On Biluut 2, seven slender, long-robed warriors from the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age bear long axes and swords. The Bronze Age horse at the centre overlaps an older decorated bull, while the mounted warrior at the top is superimposed on an unidentified Archaic animal figure. The dark bull at the bottom measures 14cm in length. Despite the details of headgear, costume, and weaponry, the warriors’ cultural identity remains unknown.

Altai rock art: Visions of the past in Mongolia

Survey and excavation in a remote region of Mongolia are revealing a wealth of information about an extraordinary concentration of rock art. Richard Kortum reveals what has been found, and why it is so significant.


Prehistoric petroglyphs are found in each of Mongolia’s 21 provinces. The largest and most important sites are in westernmost Bayan Ulgii aimag, long hidden in remote High Altai valleys carved by Pleistocene glaciers. On a reconnaissance mission in June 2004, a local Kazakh-Mongolian guide showed me a decorated boulder that I soon discovered was but a tiny fragment of what has turned out to be one of the richest and most concentrated assemblages of petroglyphs and ritual stone structures in Inner Asia. I have led field research here virtually every summer since.

Remarkable petroglyphs have been discovered in a remote region of Mongolia. Here a laser-mapping team is visible atop the ‘giant horse rock’ – named after the artistry visible in the bottom half of the photograph – in 2007. This rock art lies on one of a pair of hills known to specialists as B2. Photo: David Edwards, 2007

The decorated boulder forms part of the Biluut Petroglyph Complex, which lies in the aimag’s north-western corner and is one of five or six significant complexes (that is, areas of substantial rock art with associated stone monuments) in this region. Situated on the eastern verges of freshwater Khoton Lake in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, even for Mongolia this is the back of beyond. The park, created in 1996, contains some of the country’s most-breathtaking scenery and is home to abundant wildlife, including argali sheep and the elusive snow leopard, both immortalised by petroglyph-makers. On the lake’s south-western side, across from our annual field camp, the Altai ridgeline forms a border with China’s Xinjiang Province. The permanently snow-blanketed Ondor Khairkhan Uul (High Holy Mountain), elevation 3,914m, dominates the scene.

The three mountains where most of the rock art in the complex is to be found. From left to right, they are Biluut 3, Biluut 2, and Biluut 1, with Khoton Lake and the Altai Nuruu beyond. Photo: Julia Clark, 2008
The vast emptiness is overpowering. There are no paved or even permanent roads out here, only a loose network of rough shifting tracks. Travel, by jeep or Russian van, is notoriously slow and difficult. In the best of circumstances, the provincial capital Ulgii (population 29,000), 110km away, is a bruising five- to seven-hour drive. High mountain passes often prove insurmountable. Not uncommonly, snow falls in mid-July. Stream- and river-crossings are daunting, especially after spring snow and glacier melt. Breakdowns are routine. Mobile phone towers and Wi-Fi are both non-existent. Two small border-patrol stations at the upper and lower ends of Khoton Lake (BELOW), 15km distant, are the only ‘settlements’ within 70km.
During the short summer, perhaps 30 semi-nomadic families graze goats, horses, and Bactrian camels, mostly across the lake. Four or five of these briefly inhabit our study area, living in portable gers (Russian: ‘yurts’). Exceptionally hardy, resourceful, curious, hospitable, and generous, they are a terrific source of information.

Our study area measures nearly 28.5km²: 3.92km north–south by 7.25km east–west. Rising above the glacial plain are the twin Biluut high hills (referred to as B1 and B2 when identifying rock-art locations) and Juniper Mountain (aka Biluut 3, or simply B3), elevation 2,283m. Their glacier-polished bedrock panels of metagreywacke, a dense siltstone, contain 95% of the complex’s petroglyphs. The remainder are found scattered along the bottom of Broken Mountain, immediately east of B3; on Spring House Bluffs, a nearby ‘stack’ of exposed bedrock above a herder’s seasonal hut; and on three outcrops above where the meandering Khuiten stream empties into Khoton Lake.

Locations of major rock-art complexes in Bayan Ulgii aimag and on Russia’s Ukok Plateau.

