller, less well formed images than the earlier ones. The repertory is less varied, but with more scenes from life, particularly pastoral life, which reflects the rise of nomadic cattle breeding activities.
  • Early Iron Age - Sakae, Wusun peoples These are the most numerous images in Tamgaly but they are not homogeneous, their variety reflecting their creation by different peoples who inhabited the area between the end of the 1st millennium BC and the first half of the 1st millennium AD. The scenes still show the hunt of wild animals, but camels also begin to appear.
  • Middle Ages - ancient Turks These differ from previous images in reflecting the symbols of power of the emerging steppe empires in the 6th-12th centuries AD, with their aristocratic military leaders and cattle breeding cultures. Warriors, standard-bearers, archers, banners and horse equipment all appear.
  • Modern period - Dzungarians and Kazakh peoples After the conquest by Mongolia in the 13th-14th centuries, engraving largely ceases until the 19th and 20th centuries when popular Kazakh figures display a burst of artistic creativity.

Ancient settlements, burial sites and quarries mainly occupy the flat areas of the lower hills. The stone-built remains consist of clusters of one or two houses and animal enclosures. Some settlements were used only seasonally in the winter months, by cattle breeders, whereas others were permanent dwellings. Also in the area are summer dwellings for shepherds who spent winter lower down on the plains. Many ancient burials are known on the site. These come in two basic types: a stone enclosure with boxes and cists, dating from the middle/late Bronze Age, and (later) mounds (kurgans ) of stone and earth built above tombs. The latter seem to date from the early Iron Age to the present day. Ancient quarries are found associated with the Bronze Age cemeteries, providing the large stone slabs used in the construction of cists.

Sacred sites The central canyon is devoid of dwellings and also contains the densest concentration of engravings and what are believe to be altars, located near rocks with petroglyphs, which it is suggested functioned as places for sacrificial offerings. It seems that the central area as a whole was imbued as a sacred site or cult area. Elsewhere, stone fences, some engraved, are arranged around the top of rocks or hills near permanent Kazakh villages. Within the roughly circular enclosures, between 3.5 m and 10 m in diameter, are usually found a rich cultural layer of animal bones, suggesting ritual associations. None of these sacred sites has been excavated.