Mountain rock art at Saimaluu Tash: battle chariots and ploughing scenes at an altitude of 3,000m

The remote, mountainous location of Saimaluu Tash has ensured that its ancient rock art remains remarkably well preserved. Some of the images, though, feature subjects such as ploughing and chariots. The presence of activities best suited to much lower altitudes raises questions about who was creating this rock art and why. Christoph Baumer is our guide to an extraordinary concentration of ancient artistry.


While petroglyphs are found on every continent, the mountainous area of Central Asia and Western Mongolia is home to especially rich sites. Within this vast expanse of petroglyphs, the site of Saimaluu Tash in Kyrgyzstan is one of the largest and highest: its petroglyphs date mainly from the Bronze Age (c.2400-900 BC) and the Iron Age (900 BC-AD 450), with a few belonging to the period when peoples speaking Turkic languages enter the region (c.AD 450-800). Saimaluu Tash lies in the eastern part of the Fergana Mountain Range, about 115km north-east of the city of Osh. Due to its altitude – which ranges from 2,860m to 3,350m – the site is covered by snow for ten to eleven months of the year, leaving it accessible only in peak summer. Since the snow protects the stones from rapid temperature fluctuations, they are exceptionally well preserved. The difficult access, involving a strenuous ascent and crossing a small glacier, further protects the petroglyphs from vandalism. It is precisely this remoteness that motivated the author to lead a team to Saimaluu Tash in the summer of 2017.

High in the Fergana Mountain Range lies the remarkable rock art at Saimaluu Tash. Here we see the main moraine at Saimaluu Tash I, looking north. A representation of a mountain path is carved into the rock on the right.

The expedition consisted of three petroglyph experts and two GIS specialists from Switzerland and Belgium, a Kyrgyz archaeologist, and a local support team. The objective of the expedition was to survey, photograph, and map the site, with a view to producing interactive maps. Making use of satellite imagery with 50cm resolution, the team also wanted to search for traces of any ancient settlements or previously unrecorded burials. Since the plan called for the team to stay on site for a week, all equipment – including tents and food – had to be brought in. Accordingly, a powerful Mi-8 helicopter, equipped with two turbines, was rented from the army. It dropped us at an altitude of 3,245m above sea level.

Stones with drawings

Approaching the Fergana Mountain Range by helicopter. It dropped us at a height of 3,245m above sea level.

The site was officially rediscovered by the military topographer Nikolai G Kludov in 1902, although its name provides a strong clue about its nature, as ‘Saimaluu Tash’ means ‘stones with drawings’ in Kyrgyz. Even so, it was more than 40 years before B M Zima and A N Bernstam conducted extensive explorations, in 1946 and 1950 respectively. Further fieldwork has been conducted up to the present day, and the site is included on UNESCO’s Tentative List of cultural monuments. Despite its importance, there is no interactive map of the rock art, and various research questions remain unanswered.

A satellite map showing the distribution of petroglyph sites in the central moraines of Saimaluu Tash I.

The location of the petroglyphs extends over two valleys, divided by a steep ridge. Saimaluu Tash I represents the most important site and lies in the western valley, while the smaller and slightly less ancient Saimaluu Tash II can be found in the neighbouring eastern valley. The former, larger site is located in a glacial corrie containing several moraine deposits; it stretches over a length of 1,800m and varies from around 2,860m to 3,350m above sea level; its maximum width is just over 1km, resulting in a total area of about 1.9km2. The second, smaller site measures a little under 1km2. We started our mapping along a 496m-long stretch of moraine in the western valley. The location of the petroglyphs was surveyed using Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers with decimetre accuracy, alongside an app for mobile devices known as Collector for ArcGIS. This was configured to allow offline data collection on a high-resolution satellite image of the area. We recorded the orientation of each petroglyph, while also photographing and recording it. Aerial photographs were used to produce images of the study area presented to a uniform scale, and also allowed a digital-elevation model (DEM) to be created. A Leica GG04 GNSS receiver was used to survey ground control points (GCPs) to improve the accuracy of these models. The data were then categorised and stored in a geodatabase.

Four ploughing scenes with mixed draught animals at Saimaluu Tash I; the small lion in the left centre is probably a later addition. Note that the ploughers appear to have tails, but these are in fact part of their fur jackets.

