The Rock Art of Inner Mongolia & Ningxia (China) by Paola Demattè

Inner Mongolia & Ningxia Rock Art Sites

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Ningxia (Helanshan)

Shizuishan City

The Heishimao site is in northern Ningxia (Fig. 8:6). The area is mountainous, but only the Heishimao hill is dotted by stones with a dark and shiny desert patina suitable for petroglyph carving. The engravings are concentrated at the summit, and consist mainly of single pictures of animals (mountain goats and deer) (Fig. 9). The petroglyphs are difficult to see because weathering has cloaked the incisions with a dark patina similar to the stone surface. This may indicate an early age for the signs, even though their fading could be due to the superficiality of their incision.

Pingluo County

Daxifeng Gou (or Xifan Kou) is a medium size canyon in the southernmost part of Pingluo county (Fig. 8:10). Within the Daxifeng Gou canyon there are some eight rock-engraving locations. Petroglyphs are carved on both walls of the canyon, but are more numerous on the northern side (facing south). Prominent motifs include faces, people, animals, and battle scenes (Xu Cheng & Wei Zhong 1993, 51-66).

china rock art petroglyphs
Figure 10
Tiger petroglyph from Daxifeng Gou
One location about 5 km from the canyon mouth consists of a series of carvings on a horizontal slab a few metres above the bottom of the gorge. The slab is not very large, but the theme of the carvings is of great interest since it represents tigers (a rarely represented animal) in a style resembling that of the third- to fourth-century BC Ordos bronzes of northern nomadic and semi-nomadic origin (Fig. 10; cf. So & Bunker 1995, 111 fig. 26, 116 fig. 30.2). According to archaeological reports, about 10 km along the canyon there are the remains of a Xixia citadel (huangcheng), a sign that the canyon was a routeway of military importance in historic times.

Helan County

china rock art petroglyphs
Figure 11
Mask motifs at Helankou
Helankou is a gorge in the central Helanshan, western Helan county (Fig. 11). Petroglyphs are concentrated on the cliff sides and on a steep wall near the entrance to the gorge proper. Further up the canyon there are additional engravings, as well as other archaeological remains (the ruins of a Xixia palace). The petroglyphs include elaborate faces or masks, animals, and a few inscriptions in Xixia script which make Buddhist references (Xu Cheng & Wei Zhong 1993, 75, 83, 85). The differential weathering of the engravings indicates that petroglyphs were produced over time. The typical motif of Helankou is the face or mask, a feature which connects this site with the tradition of faces/masks from Yinshan (Ge'er'aobao Gou and Molehetu Gou) and North and Central Asia (Hoppál 1992, 132-49, figs. 13-18; Martynov 1991; Francfort 1998 fig. 17.9) (Fig. 11). Another important theme is Buddhism. In addition to the inscriptions, some of the later images may also be connected with this religion, as the surrounding area was already by the tenth century home to the Baisikou Twin Pagodas Buddhist temple.

Qingtongxia City

The area of Siyanjin (literally 'Four Wells') is a stony and undulating desert at the southwestern edge of the Helanshan. Portions of the Ming period Great Wall are visible at various points, as are shrines dedicated to folk deities and springs (Fig. 8:10). There are several petroglyph concentrations in this desert territory. Three deserve attention: (A) a hill at the beginning of the gorge area; (B) a hill further up the main gorge; and (C) a slab at the bottom of the mouth of a small side gorge. Location A includes mostly images of animals (horses, camels and goats) in abbreviated style and some apparently abstract symbols (circles, stars, squares) (Fig. 12a). Location B has a higher concentration of bird figures and abstract symbols (Fig. 12b). The styles of the carving at these two locations appear to be very similar: both are characterized by rough carving and unsophisticated imagery. Location C stands out in terms of style and imagery: a large animal (possibly a carnivore) with two herbivores in its stomach (Fig. 12c) is apparently attacked by a small human. Whether the images were carved together or are the result of a palimpsest it is unclear; however, the custom of portraying the inside of an animal (the so-called X-ray style) is not uncommon in much prehistoric art. At this location, the carvings are deeper, thinner, more regular, and apparently older than at locations A and B, but some signs appear to have been re-carved.


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