Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2002 (10.3)
Pages 28-31

Cart Ruts and Stone Circles
Key Evidence from the Past Is Endangered
by Abbas Islamov and Ronnie Gallagher

If care isn't taken to preserve these megalithic monuments today, thousands of years of history will be erased from the face of the earth. It will be irreparable loss, not only to Azerbaijanis but to world knowledge about how early man lived in this region.

Archeological evidence confirms that human beings have lived in Azerbaijan since very ancient times. Take, for instance, the 10,000-year-old petroglyphs found southwest of Baku in the Gobustan Reserve, which show prehistoric people, animals, hunting scenes and reed boats. When Norwegian anthropologist and archeologist Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) traveled specifically to Azerbaijan to examine these petroglyphs, he became even more convinced that ancient peoples had closer contact with each other than modern historians acknowledge.

While Gobustan's petroglyphs have been designated as a national historical landmark since 1966, many of Azerbaijan's not-so-well-known ancient monuments do not enjoy any form of official protection. Even though sites containing cart ruts, stone circles and burial mounds also provide important evidence of ancient civilization, they are seriously being threatened by privatization and the resulting building construction, urban development, quarrying, vandalism and agricultural practices. Amateur archeologists Abbas Islamov and Ronnie Gallagher spend many of their weekends going out to various locations in the Gobustan region and Absheron Peninsula, tromping through fields looking for evidence of early man. Their efforts have not been in vain: lying just on the surface of the land is quite extensive evidence of the megalithic period.

Both Abbas and Ronnie are "amateurs" in the most basic sense of the word-that is, in its derivation from "amator", the French word for "lover". Both are true devotees, driven by sheer passion to identify and preserve these ancient sites. Abbas' fascination with Azerbaijan's archeology was sparked in 1982, when, as a zoologist, he was assigned to an epidemiology team that scoured the terrain of the Absheron Peninsula and mapped out gerbil burrows in order to prevent bubonic plague. At that time, he came across a series of curious channels carved into the bedrock, appearing much like a roadway.

"I could tell that this was something really ancient," Abbas said. "But when I approached the Academy of Science suggesting that they investigate the site, they showed no interest. Nearly 20 years later in the summer of 2001, a Russian television program showed a documentary about a phenomenon they called 'cart ruts', which have existed in Greece since ancient times. "That's when I remembered the similar tracks in Azerbaijan. I tried to remember where the site was so that I could go back and take a closer look." Abbas recently participated in BP's archaeological baseline survey in relationship to the upcoming construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. As BP's Environmental Manager in Baku, Ronnie Gallagher also shares Abbas' passion in finding ancient constructions in the region. During the survey, a number of caves, petroglyphs and chambered cairns were discovered near the Sangachal Oil Terminal.

Here, Abbas and Ronnie describe these ancient momentos of the past, which still lie buried in the present, and warn of the impending danger that they are likely to be completely erased from mankind's knowledge if steps are not taken immediately to preserve them.

During the past year, the two of us have had a great time exploring Azerbaijan's ancient coastlines and interior in what has now become a weekend hobby. We've found some fascinating archaeological sites, including cart ruts, stone circles with petroglyphs and graves from many different eras. We think we've only scratched the surface in terms of what is really out there.

A major story remains to be told about Azerbaijan's ancient history. Although a considerable amount of archeological data has been collected, knowledge of the Stone and Bronze Age is still very limited. This may be due in part to the nomadic lifestyle that ancient people led and the relative lack of prominent ancient monuments to study. Later periods, such as the Middle Ages, witnessed the rise and fall of empires and the construction of castles, fortresses and defensive walls.

Left:Cart ruts found in Azerbaijan on the Absheron Peninsula which are remarkably like those on Malta. They are endangered of being destroyed by nearby quarry operation.

Right: A portion of a stone circle near the town of Mardakan on the Absheron Peninsula. Note how close the newly built summer homes are located. Orange-colored, slow-growing lichen on the surface of the stones indicates that they are very old. On the inner circle of these stones, petroglyphs of rams can be found.

Cart Ruts

Some of the most mysterious and puzzling ancient monuments found in Azerbaijan are cart ruts - that is, parallel grooves or channels carved directly into the rock, looking much like an ancient roadway. They're such an enigma. One can't help but wonder what purpose they served. How were they cut out of the surface of the rock? When? Why? No one knows for sure, and there seems to be very little evidence available to make any sort of judgment.

Left: One of the megalithic archeological monuments that lie unprotected and virtually unknown and unacknowledged, not far from the Sangachal region near the Gobustan Reserve.

In Azerbaijan, these cart ruts vary in depth from about 5 to 50 cm. The depth of each rut depends on the relief of the rocky surface. Two or three ruts (or, in one case, as many as five) run in parallel to each other, generally about 1.5 meters apart. The ruts are clearly manmade. Sometimes they extend for up to 100 meters; however, we don't know which portion of the cart ruts we're looking at, whether it's the beginning, middle or end. Perhaps these tracks even continue down into the Caspian Sea.

