Project for Rock-Art Research

In recent years the efforts of the Institute’s expedition studying rock-art sites, have been concentrated on the completion of field-work in Chukotka, which has added considerably to the rock-art collection from Northern Asia. Numerous petroglyphs were created on the rocks of the Kaykuul Bluff which stretches along the Pegtymel river some 30–40 km from the coast and to which those living in the tundra and on the coast were attracted, not merely by the annual migrations of wild reindeer but also by the unique nature of the landscape. For many peoples stones and rocks of unusual shapes became objects of veneration: representatives of different generations would return to the Kaykuul Bluff and create petroglyphs on rocky outcrops, marking out in this way the sacred essence of the stone. The immovable, unassailable accumulation of rocks which would store a generation’s memory, was the antithesis of transitory human life, decline, collapse and the fragility of prosperity. The reality of the sacred essence of stones, impervious to the destructive impact of time, meant that natural landscapes were being transformed into historical-cultural ones.

It has proved possible to identify and record, in keeping with modern academic standards, numerous hitherto unknown petroglyphs of a unique rock-art tradition with complex chronology. A key factor for historical re-construction was the revealing of new rock-art images, which came to include scenes of hunting and fishing, dwellings and images of sacred animals. The collection of well-known, typical motifs also expanded: anthropomorphic figures, mushroom-shaped head-wear and means of transport began to appear. The veneration of this unique place over a long period — a place which brought together the world of those who hunted creatures of the sea with the way of life peculiar to the tundra — its uniqueness and the unhesitatingly extravagant use of metal tools so highly valued in Chukotka, have meant that the Pegtymel petroglyphs number among the most important cultural heritage sites of the region.

While the Chukotka petroglyphs were being studied, doubts began to arise as to whether it would have been possible to create them using stone tools. This led us to investigate specific techniques and methods of observation, documentation and analysis of the traces left by the tools, with which the rock-art depictions had been executed. As a result of this specially targeted experimental traseological analysis at the Kaykuul Bluff, methods were devised for setting up fixed, diagonally directed lighting essential both for reliable definition of the contours and features of the depictions arranged on vertical rock surfaces and also for the recording of traces left by the tools used to execute them. Taking direct silicon impressions of parts of the rock surfaces bearing traces of engravings, after first protecting the rock surface using a layer of specially constituted washable solution, made it possible to obtain material for subsequent analysis of the traces using magnification. Using the silicon impressions special, positive reliefs of the rock art were made in extra-hard plaster, suitable for laboratory analysis of the artificial modification of the stone surface. Enlarged photographs made it possible to describe the differences between the traces left by stone tools and metal ones, borne out by the documented results of experimental engravings on fragments of similar rock.

The criteria selected for establishing the differences between traces of engravings executed with stone tools or metal tools required further evaluation at sites in other areas: in Khakasia, the Krasnoyarsk and Khabarovsk Regions and in the Kolskii Peninsula. Attention was also turned to materials in museum collections: the petroglyphs from Lake Onega and slabs from the Arzhan 2 Burial-mound (State Hermitage Museum) etc. These materials are becoming part of the reference collection for traces of tools, with which rock art was made. Field work at sites in a number of regions has made it possible to survey in a focused, purposeful way the whole range of recorded petroglyphs, to resolve a number of technological issues, identify new groups of rock-art images and determine the precise nature of significant details in depictions previously recorded. The results obtained have made it possible to amend certain aspects of established ideas with regard to the absolute and relative chronology of these objects of study and they underline the considerable potential of research into the techniques used for creating petroglyphs, making it imperative for us to seek new angles from which to approach the study of rock art as a historical source.

E.G. Devlet

Digital publication