This stylised image of a deer (cervus elaphus) with swirling antlers was carved on a small vertical rock surface found at Arpauzen, in the Karatau range in southern Kazakhstan. Along with other similar images at Arpauzen, it belongs to the Early Saka period – that is, the Early Iron Age, circa 700 bc.
Hidden amongst the hillsides of Kazakhstan are thousands of rock art images, depicting horses, camels, bulls, deer, shamans, images of buddhas (from much later) and more. The rock art of Kazakhstan consists predominately of petroglyphs, contours of images pecked into the natural rock by striking the surface with another stone or engraved into it with a metal tool to create fine lines.
These stag glyphs were symbols of power, rank and prestige. The same motif has often been found amongst the golden artefacts adorning the once-wealthy occupants of Saka tombs. In one of the kurgans (burial mounds) at Shilikty, in eastern Kazakhstan, small stag figurines were discovered that had been used to decorate the outer garment of a Saka prince. Recent excavations at the Arzhan-2 site in Tuva have also yielded a wealthy chieftain couple decorated with numerous golden objects belonging to Uyuk archaeological culture. The male wore a medium-sized figure of a similarly stylised stag on top of his headdress. Many additional such images are found in Saka and other Iron Age cultures spanning the Eurasian steppes, and are undoubtedly related to ancient religious belief in the totemic power of animals.
Text and Photograph by Kenneth Lymer