Set in stone

Evidence suggests more-or-less continuous human activity here since the latest episode of glacial retreat, c.17,000 BC. With respect to cultural periods, Biluut petroglyphs run the gamut. Thousands are lost forever due to weathering, goat and horse hooves, and graffiti; still, outstanding specimens are preserved from the Stone Age through to modern times. Together with their pictorial details, the chronological distribution and spatial organisation of pecked images and associated ritual monuments cast a unique light on early communities and the palaeoenvironment with which they were intertwined. They track a changing climate and the routes of ancient people throughout South Siberia and Central Asia.

* Only those images sufficiently clear and distinct for the identification of a ‘representational intention’.

Ya. Tserendagva of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, our chief field assistant Jagaa Bataar, and I have attempted to identify every petroglyph, no matter how obscure, within this area. Over several seasons, we have documented 12,000 individual figures and non-figurative, clustered ‘marks’, recording more than 20 data-points for each. Of Biluut’s identifiable figures for which a relative chronology can confidently be assigned, our current tabulation is 73.5% Bronze Age, 23.3% Iron Age, 1.4% Turkic (550-750 AD), and 1.8% ‘Archaic’– meaning pre-Bronze Age.

Dr Ya. Tserendagva (top) and our chief field assistant, Jagaa Baatar, execute a tracing on transparent plastic on Biluut 3 in June 2011.
Examining microscopic layers of manganese in the surface rock varnish allows minimum ages for the rock art to be determined. These layers are from Biluut 3 and date back to c.17,000 BC.

Our experiments in 2015 and 2017 with Varnish Microlamination (VML) analysis are refining the dating of Biluut petroglyphs. This technique was pioneered by geomorphologist Tanzhuo Liu of New York’s Columbia University and relies on manganese- rich and manganese-poor microscopic layers in the desert varnish that have built up in petroglyph grooves. As the former occur during wet spells, and the latter in dry periods, correlating them with the hemisphere’s scientifically dated climatic shifts yields minimum age limits with enormously greater precision – and has led to a few surprises. Liu’s analyses assign Biluut’s oldest surviving figures to the Upper Palaeolithic, ≥16,000 BC – thousands of years older than we originally believed. Stone tools found on site are estimated to be 12,000-15,000 years old. Some petroglyphs that we tentatively recorded as early Bronze Age now look to be Neolithic instead, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 years old. Although neither period is yet recognised for Mongolian petroglyphs, VML dating might enable us to identify both Mesolithic and medieval figures (1200-1500 AD). Excavated human remains from the medieval period on B2 suggest that the latter might be present.

Ibex are the most common of the various forms of figure found in the rock art. These examples, accompanied by does, are from B3 and date to the Bronze Age.
On Biluut 2, seven slender, long-robed warriors from the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age bear long axes and swords. The Bronze Age horse at the centre overlaps an older decorated bull, while the mounted warrior at the top is superimposed on an unidentified Archaic animal figure. The dark bull at the bottom measures 14cm in length. Despite the details of headgear, costume, and weaponry, the warriors’ cultural identity remains unknown.

Another surprise is the way figure-types and chronologies are distributed across the landscape. Against our initial assumption, petroglyph-makers here were not mere opportunists when it came to selecting spots for their creations. Instead, our data reveal interesting statistical correlations. So, for instance, the proportion of ibex, by far the most numerous of all figure-types, is far greater on B3 as compared to B2; the opposite is true of anthropomorphic figures. Archaic petroglyph-makers strongly favoured Khuiten Gol Delta, whereas Bronze Age artists evince a predilection for Broken Mountain, Spring House Bluffs, B1, and B3 (in that order). Iron Age image-makers overwhelmingly chose B2; those of the Turkic period favoured B2 and B1, completely ignoring panels at Spring House Bluffs, Khuiten Gol Delta, and Broken Mountain.

