Summary of results following 2014 fieldwork
The rock art: The Project Team has now completed the total survey of all the carved rocks within the study area defined by the natural boundaries of the caldera and its main approaches from the southeast and the northwest. Rock art extends for at least 1 km in both directions from the central part of the study area. A general pattern can be discerned. As the caldera is entered from the steep rocky route leading from the southern approach several richly carved panels appear to herald the presence of rock art perhaps indicating that the caldera was regarded as a ‘special’ place. A succession of highly visible complex panels, many apparently ‘facing’ the ‘Twin Peaks’ on the south-western rim of the caldera, leads the viewer around the edge of massive boulder streams to just north of the permanent glacial lake where the densest concentration of complex panels is to be found. The northern approach is also marked strikingly by an earth-fast boulder with no less than 13 goat motifs pecked into its surface.
Most of the carved rocks are located relatively close to the edges of the boulder streams, but examples can also be found in the most remote and inaccessible places, suggesting that the rock art may have functioned in a number of different ways, for ‘public’ and for ‘private’ purposes for example.
Map of main boulder streams in central part of the study area - red dots are rocks with goat motifs
(See below for map of full study area)
Motifs - goats rule! Of the 977 rocks recorded images of goats consistently predominate among the figurative motifs, appearing on a total of 515 rocks and representing 65.3% of all identifiable figurative motifs. Humans, some with enormous hands, are the next highest in number, appearing on 166 rocks (16.3% of figurative motifs). Felines feature on 74 rocks (6.7%), while zigzags or snakes appear on 42 rocks, making up 3.5% of the figurative motifs. Other animals including stags, bulls and canines are less frequently depicted. There are also many enigmatic abstract motifs, perhaps holding meaning for only a minority of participants, practitioners and viewers of the rock art.
It has long been recognised that goats play a dominant role in Armenian rock art but the quantitative survey at Ughtasar has enabled the research team to demonstrate that goats, assumed from their massively exaggerated horns to be both wild and male account for almost two-thirds of all figurative motifs.
The collected data, together with other characteristics of the ‘art’, make it possible to use models such as that of Layton (2000) and others (Sauvet et al, 2009) to assign the character of the rock art to such categories as ‘totemic’, ‘shamanic’ or ‘secular’. In this context Ughtasar appears to match Layton’s criteria for a ‘shamanic’ site: goats appear at least twice as frequently as the mean for the remaining figurative motifs. The distribution map also indicates that they are distributed with similar frequency across the area surveyed so far.
Perhaps goats acted as ‘spirit guardians’ or vehicles for spiritual activity of various kinds. Analogous accounts of animals thought to have acted as ‘spirit helpers’, such as the eland in southern African rock paintings or the bighorn sheep on petroglyphs in the Cosos Mountain Range of California have also been interpreted as ‘shamanistic’ in character (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 2000; Whitley, 2011). Research is ongoing into the intriguing question of why goats were so important for those who created the rock art of Armenia and western and Central Asia.
Themes and scenes: Various themes or ‘scenes’ depicted on the rocks include ‘hunting’ with bows and arrows; ‘dancing’; ‘twins’ apparently ‘fighting’ or ‘measuring up’ to each other, perhaps to exhibit athletic prowess; ‘masters or mistresses of animals’, perhaps ‘controlling’ them with staffs; humans intimately connected with goats (sometimes physically attached); and more rarely ‘transformation’ scenes, depicting for example a goat apparently ‘morphing’ into a wheeled vehicle. The themes depicted at Ughtasar tend to support the hypothesis that some of the rock art may have originated and functioned in the context of shamanistic activity as suggested above.
However the ‘meaning’ of the rock art remains almost as elusive as ever. The carvings no doubt held many different and complex ‘meanings’ for different people at different times. For example some of the ‘compositions’ may have been linked with narrative, memory or myth; others may have functioned within the context of ceremonies or events connected with rites of passage, such as initiation or the safe passage of the dead to the ‘other’ world. It is possible that the act of pecking the figures into the surface of the rock may have been just as important as the resulting images. What may be safely inferred is that relationships between humans and animals played an important part in the minds of those who created and viewed the rock art..
Petroglyphs in relation to the ‘micro-topography’ of the rock: The ‘micro-topography’ of the rock (including striations, natural cracks, fissures and changes in the surface texture from rough to smooth) appears to have been used deliberately as part of the 'design' on certain carved rocks, For example, Rock 646 (right) shows how the ‘artist’ used a natural ridge to enhance and exaggerate one of the goats’ already elongated horns. On another rock (214, left) a metre-long pecked line extends from a complex motif depicted on a smooth reflective surface before crossing a rough and lumpy area to culminate in the figure of a goat. Such deliberate use of natural features brings to mind the hypothesis of Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams (1998) that many of the creators of rock art, world-wide, may have perceived the surface of the rock as a veil or membrane which formed an interface with the world of the spirits and the supernatural.
Rock art at risk: Many of the carved rocks in the area surveyed so far are in poor condition, some having deteriorated so badly that nearly all the carved surface has flaked off, leaving only meagre traces of the petroglyphs. Unfortunately it is unlikely that anything can be done to prevent further deterioration from natural causes (principally repeated freeze and thaw in the harsh upland climate), highlighting the urgent need to document the rock art for posterity as soon and as comprehensively as possible.
Experience has shown that even walking lightly across friable rock surfaces (with or without carvings) can cause the outer ‘skin’ to crack and break away from the body of the rock. As a result the utmost care must be taken by all recorders and visitors when moving around the rocks. To reduce the risk the project team has drafted a brief list of notes that will help tour guides and visitors to avoid damaging the rock art figures or the fragile ecosystem of the caldera as a whole.
Map of study area showing locations of recorded rocks
Clottes, J. & Lewis-Williams, D. 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory, Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry N. Abrams
Layton, R. 2000. Shamanism, totemism and rock art: les chamanes de la préhistoire in the context of rock art research, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:1, 169-186
Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. 2000. Images of Power, Understanding San Rock Art. Cape Town: Struik Publishers
Sauvet,G., Layton,R., Lenssen-Erz,T., Taçon,P. & Wlodarczyk, A. 2009. Thinking with Animals in Upper Palaeolithic Rock Art, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19:3, 319-36
Whitley, D.S. 2011 (2nd Revised edition). Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press
Ughtasar Rock Art Project