Gobustan: Mankind’s Memory, Written in Stone
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
BAKU, Azerbaijan — It has been said that what Genesis is to the Biblical account of the fall and redemption of mankind, early rock art is to the history of his intelligence, imagination and creative power.
These primitive but extraordinary carvings and paintings gave birth to human capability with the formation of images and symbols that allowed early man to fix the world of his experience, rendering the continuous processes of life into discrete and unmoving shapes that had both identity and meaning.
Paleolithic man reproduced his interpretation of the plants, animals and people who populated his primordial world, and his faculty for imagination came into being along with the early concepts of human expression.
In those remote times during the last advance and retreat of the great glaciers, man made the critical breakthrough and became wholly human.
Remnants of one of the most ancient of all known human cultures is located in Azerbaijan, where the spurs of the Great Caucasus Range descend into the sea along the Jeyrankechmaz River, just 40 miles southwest of the country’s capital Baku.
A now-abandoned, sun-baked chasm, Gobustan – which literally means “Land of Ravines” — holds one of mankind’s greatest archeological treasures, amassing more than 6,000 stunning rock engravings dating from between 10,000 and 3,000 B.C.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 (41 years after the Azerbaijani government proclaimed it a national protected reserve), Gobustan is a tangible testimony of early man’s history and experiences, frozen in stone as an immortal memorial of his first step toward civilization.
First discovered in the early 1930s by a group of local stone quarry workers, the carvings were not seriously studied until 1939, when an Azerbaijani archeologist and ethnographer by the name of Isaak Jafarzade began investigating the unusual petroglyphs at Gobustan.
During the 25 years he spent exploring the area, Jafarzade found about 4,000 petroglyphs on 700 rock faces of the Beyukdash and Kichikdash Mountains.
As a result of Jafarzade’s diligent efforts and a series of subsequent archeological excavations, more than 105,000 artifacts of primitive material culture were also found.
The graceful pictorial bodies have an elastic strength and fluidity that one expects to find only in the art of far later times.
In some of the glyphs, there are scenes of dancing and hunting parties, as well as men who appear to be shamans side-by-side with detailed images of goats, cattle, deer, reptiles and even insects.
Some of these animal carvings have round spear holes on them, as if the people were preparing their hunting strategies.
Oddly, the main animals represented in Gobustan’s rock art are bovines and equines.
This fact contrasts dramatically with the faunal collections from local archaeological excavations: 98 percent of all bones found in the Stone Age levels of the region are from gazelles and koulans.
But images of gazelles and koulans are almost nonexistent in the zoomorphic iconography of Gobustan rock art.
This evidence would suggest that the carved images do not represent animals that had a fundamental dietetic value, but instead were symbols of totemic animals.
This rock art, carved and scratched into the crevices and bowels of the somber landscape of near-desert conditions, must have had some profound magical functions.
It would seem to be no coincidence that the miracle of mankind’s early abstraction – the creation of image and symbol – should have taken place in a barren and awe-inspiring setting of majestic beauty.
Indeed, the desolate landscape that surrounds Gobustan is a haunting example of nature’s eternal resilience.
There are also carvings in Gobustan of the clothing that the people wore, and the reed boats they traveled in.
The men in the petroglyphs wear loin-cloths and have robust, powerful legs, befitting a hunting society.
The women have exaggerated breasts and hips, symbolic of procreation.
There are also representations of cult ceremonies.
In one stone carving, there is a group dance performed in a circle with the figures joined at shoulder level.
In another, a series of men are lined up in an organized diagonal pattern as if they were preparing to go on a hunt.
But most of the petroglyphs at Gobustan are abstract and schematic, more symbol than picture.
Even when the figures are in themselves marvelous approximations of optical fact, their arrangement upon the rock walls shows little concern for any consistency of placement, and there is no notion of separation and enframement.
Figures, far from being proportionally related, are often superimposed at random and are of quite different sizes.
In fact, a lot of Gobustan’s petroglyphs are larger than life.
The length of several of the oxen is over two meters; that of a fish in Gaalti is 4.3 meters.
An image of a fisherman at Shikhov is almost 4.3 meters long.
Some archeologists have suggested that the oversized figures were a way to ensure the survival of the spirits of the people or animals they represented.
Others believe that the works were simply a primitive form of graffiti, early man’s way of saying “I was here.”
And still others suggest the carvings were a means of marking tribal territory.
The true history of Gobustan and its astonishing petroglyphs may never be fully understood, but whatever the early inhabitants of the place intended to accomplish with their pictorial carvings, their open-air art gallery created an immortal monument to one of Stone Age man’s greatest achievements, the invention of representation.