Summer 1998 (6.2)
The Ancient Petroglyphs of Gobustan
by Nigar Abbaszade
For more information about Thor Heyerdahl's research on Gobustan, see our feature, "The Azerbaijan Connection" (AI 3.1, Spring 1995). Here, for the first time, Heyerdahl wrote that he suspects that the ancestral people of Scandinavia came from the region now identified as Azerbaijan.
Photo: Carvings of reed boats at Gobustan that attracted Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl to visit the site.
When I was just a kid in high school, our ancient history teacher took us to see the Stone Age petroglyphs at Gobustan. It wasn't far away-only 54 km southwest of Baku. I was amazed by the carvings I saw there-ancient peoples, goats, deer, boats and hunting scenes. The images made a deep impression on me and led me to do historical research about the "Magical Images in Ancient Art in Azerbaijan" for my Bachelor's degree at Baku State University in the Department of Culture and Art.
Discovery of Gobustan
The petroglyphs of Gobustan were not discovered by an archeological expedition. In fact, their revelation came about quite by accident. In the 1930s, work was going on there in a stone quarry. The area is full of huge boulders and rock formations. One of the quarry workers noticed some unusual carvings on the rocks. The more the rocks were cut out, the more the paintings could be seen. (Before they had been hidden from view inside a huge pile of boulders.) Even more paintings were found inside what appeared to be man-made caves. Work at the quarry soon stopped so that the paintings could be examined more carefully.
In 1939, archeologist Isaak Jafarzade began the first archeological investigation of the petroglyphs at Gobustan. Between 1940 to 1965, teams identified and documented approximately 3,500 individual rock paintings on 750 rocks. The most ancient petroglyphs have been identified as belonging to the 12-8th century B.C. However, it is assumed that life existed here even earlier and that Gobustan was one of the cradles of civilization. This research was published in a book entitled "Gobustan" in 1978.
Left: Renowned photojournalist, Reza, on assignment with National Geographic at Gobustan.
Right: Overhanging cliffs at Gobustan.
The drawings depict the life of earlier inhabitants. Stick-like figures show people dancing and hunting as well as men who appear to be shamans which appear side by side with detailed images of animals such as goats, cattle and deer. Some of these animal carvings have round spear-holes on them, as if the people were preparing their hunting strategies. There are also pictures of the clothing that the people wore, and the reed boats they traveled in.
Studying the Site
Actually, it was these petroglyphs of reed boats that attracted Norwegian scholar and explorer Thor Heyerdahl to visit Gobustan. He has come to Azerbaijan twice: once during the Soviet period in 1989 and the second time in 1994, after Azerbaijan gained its independence. What attracted him were the similarities he found with reed boats in cave drawings in Scandinavia. According to Heyerdahl, these drawings "testify to the fact that boats were of extreme importance to early man, as they provided security and transportation millennia before there were roads cut through the wilderness." He noted that the boats drawn at Gobustan featured the sun at the front of the boat, rather than at the back. Heyerdahl theorized as to the likelihood that the ancestors of Scandinavians, including Norwegians like himself, probably originated from the region presently known as Azerbaijan.
A Glimpse of the Past
Archeologists believe that at the time these paintings were made, the living conditions in the Gobustan region were much more favorable, and better for sustaining life. Its climate was much wetter, and the rivers were higher. The landscape was more like a savannah than the semi-desert that exists there now. Recently, this theory was confirmed when oil fields were being developed in the area.
But paintings were not the only evidence of early life found in the caves. Ancient tools, hunting weapons and other artifacts were also discovered at the site. These objects are now on display at the history museum at Gobustan.
See for Yourself
In 1966, Gobustan was designated as a national historical landmark so that the paintings would be preserved. It's possible to visit the site today and see the paintings for yourself. The local museum adjacent to the site houses the ornaments, flints, and primitive tools that were found inside the caves. The museum staff works to preserve the Gobustan site, while keeping it open to the public.
While the Soviets were in power, Gobustan was an important site for tourists from all over the USSR. Many schoolchildren, like myself, had a chance to visit these monuments to ancient civilization.
Naturally, with the added traffic to the site, there's a constant struggle to keep the original petroglyphs intact. Today's Gobustan is less protected from the elements, and the influence of air, wind and rain threatens to damage the paintings. Every year, more stones fall down and more pictures become obliterated.
And, of course, it's amazing how many visitors have the urge to take home a souvenir, or to scratch their own "petroglyphs" on the cave walls. In fact, some of the graffiti provide evidence of early foreign travelers passing through this region. Persian inscriptions indicate that Gobustan was considered unique in the 7th century. Also, there's an inscription left by soldiers of the 12th Roman legion during their stay in the region, during the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus (51-96).
In many respects, the site is still not equipped to handle visitors very effectively. So much still needs to be done-both in research, in displaying the archeological finds and in preserving the site as a unique monument of early human life in the region. Nevertheless, it's well worth the visit.