Tamgaly Petroglyphs: Rituals, Shaman and Nomad’s Treasures

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
August 10, 2023

Tamgaly in Kazakhstan, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, provides evidence of the rich history and diverse cultural heritage of Central Asia. The area has been traversed by countless nomadic societies who made their home on its steppe for millennia. Approximately 5000 rock carvings that date from the Bronze Age to the 20 th century have been found, along with sanctuaries and burial mounds, which have offered unique insight into ancient nomad civilizations .

The History of the Tamgaly Petroglyphs

The black flint outcrops found in the valley of Tamgaly (or Tanbaly) are ideal for carving. Surrounded by the vast, arid Chu-Ili mountains, the valley provides shelter, springs, and rich vegetation in an otherwise desolate steppe, which made it popular with the nomads who visited the area from at least the Late Bronze Age (1500 BC). Among those who travelled across vast areas of Eurasia and viewed the valley as sacred were the Scythians and Sarmatians.

From an exceedingly early date, the valley appears to have been a sacred site as over 48 sanctuaries and burial grounds have been found. Based on the existence of kurgans, or burial mounds, members of the elite chose to be buried there. Numerous ancient tombs include stone enclosures with boxes and cists that date to the middle and late Bronze Age. The kurgans, constructed of stone and earth, date to early Iron Age. One of the kurgans discovered has been linked to the Saka people, a nomad confederation who dominated vast areas of Central Asia and parts of India in the 1st century BC. Like the Scythians, the Saka were ultimately derived from the earlier Andronovo culture.

Saka artifacts found in the tombs of Tillya Tepe and a diagram of their use on the man and woman found in these tombs (PHGCOM / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Saka artifacts found in the tombs of Tillya Tepe and a diagram of their use on the man and woman found in these tombs ( PHGCOM / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The central canyon contains the densest concentration of engravings and what are believed to be altars, possibly used for sacrificial offerings . Why the valley was sacred is unknown as the people who inhabited or visited the valley came from an oral culture. Tamgaly means ‘marked place’ in the local Kazakh language and many tribal ceremonies were likely held in the valley, where shamans would enter trances to commune with the spirit world.

By the 11th century, most of Central Asia was Muslim and the Turkish tribes who dominated the steppe had converted to Islam. The valley remained popular with nomads, who retouched some of the rock art and added their own. Many of them carved their names on the rocks.

Apart from the local population, the site was all but forgotten by the outside world until the late twentieth century when archaeologists began to examine the rock art and remains. Today the petroglyphs and historic sites are part of an archaeological park and a Kazakhstan heritage site.

The Tamgaly Petroglyphs Kazakhstan

Tamgaly is perhaps the most impressive of the 1500 similar sites found in Kazakhstan. The many outcrops and escarpments are packed with imagery and all set in a stunning landscape.

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The ancients Petroglyphs in Tamgaly in Kazakhstan (coob.kz / Adobe Stock)

The ancients Petroglyphs in Tamgaly in Kazakhstan ( coob.kz / Adobe Stock)

The images include scenes of hunting, and falconry, providing insight into the lives of nomadic hunters and ancient pastoralists as the animals drawn include sheep, camels, sheep, cows, and horses. Animals were also thought to represent their gods and the ox represented power. Symbols thought to represent the various tribes have also been found.

Carved onto almost vertical rock faces, petroglyphs also recount the religious life of ancient people, their shamans, as well as rituals and dancing. A series of remarkable images of people with sun-shaped heads are thought to depict sun gods. One part of Tamgaly is known as the Sun Temple by local people, and it is set between high canyon walls. For more than 3000 years, the nomads depicted what they held most precious and often transformed previous images to reflect the changing cultures and new ideals.

Image of a man with a sun-shaped head, petroglyph of Tamgaly (victor21041958 / Adobe Stock)

Image of a man with a sun-shaped head, petroglyph of Tamgaly ( victor21041958 / Adobe Stock)

Unfortunately, some of the rock art has been damaged by visitors and the vibrations caused by Soviet tanks used during military training has also taken its toll.

Visiting Tamgaly in Kazakhstan

The Tamgaly Gorge is 100 miles (160km) to the north-west of Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. There is no public transport to the area, but day trips are organized to the site where signs and a system of arrows guide visitors around. Tamgaly, should not be confused with Tamgaly Tas, a location in Kazakhstan famous for its Buddhist rock art.