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

The Written Landscape

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Iconography and Writing

The rock art of the Yinshan and Helanshan consists mainly of engraved signs (petroglyphs, according to current nomenclature) and only minimally of painted images. One painted grotto, Baijigou, Pingluo county, is known from the Helanshan (Li & Sheng 1994).6 The few painted images share the iconography of engravings, even though the paintings are in sheltered spaces (Li & Sheng 1994). The petroglyphs were created by a variety of methods, from grinding to chiselling to incising. The most common method appears to have been chiselling, but there are clear technical differences in production through time, and these seem to go hand-in-hand with stylistic developments. Techno-stylistic analysis suggests that the largest, more sophisticated, and deeper carvings are the oldest and the ones that required most labour (i.e. Helankou faces attributed to the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, Fig. 11; hunting scenes at Gujingou and Damaidi of the Late Bronze Age, Fig. 13a & Fig. 13b - Fig. 14a & Fig. 14b); while the simplest, roughest and most superficial are more recent and less labour-intensive (Siyanjin schematic quadrupeds probably no more than few centuries old, Fig. 12a & Fig. 12b). These may be stylistic traits, though it is possible that early signs carved superficially may have disappeared.

Since the carving activities spread over large part of available surfaces and in some cases the signs were carved with considerable expenditure of time, physical energy, and intellectual effort, a conscious cultural intention on the part of the makers must be assumed.7 The question of why, under what circumstances, and by whom these signs were carved may be difficult to address, but there is enough evidence to draw some conclusions through an analysis of representational themes and the spatial organization of signs.

The motifs include mostly single animals or hunting and shepherding scenes, and to a lesser degree abstract symbols, face/mask motives, hand-or foot-prints, and animal tracks. These three classes of image are represented at all sites, even though there are variations in terms of ratio of representation among the various sites. For example, face/mask motifs seem to be more common and elaborate at canyon type sites; whereas complex scenes are more prominent at hill sites. This may indicate a more privacy-oriented use of canyon sites, perhaps in association with rituals of ancestor worship (given their more secluded positions), versus a more public and open use of hilltop sites for the recording of the common heritage. There is, however, more consistency than diversity in the iconographic themes across the various sites (and a correlation with the petroglyphs of Mongolia and south Siberia), a fact that points towards a certain cultural unity in the area. Variation in motifs relates also to temporal differences and associated stylistic trends.

The representational emphasis on hunting and shepherding which were central to the life, landscape, and subsistence of these peoples indicates that petroglyphs often focused on daily life events or possibly rituals and stories related to these activities. This realization is not meant to imply that rock art was simply a 'portrayal' of life on the steppe or a passive record of myths and legends, but rather that the subjects and objects of hunting and shepherding, in their different forms and styles, were the symbols by which these people defined themselves, and were used to mark, record and communicate (with a human or supernatural viewer) within their cultural framework. The iconography of the face or mask, which is concentrated in certain areas (Helankou, Ge'er'aobao Gou and Molehetu Gou) but has strong connections with the North and Central Asian tradition, may indicate a stronger concern with ritual activities and/or figures associated with worship. These images could portray deities or religious specialists, but are more likely to be representations of the ancestors. Similar images of ancestors are found in the so-called Turkic tomb stones from Mongolia and south Siberia (Bazin 1990, 52-3), and the tradition of ancestor representation is well established in the same areas through the ongghot figures. In addition to the representational images, there are of course numerous abstract symbols. These are more difficult to interpret but, since they recur with a certain regularity at many sites, they may have some connection with clan or group signs.

While land and place had a paramount importance in these symbolic activities the possibility that these pictures functioned also in roles similar to that of writing in literate societies cannot be overlooked. The populations involved were mostly non-literate, and in societies where writing either did not exist or literacy was not widespread, the role of pictures and symbols in communicating and recording ritual or social matters has always been immense (Bahn & Vertut 1997, 203-10). In the later periods, when writing became more widespread among the nomads (after the development in the sixth-seventh centuries of the Turkic alphabet, cf. Bazin 1990), writing and engravings mixed. Eventually petroglyph production disappeared and writing took over the same surfaces. At Helankou, inscriptions in Xixia script appended next to petroglyphs describe them as 'the parents of writing' or 'the writing of the spirits of writing', thus making clear the close connection perceived by literate people between the two sign systems. A similar pattern of integration between writing and images is documented on Easter Island where petroglyphs share the same surfaces with inscriptions in the rongorongo script (Macri 1996).

The visual connection between rock art signs and writing is also readily apparent, particularly in the earliest (pictographic) forms of writing. Although writing is arranged along different logical and spatial concepts, the stylized and shortened manner used to create early pictographs employs many conventions used in rock art.8 Particularly interesting are figures of horned animals. Both in early writing and in rock engravings they are shortened in the body, but have very detailed antlers or horns, the very elements which afford sign recognition (Smith 1998). Similarly, in both media, complex structures (such as houses or charts) are broken down and re-assembled with component parts. For example, at Damaidi a chariot pulled by two horses is depicted with this distorted symbolic perspective: the horses are shown sideways, the chariot box is seen from above, while the wheels are depicted as seen frontally; exactly as we find in ancient Chinese writing (Fig. 14b & c).

The systematic simplification of images, transforming them into easily recognizable symbols, is evidence that the petroglyphs were also used to record and communicate information, perhaps to later generations, neighbouring groups, or even encroaching enemies. The dissemination of such symbols in space makes the wider landscape a sort of pre-modern bulletin board on which every group gets its message (of ownership, friendship, or antagonism), and the ‘owners’ get specific information or instruction. Similar spatial communication systems are documented among several cultures, from Native North America (Mallery (1972 [1893]), to Siberia where the Yukhagirs used signs as a way to convey information about hunting to related wandering groups (Jochelson 1926). Anna-Leena Siikala (1992, 62) has reported that Finnish rock pictures were painted to be representations of killed animals left on hunting paths for communication. This sort of communication is also not unlike that of literate cultures (ancient or modern) which have covered their land with writings: edicts, historical inscriptions or simply ‘graffiti’ marking gang territories. Among them, the Chinese have excelled, and have succeeded in marking crucial spots of their landscape with texts (and associated images) relating to their cultural identity, from historical records to religious texts, and more recently political propaganda. Thus the northern neighbours of the Chinese, far from being uncouth barbarians, were engaged in similar claiming activities even though they used a semiotic system different from fully developed writing. The carving of these images on the landscape could be seen as an effort to inscribe and take possession of the home territory, and thus define the universe of the social group.

In conclusion, it seems feasible, with existing evidence, to consider more than just the religious and ritual aspects in interpreting rock art, and to extend the research to include the role of landscape, territory and the human and socio-political need to leave signs and make records in spatially significant ways. By this means, the religious aspect is incorporated within concerns relating to the landscape, so as to re-create the cultural and political geography of the by-gone makers.

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