The Rock Art of the Helan Mountains, Inner Mongolia
Bradshaw Foundation Field Trip
Yinchuan, the provincial capital of Ningxia Autonomous Region, lies in the middle of the Yinchuan or Ningxia Plain. It is sheltered from the deserts of Mongolia by the high ranges of the Helan Mountains to its west. The Yellow River runs through Yinchuan from the southwest to the northeast. The average elevation of Yinchuan is 1,100 meters (about 3,608 feet). The Ningxia Autonomous Region of China lies within the older geographical term of Inner Mongolia. concentration of carvings in the Helan Shan - the Helan Mountains - is found at Helankou, the dramatic gorge cutting north-west through the mountain chain, and this constitutes the Helankou Rock Engravings Park. The Helan Shan has acted as a boundary between the nomadic pastoralists to the north and the sedentary farmers to the south. As such, it has been a meeting place between the two lifestyles, and celebrated by the practice of engraving art in the rocks.
The Yinchuan World Rock Art Museum, barely 2 years old and designed by Chinese architects including Ms. Li, the current Vice-Mayor, sits proudly yet sympathetically at the foot of the Helan Mountains, near Helankou. 'Helankou' refers to the Helan 'Gorge'. engravings have been documented at Helankou. The engravings have clearly been produced over a considerable period of time, somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago.
The engravings depict human figures, animals and symbols. The human figures portray scenes of hunting, herding, sacrificing, battle, dance and procreation. The animal engravings depict tigers, leopards, sika deer, sheep, cattle, horses and camels. The symbols mainly consist of mask like faces , the most conspicuous of which is the Sun God engraving.
The meaning of the engravings, as elsewhere in the world, remains speculative. Many researchers attach shamanic significance to the carvings, whilst others suggest less ëspiritualí meaning.
In Professor Paola Dematti's paper 'Beyond Shamanism: Landscape and Self-Expression in the Petroglyphs of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia', she moves away from interpretations which see rock art as a wholly shamanistic phenomenon, introducing territory and iconography as key elements for the understanding of local geographies, cultural interactions, and the agencies of identity. The location of the sites indicates that petroglyphs were next to travel routes and may have served as territory markers and meeting places. In addition, the scattering of marked rocks in key locations suggests that petroglyphs were markers of identity essential for a people who were engaged in a dialectic contention with the expanding agricultural world.
By chance, I was able to discuss this Professor Dematte, who happened to be visiting Helankou at the time of the Festival. Paola Dematte, Associate Professor at Rhode Island School of Design, had visited the site ten years earlier before the Preservation Park was instigated. Clearly, the cost of any preservation will involve the presence of modern intervention, no matter how subtle, which in a prehistoric setting is lamentable. However, the benefits of preservation far outweigh such modern intrusions. Indeed, in terms of protecting the irreplaceable rock art, as well as exhibiting and explaining it, the Park sets a fine example to other rock art sites of this scale.