The survey revealed that a total of about 4,500 to 5,000 bluish-grey basaltic stones were adorned with petroglyphs, amounting to between 30,000 and 35,000 individual images. These were created over a time span of almost 3,000 years and cover a wide variety of themes. Since their creators selected motifs from their own surroundings and economies, which in turn were determined by climatic conditions, it is possible to establish a correlation between the rock art, the climate, and the local economy. That said, as is the case almost everywhere with petroglyphs, the animals depicted are by no means a proportional representation of the fauna existing at the time: rock art is dominated by those animals whose characteristics were admired, feared, or carried a mythological meaning. For example, sheep, pigs, poultry, birds, and insects are virtually excluded from Central Asian petroglyphs. Furthermore, petroglyphs do not only reflect the environment, they also express beliefs and visualise rituals. Building interpretations is based on a conviction that the study of petroglyphs should not remain merely descriptive, but should also strive to decipher and understand the meanings carved into stone by the prehistoric artists. As formulated by Paul Taçon and Christopher Chippindale back in 1998, formal research methods such as description and statistical analysis must be complemented by informed methods such as ethnography and, above all, ethno-history. The latter deals with the myths and worldviews of groups within specific geographical spaces and time frames.

Two examples of solar imagery from Saimaluu Tash I. Above, solar figures and a deer with huge antlers.
The top of this rock features a human holding a solar disc, while below orants lift their arms towards the sun. The orants offer another example of people with distinctive ‘tails’, which were really part of their fur jackets.

Our assessment of the imagery opens in the earlier Bronze Age, around 2000 BC, when – as Alexey Rogozhinsky has noted – the regional climate became warmer and damper. This was a time of retreat for alpine glaciers, while the tree line was advancing upwards, creating favourable conditions for an expansion of agriculture into the foothills. It was soon thereafter that the earliest petroglyphs were created at Saimaluu Tash. While crop cultivation flourished in the lower valleys, a semi-mobile pastoral economy thrived in the uplands. These pastoralists practised seasonal vertical migration that led them all the way to the steep grass slopes of Saimaluu Tash, which in those days were free of snow for several months. Images from this period include both arable and pastoral scenes, such as ploughing and simple carts being pulled by oxen. Erotic representations and sun symbols also occur, with an analysis of their distribution revealing that they frequently appear in the vicinity of ploughing scenes. The clustering of these symbols would fit with the presence of a fertility and solar cult.

By the later Bronze Age, the climate was warmer and more arid, bringing a reduction in crop-growing in favour of cattle- breeding. This trend was accelerated by the arrival, in around 1800 BC, of migrating pastoralists from the north. These incomers belonged to a group referred to by specialists as the Andronovo Cultural Complex, who had left their homelands beside the Urals when the productivity of their pastures declined. By the advent of the Iron Age (c.900 BC), semi-mobile pastoralism was the dominant way of life in the Fergana region. This coincided with ploughing scenes, solar symbols, and figures with arms raised (presumably in prayer) disappearing from the petroglyph repertoire. Instead, the dominant motifs were now stylised archers, deer, and ibex shown in the ‘Steppe animal style’, as well as horses, wolves, and snow leopards attacking herbivores. Ithyphallic figures vanished as well, with virility now expressed by the bearing of weapons. Finally, earlier representations of carts with plain wheels, drawn by oxen, were replaced by light chariots with spoked wheels, pulled by horses.

Saimaluu Tash I, by night. To the left we see an engraved mountain landscape with two rivers and ibex, while to the right are four ploughing scenes.

Around 2,000 years ago, the glaciers were advancing once more in alpine regions. Very cold and dry winters alongside cold summers led to a regression of grass meadows and a drop in the tree line, which today lies around 2,300m to 2,400m above sea level. We have only found a few petroglyphs belonging to this period at Saimaluu Tash. Finally, from around AD 500, the climate warmed once again. In the valleys, crop-cultivation duly regained importance. Alpine pastures, though, were still used during the summer months, as witnessed by petroglyphs that date to the Turkic period. This saw the arrival of mounted Turkic-speaking immigrants, which gave a further boost to pastoralism, as it ensured a strong demand for horses. The martial culture of these incomers is reflected in petroglyphs featuring archers, duels, and horsemen. Other images include stylised ibex and tamgas (tribal markers). It was at the close of the Ancient Turkic period, around AD 800, that the creation of rock art at Saimaluu Tash came to an end.

Picturing the past

Various elements of the artistry at Saimaluu Tash deserve special attention. In particular, there is a unique collection of roughly 50 renderings of wheeled vehicles and tools. These range from early two-wheel frame ploughs, with tiny (or even no) wheels, to double-axle wagons and, finally, more than two dozen light chariots. As A N Bernstam hypothesised in Some Work on Saimaluu Tash, the Bronze Age petroglyphs of a man (sometimes ithyphallic) with braided hair walking behind a harnessed pair of animals probably represent ploughing scenes involving a frame plough with miniature wheels – although the possibility that they depict a driver following his cart on foot cannot be entirely excluded, as postulated by Jakov Sher in Interpretation of Scenes on Some Petroglyphs of Saymaly Tash. It is striking that the braided hair of the plough drivers is shown stretched out straight as if it were part of a sun wreath. A solar reference is all the more likely as figures on neighbouring stones either hold sun discs in their hands or represent some kind of ‘sun people’. Conceptually similar sun-headed figures from the same period are found at the site of Tamgaly in neighbouring southern Kazakhstan, and, further away in Russian Khakassia, on older stone stelae of the Okunev culture (2400-1750 BC). The tails visible on some figures evoke the fur jackets worn at that time.