The overwhelming preference for B1 when depicting wheeled vehicles is no doubt a highly significant feature of this complex and requires explanation. After all, 26 of the 30 such images are located here, with 17 of these engraved on the middle terrace, known as B1C. Two are on B2; only one is found on B3. Ancient attitudes that connect landscape with mortuary and other symbolic, ritual, and ceremonial traditions, particularly among regional Bronze Age groups, hold the key to this clustering. Likewise, elevation, slope, nearest neighbouring imagery, clustering of image-types, solar exposure, and proximity to stone monuments are relevant to figure-placement. What these intriguing patterns say about the mindset and lifeways of the people who made these marks remains unclear.

A ceremonial centre

What began with an exploratory crew of two researchers and two assistants has grown into a long-term multinational, multidisciplinary project. My 2007 team conducted a detailed study of Biluut’s geology – ‘the rock of rock art’ – while carrying out an ultra-detailed laser mapping of B2 petroglyphs. In the summer of 2011, supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Three-Year Collaborative Research Grant, 40 individuals worked together at Biluut; at season’s end, we discovered the delta petroglyphs. In 2012, we numbered more than 50. During those two summers, our dirt archaeologists excavated 40 diverse sites: Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, Turkic, and medieval. Since 2014, with smaller teams of specialists I have focused on scientific dating (VML plus pollen analyses), photogrammetry, geomorphology, palaeoecology, and ritual or ‘sacred’ landscape.

Late Bronze Age renderings of ‘Mongolian deer’ on B2, showing the striking, wave-like antlers. Computer enhancement helps to bring out the detail (right).

Ours are the first scientific excavations in Bayan Ulgii. Led by William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution and J Bayarsaikhan of Mongolia’s National Museum, initial stages (2008-2009, 2011-2012) have revealed human activity at Biluut pre-dating the influx of Bronze Age groups. Scattered lithics, structural foundations, and Archaic petroglyphs together prove that this riparian niche of mountain steppe attracted Stone Age people.

On the other hand, intensive shovel testing in 2012 uncovered just two early Bronze Age domestic sites. The conspicuous lack of habitation features, coupled with prominent stone alignments and several hundred ritual monuments, indicates that Biluut functioned primarily as a ceremonial centre. It forms a nexus within the wider array of rock art and major monument sites lying within a day or two’s horseback ride. For millennia, people gathered here to participate in funerary and other ceremonial activities.

Two Bronze Age archers, shown with headgear and pouches.

Aside from sheer quantity and density, Biluut petroglyphs stand out for their size, age, stylistic variety, aesthetic qualities, symbolic and metaphysical import, and ecological and historical significance. By far the largest and most imposing are the half-dozen Turkic figures parading west to east across the face of the lowest outlier of B2’s western slope. Measuring 2.4m nose to tail, these may be the largest petrogyphs in Mongolia, if not the whole of Central Asia. The imperious mounted warriors in elaborate headgear with banners flying were pecked with impressive skill on challenging, pebbly conglomerate surfaces. The scene is endowed with unambiguous pageantry. Like the several examples of individual combat found at Biluut, the ‘giant horse rock’ provides a wealth of information on weaponry and costume. Heavy cudgels, clubs, staves, swords, spears, axes, hatchets, bows and arrows, and lances, as well as helmets, tunics, collars, boots, and other gear are heralded constituents of Biluut warriors.

In the rock-art record, hunting of forest-dwelling large game gives way to pastoralist economies, first settled, then, during the Bronze Age, mobile. We can view the change from wild (and hunted) to domestic horses, followed in turn by the introduction of reins, bits and bridles, saddles, bells and decorative elements, and, in the Turkic period, stirrups.

Stylistically, elaborate horns and antlers are plentiful during Bronze and early Iron Ages, the most pronounced being the exaggerated, wave-like antlers of ‘Mongolian deer’. Internal designs are commonplace, especially on bovids, equids, and cervids. These include vertical and horizontal stripes, checkerboards, criss-crosses, mosaic-like ‘embroideries’, complex triangular designs, stippling, and prominent spots. Many lend themselves to the idea of ownership, like horse and cattle brands.

Biluut’s petroglyphs often occur singly; however, several panels are ‘tattooed’ by well over 100 individual figures. Certain prominent boulders and humps held special interest, for over the course of thousands of years these were adorned many times. The surprising rarity of overlapping figures conveys a respect for the work of predecessors.

