Elusive 4,000-year-old petrographs found in Russia

Archaeologists have finally tracked down prehistoric petrographs that were rumored to exist in a remote area of southeastern Russia. Locals have long whispered of ancient rock art in the craggy mountains of the Shilka River basin in the Transbaikal region, but nobody knew the exact location. Local legend has it that the petrographs were first discovered by a hunter many a years ago. He left his hometown and was never heard from again. More recently, a teacher from a village on the Shilka River was reputed to have taken her students to see the rock art in the 1990s. She died before archaeologists began looking.

In 2013, a team of archaeologists from Novosibirsk State University and the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography decided to explore the mountainous region in search of the petrographs. Local man Evgeny Karelin served as a guide to the area even though he didn’t know where the rock art was either. Then the archaeologists, led by associate professor Sergey Alkin, searched until they found the petrographs on a craggy rock face overlooking the Largi River at the end of summer.

It was truly a last-minute find. The field season was coming to a rapid close so the archaeologists only had one hour to study the rock art. They returned the next year and again in 2015, thoroughly examining and documenting the petrographs. They made a complete copy of all the art work and took samples of the pigment.

Now that they’ve found it, archaeologists are not disappointed. It’s quite a large piece with multiple figures painted on the rocky surface with red and ochre pigments. The condition is excellent, thanks in part to its remote location keeping people from messing with it. Other petrographs found in the area are much smaller and more worn. There are more than 20 elements, most of them human figures, plus an animal with hoofs, a tree, what may be birds and geometric shapes.

“Of course, interpretation of the images is disputable. Some elements can be explained only through archaeological and ethnographic analogues. Even the human figures can be interpreted as hunters, spirits or somebody else. For instance, one figure has a circle nearby, which should be a solar sign. With a cross inside, this circle is likely to represent a shaman’s drum, which is typical for many Siberian cultures. Thus, we may assume that this figure shows a shaman with a drum.”

[Sergey Alkin] is quite sure about distinguishing a hoofed animal, presumably a bull. Other distinct elements show some birds. Bird images are typical for other known petrographs in Transbaikalia. An important part of the Largi petrograph is numerous points and lines. “Such points can be interpreted as a symbol of counting with the painter fixing the number of some objects (say, cattle). As for the vertical lines above a horizontal one, this could be a long boat with people sitting in it. Archaeologists often identify similar images from other regions in such a way; however, in Eastern Transbaikalia it is the only known image of this type,” says the scientist.

While other petrographs in the region often are accompanied by ledges underneath the drawings that bear artifacts — tools, arrowheads — which archaeologists believe were part of a ritual sacrifice, there is no ledge here, and no evidence of religious activity. A nearby site at the mouth of the Largi river which was used by hunters and fisherman in the Bronze Age has a large number of pottery fragments and ceramic vessels. The team hopes to do more comparative studies to see if there may be a link between the new find at the site at the mouth of the river.

Comparison with other rock art in the Eastern Transbaikal and Yakutia regions indicates the petrographs were made about 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. Now the team will study samples and the detailed copy to learn more about the imagery and arrangement of the figures. They deliberately kept the discovery to themselves to ensure they had all the time they needed to make the copy and to keep the site free of interference from tourists and other researchers. They won’t be releasing the exact location of find site to the public anytime soon and it’s enough of a challenge to get there that archaeologists think the rock art will remain pristine.


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Comment by Pieter Shvarts Esquire
2016-06-20 05:37:12

Ages ago, I was led to believe that ‘Father Christmas’ would reside in the North Pole, while it now turns out that he actually came from Siberia – or at least had a refuge there during the Bronze Age. The last petroglyph, however, clearly shows a plantation of Christmas trees, i.e. an early form of agriculture, supervised by Santa on the right and a reindeer behind him.

Easily visible is the Christmas tree connection in addition when you compare the Siberian languages to the Inuit ones.

The expression, for example, for ‘Tree‘ – in – Aleut, Proto-Eskimo, Sirenik, Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Yup’ik, Seward Inupiaq, Qawiaraq, Malimiutun, North Slope, Uummarmiutun, Siglitun, Inuinnaqtun, Natsilik, Kivalliq, Aivilik, North Baffin, South Baffin, Nunavik, Labrador Inuttut, North Greenlandic, West Greenlandic and -last but not least- East Greenlandic

is remarkably:

-, *napar- , napax, napartuq, napaq, napa, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtuq, napaaqtiq, napaattuq, napaattuk, napaaqtuq (uqpik), napaartoq (urpik) and of course napaartuq (urpik).

Comment by livius drusus
2016-06-20 11:40:20

Wow, that is uncanny. It really does look like a Christmas tree farm. :giggle:

Comment by Clay
2016-06-20 10:21:31

Interesting story, thanks!

One point, though. I don’t think these images would be called petroglyphs. In the U.S., at least, that term describes rock art engraved into a surface by mechanical means. The rock art shown here would be called pictographs, because it consists of pigment applied to a rock surface.

Maybe it’s different in Russia, I don’t know. Students of rock art are notorious for coming up with their own terminology.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-06-20 11:38:48

Excellent correction, Clay, thank you. I suspect it’s a translation glitch from the Russian. I’ve replaced all glyphs with graphs in the post. :thanks:

Comment by karlsdottir
2016-06-20 10:56:58

Perfect story for the solstice, with a likely sun symbol.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-06-20 11:39:20

I didn’t even think of that! Cool. :boogie:

Comment by drive-by music guy
2016-06-20 11:42:18


From 1921 to 1990 petroglyphs were known as leninglyphs.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-06-20 11:47:28

:lol: He’ll be here all week, folks. Don’t forget to tip your server.

Comment by Pieter Shvarts Esquire
2016-06-20 11:55:50

Why not call them “petropicts” ? :p

πέτρα (pétra) = rock
γλύφω (glúphō) = I carve, cut out with a knife


(in Latin) pictus, pingere = painted, to paint
γράφω (graphō) = I write, scratch, graze


‘Hieroglyphs’ (i.e. ‘holy glyphs’) are also -at least not necessarily- always “cut” into rock. A lot of them were also ‘painted’ onto papyrus.

I am afraid, neither ‘pictographs’ nor ‘petroglyphs’ would solve Clay’s rocky carving problem, but ‘petroglyphs’ seem definitely rockier than ‘pictographs’.

Comment by dearieme
2016-06-20 13:39:49

I did enjoy “in Eastern Transbaikalia”.

Comment by Pieter Shvarts Esquire
2016-06-21 03:31:09

Just in case Father Christmas is NOT involved here, what those Siberian Bronze Agers actually could have wanted to express, might have been a massive infestation of bark beetles (hence, the ‘Christmas tree plantation’). That ‘shaman drum’, therefore, could in fact be a bark beetle: “Trespassing beyond this point is prohibited for bark beetles !”

The Russian expression for “fir tree” is пихта (pichta), which actually is not too far away from e.g. Greenlandic “urpik”. Pinus rigida (the pitch pine) is in Finnish referred to as “Pikimänty”. The “beetle”, however, is in the Eskimo–Aleut languages referred to as “kitux̂, kúmex or (in Greenlandic) kumak, while in Finnish it is known as ‘Kovakuoriaiset’ and in Russian as ‘жук’ (zhuk).

I’ll cut it out now, as I might get scared here about my own wild theories :lol:

Comment by Clay
2016-06-21 10:35:25

I’m in awe of your joke. Good work!

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