Two examples of chariots from Saimaluu Tash I. Above, a charioteer standing on the floor of a light chariot. The front horse is wearing a pair of horns. Below, an ithyphallic man walking behind a light chariot with

These ploughing images are unusual within the wider corpus of Central Asian petroglyphs, and so too is the pairing of different harnessed draught animals, such as a bull and a horse, a bull and a donkey, or a bull and a goat. Given that combining different animals in a single harness is impractical, these petroglyphs surely have a mythological significance. This fits with some ‘bulls’, identified by their long horns, having the body of a horse. A pairing of different draught animals appears in the mythologies of at least three cultures speaking languages belonging to the Indo-European family. First, a text from Hattusa, once the capital of the Hittite Empire, describes the ritual harnessing of a horse and a mule to a chariot. Then, in Greek mythology, Apollo pairs two lions with two boars to pull the chariot of King Pelias, while Dionysos is represented driving a chariot pulled by a team of various beasts, such as a bull, a griffin, and a lion. Finally, in the hymns of the Indian Rig Veda, the divine youthful twin horsemen called Ashvins harness not only winged horses to their chariot, but also a bull and a porpoise. Indeed, a scene featuring a chariot team consisting of two horses and a bull is found on an Indian bronze cup from the Maurya period, dating to around 200 BC and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Perhaps, then, the Andronovian Indo-European immigrants shared their mythological worldview with the inhabitants of the Fergana region, from which a combined agrarian fertility and solar cult arose. The ploughing scenes at Saimaluu Tash may, then, be interpreted as the visualisation of a cultic enactment of a ritual believed to ensure fertility.

This scene from Saimaluu Tash II shows two horses pulling a sphere that probably symbolises the sun. The rear horse was later reworked to turn it into an ibex.

Yet the pairing of different animals can also be viewed as a magical attempt to combine the venerated attributes of different animals into a single team under human control. By harnessing two different animals to the same yoke, the commanding figure symbolically magnifies the power at his disposal. A similar mythological mechanism can be observed in the petroglyphs of goats or horses shown with long bull horns, which are also found at Tamgaly. Petroglyphs of such hybrid animals anticipate an Iron Age burial custom encountered in the Altai Mountains and known at Pazyryk, Tuekta, Ak-Alacha (Russia), Berel (Kazakhstan), and Ak-Alacha (Mongolia). There, sacrificed horses were adorned with bovid and caprid horns made from leather. It is a characteristic of the Saimaluu Tash petroglyphs that they often stand in relation to each other and depict scenes involving hunting, carnivores chasing herbivores, duelling archers, or mountain landscapes intersected by paths or rivers and dotted with animals, humans, and solar figures.

This image at Saimaluu Tash I shows a bull-like animal charging at a solar disc.

It is striking that petroglyphs featuring single-axle battle chariots are plentiful within this mountain fastness. These chariots are clearly distinguished from the two-wheel frame ploughs by the light, eight-spoke wheels and the floor on which the charioteer stands. Such a prominent presence at Saimaluu Tash within the rugged Fergana range – where chariots obviously had no practical use – is once again best understood within a mythological framework. Its source can also be traced to the early Andronovians, who came from the cultural realm of Sintashta, eastern Ural, where the origins of the light battle chariot can be found around 2000 BC. Chariots are often mentioned in the Rig Veda and in the Iranian Avesta as the vehicles of gods: mainly deities associated with the sun, such as Surya, Agni, Indra, or Mithra. Intriguingly, in some scenes at Saimaluu Tash the charioteer does not stand on the floor of the chariot, but walks behind it while holding the reins, which might also serve to emphasise the sacred character of a divine chariot. In The Histories, Herodotus narrates an army review by the Iranian King of Kings Xerxes. There, the sacred horses ‘were followed by the holy chariot of Zeus [that is, Ahura Mazda] drawn by eight white horses, with a charioteer on foot behind them holding the reins – for no mortal man may mount into the chariot’s seat.’ Given that the ancient Iranians drew on the same mythological heritage as the Andronovians, we may suspect that this concept is reflected in the rock-art scenes. Possibly they visualise ritual chariot drives.

A representation of a so-called ‘dumb-bell’, probably featuring the sun and moon, at Saimaluu Tash I.
A male and a female predator, probably wolves, attack a hybrid deer (or horse) with bull’s horns, on this rock at Saimaluu Tash I.