We have recorded more than 40 distinct image-types, including 30 kinds of animal. Faunal motifs comprise more than 90% of Biluut’s distinguishable petroglyphs. After ibex, images of horses, deer, canines, bovids, and argali are most numerous. Anthropomorphic figures fall between the latter two. Antelopes/gazelles, goats, camels, and swine are next. Dynamic predator-prey and hunting scenes abound. The complex has a total of 65 late Bronze Age deer executed in the exaggerated ‘Mongolian style’, with multiple figures nested tightly in the manner of classic stag-stones, for which they may be stand-ins. Stag-stones themselves are 2-4m high stelae that are thought to represent individuals, be they chieftains, warriors, or shamans. As the name suggests, these carved plinths bear highly stylised representations of Asian red deer, or maral, which possibly represent a venerated spirit-figure who acted as a mythological guide or protector. They originated on Central Mongolian plinths around 1400 BC and spread west across the Altai into eastern Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, China.

Many motifs, like certain Bronze Age archers, identical across a broad swathe of Central Asia, reveal distant connections. The same is true of images of horse-drawn two-wheeled vehicles. Originating near the Ural Mountains c.2000 BC, these devices spread east across northern China to the Yellow Sea, west as far as southern Britain and Spain, and south to Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt. Biluut’s vehicle figures are believed to date to 1500-1700 BC. A handful depict intricate structural details. The canonical aerial representation, with wheels and horses splayed out to either side, mirrors the layout of carts, horses, and drivers in graves, and suggests to some an emblem of death.

A rare profile view of a racing charioteer and lead rider (LEFT), on B2. The image is computer enhanced. Note the charioteer’s hands on a steering device.
It is more common for chariots to be shown with their wheels splayed to the side. This Bronze Age chariot is from B1. Note the stick-like driver with a ‘Napoleon’ hat or helmet at far right.

But Biluut also possesses a depiction of a true racing chariot in action. Within the entire complex there is just this one, hidden among a panoply of bulls and other figures on B2’s north-western crown. Most likely from the early Iron Age, judging by the style of galloping horses and a lead rider’s headgear, a kneeling charioteer with hands on a steering wheel speeds eastward. Whatever it signifies, of the many hundreds of depictions of Central Asian wheeled vehicles I have looked at, this is the sole instance of a pecked profile view.

Likewise, a striking, full-bodied ‘Birthing Woman’ on a small obscure panel high on B3’s east slope appears unique to Biluut. Surrounded by small cupules, she dates from the Neolithic period.

A Neolithic carving from B3, showing a woman giving birth. The original image is visible to the left, with an enhanced version to the right.

Other highlights include a variety of what appear to be important shamanic and mystical figures, including winged, horned, and one-eyed anthropomorphs, as well as polymorphic figures such as camel-deer and horned horses. One of the most-enigmatic figures is an otherwise unremarkable Iron Age bull on B1C, encircled by mysterious signs engraved at a later time, not found on published tables of Turkic runes.

Upcoming fieldwork will feature additional varnish sampling, palynology, and professional filming. An archaeoastronomer will be engaged at the earliest opportunity. Finally, as we devote greater attention to the preservation of cultural heritage, a movement is under way to have Biluut designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Making connections

Relationships among petroglyphs, monuments, prominent landforms, cardinal directions, and, in all likelihood, celestial events testify to the interconnectedness, in every era, of human communities and the natural world. Although the meanings and functions of specific motifs might ultimately elude us, concerns pertinent to particular periods come into focus. While there remain more questions than answers, cross-disciplinary study nevertheless yields important insights into ancient Altaian technologies, economies, polities, social organisation, cosmologies, and ritual practices. Aesthetic and technical merits are, in a great many instances, considerable.

ALL IMAGES: courtesy of Richard Kortum, unless otherwise stated

For more on the Biluut Petroglyph Complex, see R Kortum (2014) ‘Sacred imagery and ritual landscape: new discoveries at the Biluut Petroglyph Complex in the Mongolian Altai’, Time and Mind 7 (4): 329-384.
A short documentary film, Rock Art and Archaeology: investigating ritual landscape in the Mongolian Altai, can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2pV7nkkzRw.