Koksu River Valley Rock Art Survey

Rock art is widely distributed in the Koksu River Valley and the surrounding mountains and canyons. It is found in all elevation ranges, either in proximity to other feature classes such as burials or settlements, and sometimes without associated contexts. Naturally, the occurrence of rock-art is dependent on the existence of suitable rock surfaces, which means that rock-art is also found on the cliffs and crags of steep ravines, which are difficult to access. Though over 30 new rock-art groups were recorded within the survey, a detailed study of the imagery of these panels has not yet been completed. However, rock-art in the Koksu River Valley has been extensively studied in terms of chronological associations, and stylistic taxonomy so that we can make some conclusions about the role of rock-art in social life during the Bronze Age and later periods.

Rock Art Survey:
Rock-art in the Koksu River Valley represents a historically continuous form of social engagement with the landscape from the Bronze Age to contemporary times.  In fact, nearly all rock-art panels in the valley contain motifs contributed over the last 4000 years – many of which superimpose one another, illustrating the reuse and re-visitation of rock-art locales as part of the historical nature of the social landscape.  In addition to highlighting those places in the landscape that represented arenas for communication or ritual expression, certain types of rock art can be interpreted as markers used to designate boundaries or relationships translated from the social landscape to the geographic one. 

Examples of these types of rock-art include motifs placed in association with settlements or burials, or individual boulders carved with cup-stones placed in, or selected for, their unique location in the landscape. The effect of marking the landscape is not restricted to rock-art. Carved or stacked stele located at the tops of prominent mountains, or along common-tread pathways, also likely served to designate territoriality and to facilitate communication between transient populations. 

The typology and chronology of the rock-art of Semirech’ye and the Koksu valley is discussed in detail in a number of publications by Mar’yashev and Goryachev.   According to their research, and considering the additional panels recorded within the scope of the current study, Bronze Age rock-art motifs in the Koksu valley typically depict wild animals such as deer, mountain goats, and saiga (Eurasian mountain caprids), as well as domestic animals like horses, bulls, and dogs.  According to the Bronze Age typology, these animals are stylistically depicted with large block bodies, and smaller extremities.  Occasionally, Bronze Age animal depictions are also carved using a graffiti style, where only the outline of the image is incised into the rock.  Bronze Age motifs of human figures and block style animals have been recovered on rocks extracted from radiocarbon dated archaeological contexts at the site of Tamgaly in Southeastern Kazakhstan.  These images are common to the rock art found in the Koksu valley, and date to between 1220-900 calBC, which helps to justify the stylistic chronology within the late Bronze Age to some degree. 

In addition to animals, Bronze Age rock-art is also defined by various human figures. The most ubiquitous human motifs are simple stick figures, depicting group activities or engaged in interactions such as warring or group hunting with bow and arrow.  In addition to quotidian human forms, there is also a well-developed typology of deistic figures – known as “sun-head” deities.  These figures are known throughout the Semirech’ye region, most notably at Tamgaly (Click HERE to see Gigapan images of the Tamgaly rock art) and from rock art sites throughout the wider region such as Saimaly-tash in Kyrgyzstan.  “Sun-head” motifs are also well known in the shamanistic imagery of the Altai mountains and southern Siberia.  The identifiable chords and hanging elements of the costumes of Bronze Age sun-head images in the Dzhungar mountains, such as at Eshkiolmes and Byan-Zherek have been convincingly associated with Eurasian shaman costumes of the Altai, suggesting that shamanism also played a role in the ritual and ideological practices of Bronze Age peoples in the Koksu valley. This interpretation is supported by the frequent association between shaman-like figures and wild animals, indicating that animal veneration or totemism was also a part of the social and political organization of societies in the Koksu valley.

Another notable motif that is prevalent in the Koksu valley rock-art is the chariot.  Chariots are common throughout the panels at Eshkiolmes, as well as in the Terekty gorge.  Chariots are interpreted here as a sign of status, or political position, perhaps associated with distant alliances or political ties.   No material evidence of chariots has been found in the Koksu valley, though they are well known from burial contexts in the Trans-Urals region.  Similar images of chariots have, in rare cases, been used to decorate Late Bronze Age ceramic vessels, such as that found at Sykhaya Saratovka, in the Volga region.  Thus, imagery of chariots may have been used for an associative effect, to illustrate the wider geographic links that local populations had developed during the Late Bronze Age.

Iron Age rock-art is dated by association with a well-studied stylistic phenomenon that pervades steppe art during the second half of the 1st millennium BC – the “animal style”.  Formal similarities between metal artifacts excavated from Iron Age contexts of Semirech’ye and rock-art imagery has provided archaeologists with a basis for the chronology of specific motifs of Iron Age rock-art.   Later rock-art motifs are dated by association with depictions of artifacts such as riding banners, which were widely used from at least the 7th c. AD and later periods by bands of Turkic and Mongolian steppe nomads.


Discovery Highlights:

Bronze Age rock-art motifs in the Koksu valley typically depict wild animals such as deer, mountain goats, and saiga (Eurasian mountain caprids), as well as domestic animals like horses, bulls, and dogs. According to the Bronze Age typology, these animals are stylistically depicted with large block bodies, and smaller extremities.  Occasionally, Bronze Age animal depictions are also carved using a graffiti style, where only the outline of the image is incised into the rock.


Bronze Age motifs of human figures and block style animals have been recovered on rocks extracted from radiocarbon dated archaeological contexts at the site of Tamgaly in Southeastern Kazakhstan.  These images are common to the rock art found in the Koksu valley, and date to between 1220-900 calBC, which helps to justify the stylistic chronology within the late Bronze Age to some degree. 

In addition to animals, Bronze Age rock-art is also defined by various human figures. The most ubiquitous human motifs are simple stick figures, depicting group activities or engaged in interactions such as warring or group hunting with bow and arrow.  There is also a well-developed typology of deistic figures – known as “sun-head” deities.  These figures are known throughout the Semirech’ye region, most notably at Tamgaly and from rock art sites throughout the wider region.

Another motif prevalent in the Koksu valley rock-art is the chariot.  Chariots are common throughout the panels at Eshkiolmes, as well as in the Terekty gorge.  Chariots are interpreted here as a sign of status, or political position, perhaps associated with distant alliances or political ties.  No material evidence of chariots has been found in the Koksu valley, though they are well known from burial contexts in the Trans-Urals region.