An intriguing variant on the chariot motif can be found at Saimaluu Tash II, where two horses are pictured pulling a large disc or sphere, which is attached to the vehicle drawbar. The Kyrgyz archaeologist Dimitry Lujanskiy concurs with me that this image might allude to the myth of one or two divine horses drawing the sun across the sky during daytime. This mythological concept of solar horses pulling the sun is found not only in the Indian Rig Veda, but also in Nordic mythology and rock art, for example at Balken in southern Sweden. Another intriguing notion related to solar mythology is an attack on the sun disc or a star by a monster. Such images have parallels in Bronze Age petroglyphs and engraved stone stelae from southern and eastern Siberia. They are probably related to a myth widely spread through the northern Eurasian realm of a fabulous animal eager to devour the sun or other celestial bodies. This would reflect the frightening fact that in northern, especially arctic, climes, the sun disappears from the sky in winter for weeks or even months at a time. With that in mind, the chase of a mythical hybrid animal in the shape of a deer (or horse) with huge horns by predators such as wolves may be understood not only as an allegory of life being dogged by inescapable death, but also of animals associated with the sun being pursued by primeval predators.

A tiny human, possibly holding a flat drum, stands under what appears to be the vault of the sky, at Saimaluu Tash I. The site of Saimaluu Tash II lies on the other side of the steep grassy slope.

Two other motifs may be understood in the context of astral bodies, too. The first one resembles a kind of dumb-bell, which consists of a straight rod 15-90cm in length, with a disc or ring fixed at each end. In some instances, one of the two discs is shaped like a sun, which suggests an interpretation of these ‘dumb-bell’ objects as either the sun and moon, or perhaps the sun during the day and at night. The second motif with a possible astral connection features a small human who seems to wear a giant headdress in the shape of a mushroom. Some have interpreted this image, which is also found at other Central Asian and south Siberian sites, as a shaman and a type of mushroom (Amanita muscaria) that produces trances and hallucinations when consumed. One alternative possibility, though, is that the image renders a human standing under the infinite vault of the sky; in a single petroglyph at Saimaluu Tash, the figure seems to hold a flat drum.

An ibex with body in bi-triangular style, from Saimaluu Tash I. The archer shooting at the ibex’s neck was possibly added later.

Another characteristic of the Saimaluu Tash petroglyphs are various animals, such as horses, goats, wolves, and snow leopards, with bodies that consist of two triangles connected at the top. A similar bi-triangular body style has recently been found on a petroglyph of the same age at Kayrit Oasis and on a pottery shard from Dzharkutan, both sites located in south-eastern Uzbekistan, placing them 650km south-west of Saimaluu Tash. But the connection advanced previously by Bernstam between this bi-triangular style and painted pottery decoration from the Fergana Chust culture is not really convincing. Even more unlikely is the hypothesis of a link with similar renderings of ibex on painted ceramics from Susa I, Tepe Sialk, and Namazga III, all dating from the 4th millennium BC, due to a time gap of more than a millennium and huge geographical distances.

Finally, it should be noted that the rock art of Saimaluu Tash does not include indoor domestic activities, children, or humans clearly portrayed as women, with the exception of erotic images and some birthing scenes. On the other hand, certain predators are clearly identified as female by their teats.

The Kyrgyz archaeologist Dimitry Lujanskiy (on the left) and me (right) at Saimaluu Tash I. The rock features a tree with its roots, carved in typical Bronze Age style; beneath the tree is a kind of net. Image: Therese Weber

Mountain sanctuary

Given the multitude of allusions to myths and beliefs, Saimaluu Tash can be interpreted as an ancient open-air cultic sanctuary. According to Anatoly Martynov, a tradition of local people climbing to the site in August, accompanied by lambs for ritual slaughter at a tiny lake, survived into the 20th century. To date, there is little sign of occupation to go with the rock art. Inspecting nine potential ancient man-made structures identified on the satellite image produced negative results. These turned out to be recent constructions, such as rough enclosures or wind shelters built by hunters or seasonal pastoralists moving small flocks of sheep to the uplands in high summer. In addition, the search for burial mounds brought no new results, as only one kurgan from the Turkic era and two from the Iron Age Saka period were located, all of which were already known in the literature. No indication of ancient settlement was identified, in terms of either structures or concentrations of pottery sherds. Hence, the hypothesis remains valid that the ancient pastoralists practising seasonal migration used portable shelters such as tents or yurts, as is still the case at many high-altitude seasonal pastures. Since the expedition’s survey did not drop below 2,800m above sea level, the presence of traces of permanent settlements and further burials at a lower level cannot be ruled out.


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ALL images: courtesy of Christoph Baumer, unless otherwise stated