Drawn and Written in Stone: an inventory of stepped structures and inscriptions on rock surfaces in Upper Tibet (ca.100 BCE to 1400 CE)

For many thousands of years, humans have inscribed their presence on the landscape. They drew or pecked images of the fanciful, representational, or sacred on the walls of caves, rock shelters, rock faces, and boulders, as well as on structures, both monumental and quotidian. While the advent of written languages never replaced these efforts, their appearance added a new dimension to what could be represented. The written word offered the humble believer or a secular or religious elite a means by which to define a place or create a durable presence. Archaeologists have made the discovery and analysis of rock art and inscriptions of all kinds a disciplinary priority, despite the all-too-real difficulty of their interpretation.

From 1995 to 2013, John Bellezza criss-crossed the arid, high-elevation steppe – the Changtang – of Upper Tibet, the northernmost reaches of the Tibet Autonomous Region. He recorded structures, tombs, stone alignments, rock art, and, as reported in this volume, drawings on the rock of stepped structures and inscriptions. He is one of the few scholars of the ancient past who have invested significant time and effort in this vast region. He has embedded his field research into a context of fluent written and spoken Tibetan and deep familiarity with Tibetan Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) myth, ritual, and history. This unique combination of skills allows him to provide nuanced descriptions, as well as rich interpretations of his findings.

Following a brief introduction to the research and a general outline of his field methods, the book is divided into two parts, each containing five chapters: Part 1 deals with images of the stepped structures of Upper Tibet, while Part 2 describes the early rock inscriptions. Stepped structures are common elsewhere on the plateau, and in modern Tibetan Buddhism they are known as chortens (Tibetan: mchod rten). They may be small and simple and serve as a focus of ritual activity for a household or village, or they can be far larger and grandiose, functioning as reliquaries of important religious figures or as reminders of the presence of the Buddha near or within monastic complexes. Based on variation in shape, number of steps, and embellishments, Bellezza has created a typology of these chortens that is primarily descriptive and, unfortunately, of limited chronological resolution. Although stepped structures are represented in other media, such as small metal talismans or even as a motif on a gold mask from a cemetery in far-western Tibet dated to c.2000 years ago, the very large majority of the images appear to have been created following the diffusion of Buddhism to Upper Tibet after the 7th century AD.

Although the study of the stepped structures is interesting, his analysis of the inscriptions is, by comparison, much more compelling. Written Tibetan appeared in the first half of the 7th century AD and spread across the plateau and surrounding regions as the Tibetan empire expanded its boundaries through conquest. Bellezza notes, however, that inscriptions, mostly religious in nature, did not become more common in Upper Tibet until after AD 1000. Even then, their numbers never rivalled those found elsewhere on the plateau. Despite its relative proximity to Ladakh, where numerous inscriptions in non-Tibetan languages such as Sogdian, Arabic, and Chinese have been discovered, none of these languages have been inscribed in Upper Tibet. This suggests to Bellezza that Upper Tibet was always marginal to political and economic developments to the south and that literacy, like Buddhism, had a limited impact on the region until well into more recent times.

The book is filled with deep scholarship, no little speculation, and is sometimes a difficult read. Its primary appeal will be to Tibetologists, epigraphers, and art historians. The almost 500 illustrations, many of them in colour, will soften this book for the non-specialist. But, for its limited audience, the book is of considerable importance and Bellezza is to be congratulated for shedding new light on the past of Upper Tibet.

Review by Mark Aldenderfer.

Drawn and Written in Stone: an inventory of stepped structures and inscriptions on rock surfaces in Upper Tibet (ca.100 BCE to 1400 CE), John Vincent Bellezza, BAR Publishing, £78, ISBN 978-1407356391.