On 15 September, although it feels like ages ago already, Asiyat took me and the other Fulbrighters in Kazakhstan to Tamgaly (Тамгалы), a UNESCO World Heritage site about 170km northeast of Almaty in the middle of the Semirechye steppe. Tamgaly is famous for the 4,000-odd petroglyphs etched into dark slate outcroppings. The earliest of the petroglyphs date from the Bronze Age (about 3,000 years ago), when the area was populated by the precursors to the Saka/Scythian people, and the most recent from the 18th or 19th century.
The vast majority of the petroglyphs are of animals – deer, wild bull, horses, wolves and bears – but there are also several humanoid figures. Some of these, those doing things like dancing in groups, hunting and copulating, are clearly meant to be of the creators’ contemporaries; however, there are also a number of larger figures with outsized circles or spirals where their heads would be. These circles are decorated with dots and projecting rays. Although there are plenty of smooth slate surfaces, the petroglyphs tend nonetheless to be concentrated in several areas within Tamgaly and often overlap and “interact,” even though any two figures may have been etched millennia apart. In this respect they remind me of the Chauvet cave drawings in Southern France (as shown and described in the great film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams).
Interestingly, archeologists also found pre-historic graves in Tamgaly, leading them to speculate that this was a sacred site. However, this is (as far as I can tell) about where the good archeology starts and the questionable suppositions begin. According to our guide to Tamgaly, who is herself a historian in the Kazakh national archives: 1, the creators of the petroglyphs worshipped the sun because these etchings are concentrated on those stones that get the most light from the setting sun; 2, the giant circles replacing figures’ heads are suns (and 2a, the figures are gods); and 3, all the animals facing the left (from the viewer’s perspective) were created by left-handed people.
Not that I am by any means an expert either in these petroglyphs or in the pre-historic and early cultures of the Kazakh steppe, but I did not see a great deal of evidence for these claims, especially the last. As far as I was concerned, the “suns” replacing figures’ heads looked much more like flowers. I didn’t contest our guide’s claims, however, and the visit was nonetheless very cool. It also isn’t very well monitored or protected, so we were able to scramble among the rocks and rub the several-thousand-year-old carvings.