‘His soul lies in a gold box hidden in the belly of three small spirit deer.’
Kalbak-Tash Rock Art Sanctuary – Using theatre to interpret ‘narrative composition’ in rock art
Last year I met with Anna Ivanovna, who teaches theatre studies in Barnaul. In the course of showing her the mountains of literature I have collected on rock art in Altai we began discussing the narrative quality of many of the compositions. We agreed it would be interesting to try and act out a rock art composition as a way of attempting to empathize with the images and composition as a whole.
The Kalbak-Tash rock art site in particular reveals many panels of images with narrative content. This year I met her students and introduced them to the theme of rock art in the vicinity of the Kalbak-Tash sanctuary. The Kalbak-Tash sanctuary is situated on the Chui-Oozi Farming & Nature Park and is protected by them. Unfortunately however, due to natural and human caused processes the images here are suffering. Everywhere one may see the cracking and sloughing off of the stone surface which also damages and obscures the images.
Kalbak-Tash is extremely rich in the chronological depth and variety of imagery. Images date from the third millennium BC to the late Turkic period, occurring alone, in unrelated groupings and in large intended compositions. They include easily recognisable animals, particularly deer, cow, dog and goat and human figures, as well as animals of a patently fantastic character, and anthropomorphic forms which may have arisen from religious belief, from myth or epic literature.
We pitched camp a few kilometres from the main site and gradually began taking in the compositions. At first site the images appear to be simple and very similar. One could walk up to a rock, spent a minute or two looking over the figures pecked out on it’s surface and walk away again. But the more one looks, the more detailed and varied one realises the images actually are. They captivate with their mystery and inexplicable details. For example, the photograph opposite (central panel (1)) at first glance looks like yet more primitive images of stick figures, deer and goat all randomly placed. However, as one looks more closely, at the photograph ‘fragment 1’ one might notice a tiny figure lying horizontally at the tip of the ‘goat’s’ horn. And if one were to look again ‘fragment 2’, one might notice that the hind above, the tiny figure and the ‘goat’ below are all connected and linked together, forming one whole image. The front legs of the hind reach the ‘goat’s’ horn, and the right arm of the figure seems to ‘hold on’ to the tip of the ’goat’s’ horn.
The deer in Altai symbolism is commonly acknowledged to be the spirit animal that carries a person’s soul to the heavens after death. That being the case, one might suppose that the deer likewise, brought the soul of a newborn from the heavens down to the earth. With that in mind, one might also consider the tiny figure to be the soul of a newborn, the deer and goat the animal spirits ‘bringing’ the soul from the heavens to the earth for birth. The two figures in erotic posture ‘fragment 3’ begin to make sense as being an integral part of the same composition rather than randomly placed figures. It is possible that the whole composition might illustrate beliefs concerning the process of the soul of a child from the moment of conception.
However, aside from rather simplified explanations of the meaning of individual images, no-one has yet been able to find the key to these ancient sites. They remain a mystery. It was extremely difficult therefore to introduce twenty students to the theme, particularly because their predominant question was: ‘What does this one mean?’ To which the answer is always, ‘I don’t know—but there are various hypothesis…..’. British researcher Richard Bradley, quotes from Ismail Kadare, ‘The Palace of Dreams’ in the foreword to his book on rock art ‘Signing the Landscape’. His quote expresses the dilemma perfectly: You may be wondering how you’ll ever learn to manage the Techniques. Don’t worry, my boy – you will learn and quite quickly too…The work in Interpretation is above all creative. It mustn’t carry the analysis of images and symbols too far. The main thing, as in algebra is to arrive at certain principles. And even they mustn’t be applied too rigidly, or else the true point of the work could be missed. The higher form of interpretation begins where routine ends. What you must concentrate on are permutations and combinations of symbols. One last tip: all the work that’s done here is secret, but Interpretation is top secret. Don’t forget it. And now off you go and start your new job. Ismail Kadare 1981 – The Palace of Dreams
In order to provide the opportunity of looking more closely, the students were asked to choose an image and redraw that image themselves at the site. In redrawing an image one is forced to note every detail. The students then acted out five minute sketches of their chosen image. The process continued by choosing a composition consisting of two elements, redrawing it, and then acting it out in pairs, and finally, by choosing a complex composition and acting it out as a group. Nogon Shumarev, honoured artist of Russia, theatre director and Altai throat singer suggested staging a hunting scene as it is expressed in the rock art, hanging the image itself on white paper at the back of the stage, having the actors mime the scene whilst a fragment involving the hunting theme be read or sung from the Altai epic literature. It would I believe make for an unusual and dramatic production and represent an entirely knew, creative approach to perceiving rock art.
Of all the images at Kalbak-Tash deer (hind, roe-deer and elk) are among the most ancient and most common. They occur individually, in groups and often ‘stacked’ vertically, one above the other. As with so many of the rock art images they include elements of detail that can be difficult to determine the meaning of. For example, deer are often depicted in ‘skeleton’ style where parts of the body are shown in segments or possibly showing bones or ‘empty’ parts such as in the composition above.
In myth, legend and epic poetry deer and elk have great symbolism. There is mention for example of the great white elk, with his mighty power over the other animals and ability to understand human speech. In Kulada, the third and last village in the Karakol valley they tell of the legend of the white spirit deer, guardian of the whole valley. According to another Altai legend, a hunter by the name of ‘Koguldei’ hunted after three deer. The gods punished him for so relentlessly taking more than his share and so the deer rose up into the skies and transformed into the constellation ‘Ooch Meegak’, ‘the three deer’ – Orion, taking the hunter with them. The most interesting fragment concerning the role of deer I have encountered in epic poetry comes from the Altai epic ‘Maadai Kara’. Maadai Kara is a tale about the attack by the khan Kara-Kyla on the old giant warrior Maadai Kara. Kara-Kyla takes his lands and people captive. Maadai Kara’s son, the great warrior Kogudei Mergen outwits Kara-Kula and frees his father, his people, property and lands. Kogudei Mergen disguises himself and goes to visit the seven knowing lamas hoping to discover the means to overcome his enemy Kara-Kyla: I finish with a rough translation by me of the fragment from Maadai Kara: