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Most rock images belong to periods about which one can say nothing about the language of prehistoric peoples nor their beliefs. On the other hand, sometimes it is possible to identify a cultural context without the reconstruction of the meanings of the separate images. The careful analysis of rock art can enable us to identify ways of life, like hunting and gathering or nomadism, and suggest which elements (for instance what animals) played an important role in the culture of these peoples. Furthermore, it is also possible to approach the question of ethnicity in the interpretations of Central Asian rock art. period.
When we look at the history of this part of Asia we notice that the area within present day Uzbekistan was in constant state of struggle between Turkish and Iranian speaking peoples since time immemorial. This is an important point and can be understood in relationship to the ethnic identity of the ancient peoples inhabiting the area between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya. This ‘polarity’ is also reflected today amongst the Turkish speaking Uzbeks, who reside in the north, while the Iranian speaking Tajiks populate the southern part of Uzbekistan. The latter are the descendants of a very archaic Indo-Iranian heritage which extends back to III and II millennium BC. This was the time when the land of Uzbekistan and adjacent regions were within the migration routes of the Indo-European tribes, who by the end of II millennium BC expanded into India and Iran.
Uzbekistan Rock Art Petroglyphs
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The Indo-Iranians have been the earliest ethnic strata with witch the tradition of rock art could be supposed. From the Indo-Iranian linguistic unity two linguistic branches derived: Old Indian (known as Vedic and appeared in the Indian subcontinent in the second half of the II millennium BC) and Old Iranian. Of course, it is difficult to distinguish if these peoples, who populated the entire of Central Asia, represented a supposed ‘Indo-Iranian unity’ or were divided separately into Indians and Iranians. The analyses of petroglyphs in Sarmish-say Valley in Uzbekistan and Tamgaly in southern Kazakhstan, however, led us to conclude that some important correspondences between rock imagery and Indo- Iranian myths can be discerned. These parallels concern the importance of single motifs, among which the bull plays very significant role, as well as some structural correspondences dealing with symbolic associations between recurrent sets of images and mythical ideas (see additional reading).
Uzbekistan Rock Art Petroglyphs
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Another important feature of prehistoric art in Central Asia is the so-called ‘animal style’, which was connected with the early Iranian nomads described by the Greeks as Scythians and the Persians as Sakas. The distinct characteristics of the animal style were applied in various media, like wood or metal objects (especially gold), as well as in rock art. It testifies, moreover, that Uzbekistan was once within the sphere of their cultural activity; a view supported by historic sources. This was the time when first appeared the rock images of horses and horse riders accompanied by the first metal tools, like swords. Zoomorphic images dominate the animal style, but we also can encounter the representation of human figures as well. Artists represented the images of animals in dynamic poses as if they wanted to catch them in the action of movement. The bodies of animals are often filled with different ornamental designs, and the spiral, for example, appears to have been one of their favourites. Similar motifs can be found in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan but also in more northern parts of Central Asia, southern Siberia (the Altai, Khakassia, Tuva), Mongolia and along the Karakom Highway. The art of the Sako-Scythian nomads take us closer to some aspects of their beliefs. By placing a great deal of emphasis on the wild fauna the art manifests their strong affinity with the natural world. The most important animal was the deer and its image was carved onto countless stones and rocks across Asia. Another specific feature of this art, but not very common, was the intentional superimposition of images which distinguishes it from the earlier art of the Stone or Bronze Ages.
Uzbekistan Rock Art Petroglyphs
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The historic period of Uzbekistan and Central Asia begins in the middle of the first millennium AD. During this time fundamental transformations began which created new conceptualisations of the land that were connected with the appearance of a newly crystallised Turkish culture. The Early Turkic peoples quickly dominated vast areas of Central Asia, and were subsequently incorporated into the tide of Islam. We are not sure how these movements influenced the tradition of image making on stones but it is clear that rock art had changed its character dramatically. Now we find the images of mounted warriors that seem to reflect a time of frequent conflict and the cult of the warrior-hero. From the quantitative point of view the images are less numerous than previous time periods. Islamic ideology of the cult of the one and only god must have influenced the ‘collapse’ of rock art tradition rooted in pre-Islamic beliefs (like the cult of nature, or shamanism). So, does this mean that rock art in Uzbekistan has been predominately produced in prehistoric and early historic periods? As we will see in the next section, newer research has cast new light upon this mystery.
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