Surprisingly, similar cart ruts have been found in the Mediterranean region, in places like Malta, Greece, Italy and southern France. They are particularly well developed at Pompeii and in Malta, where they have become tourist attractions. Archeologists hypothesize that the cart ruts date back to the Neolithic Age (10,000­8,000 B.C.) or Early Bronze Age (5000­4000 B.C.) and reflect a high level of human activity in those regions. These ruts may even predate the invention of the wheel. Some archeologists suspect that by the time of the Roman Empire, these cart ruts had already fallen out of use. One popular hypothesis is that the cart ruts were used specifically to transport limestone blocks. The base of the rut may have been lubricated, enabling a sledge to be dragged from a quarry to a building site.

Left: Examples of cart ruts and stone circles in Malta.

In comparison with the European cart ruts, the cart ruts found on Azerbaijan's Absheron Peninsula seem to be much better preserved - at least, up until now. Due to the peninsula's geography and climactic conditions, such as the perpetual sea breeze, they have been protected by a thin layer of soil.

In order to learn more about the Absheron cart ruts, we contacted Dr. Joseph Magro Conti, who confirmed that they are basically unknown outside of the Mediterranean region. Finding them here in Azerbaijan is highly significant and clearly begs an explanation. While the importance of the cart rut site in Absheron has yet to be realized, we would not be surprised if it eventually becomes a national treasure and tourist attraction and perhaps even becomes registered with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

For that to happen, however, the cart ruts must remain intact. A nearby surface quarry has been steadily encroaching on this area, cutting out limestone blocks for building construction at an alarming rate. Fortunately, after becoming aware of the impending danger to these ancient monuments, Husein Baghirov, Azerbaijan's Minister of the Environment and Resources, intervened and directed the Ministry's department responsible for Nature Use Regulation to stop the quarry's activity near the ancient site. Otherwise, within a very short period of time, uncontrolled quarrying would have destroyed the last few remaining cart ruts in this part of the world.

Stone Circles
Cart ruts are not the only ancient monuments currently being threatened in Azerbaijan. There are also some ancient stone circles and burial mounds that are endangered. Near the village of Mardakan, which is also on the Absheron Peninsula, there are some fascinating stone formations. At one site, the circle is attached to several foundations consisting of smaller square and rectangular rooms. These stone circles typically have a diameter of approximately 35m and stand about a meter high. If you examine the boulders closely, you can find petroglyphs, especially depictions of rams, carved on the inner surfaces of the circle. Once again, these mysterious monuments are strikingly similar to those found in Malta. What were they used for? How were they built? Some researchers suggest that these megalithic sites were once prehistoric temples or dwellings.

Left: Petroglyphs of rams and baby rams on the inner side of a Stone Circle near Mardakan on the Absheron Peninsula. Photo: 2002.

Right: Stone circle near the Sangachal Terminal, not far from the Gobustan Reserve.

Just as with the cart ruts, the ancient stone circles near Mardakan are in serious danger. Despite the efforts of archeologists, the property near these circles is being subdivided, and summer homes (dachas) are springing up everywhere. At this rate, the entire site will soon be bulldozed, cleared away and leveled for housing developments. Clearly, Azerbaijan's stone circles must be put under immediate protection.

Common Culture?
Many questions about the past remain unanswered: How can it be that Azerbaijan and these faraway areas in the Mediterranean have such similar monuments? How did ancient people in Azerbaijan have the same building technology as cultures that were thousands of kilometers away?

Left: Abbas Islamov examines a portion of a Stone Circle near Mardakan (Absheron Peninsula). Note the proximity of recent construction of walls for summer homes. To an untrained eye, the boulders in the field look natural and not part of a megalithic construction. It would be incredibly easy to bulldoze the area, not realizing that thousands of years of mankind's history was being destroyed.

These stone circles and cart ruts suggest that the Absheron Peninsula was once a thriving population center that was connected to a seafaring Neolithic culture that thrived in the Mediterranean. We know that the level of the Caspian Sea has risen and fallen throughout history. During the most recent Ice Age, when water was frozen in ice caps, the global sea level was much lower than its current level, perhaps even as much as 100 meters lower. About 15,000 years ago, however, the global thermostat switched from cold to hot, and the ice cap covering the Northern Hemisphere drained southward through the great river systems of the Danube and Volga, amongst others, causing the levels of both the Black Sea and the Caspian to rise. Then a catastrophic deluge occurred, invariably known as "The Flood". The melting floodwaters inundated the region at an unprecedented scale. Scientists date this cataclysm at around 12,000-11,000 BC.

From about 10,000 to 8,000 BC, the Black and Caspian Seas may have been connected to each other, providing a waterway for early explorers going both to and from the Mediterranean. Early seamen could have migrated along coastlines and waterways connecting the Mediterranean, Aegean, Marmara, Black, Azov and Caspian.

Our weekend exploration trips inland have focused on these sea level changes and their impact on settlements. The ancient water line is easy to see much further inland, as it created a series of archipelagoes and cut off the Absheron Peninsula to make it an island. We have found numerous settlements along the ancient elevated shorelines at Sangachal, Gizildash, Saranja, Ranjabar, Alyat, Dubandi and Besh Barmarg - to name a few.

Safeguards Needed
Much research needs to done to determine the purpose of these ancient monuments. Right now, it's difficult for us to gauge the age of these sites. Radiocarbon dating, pollen analysis and other sophisticated techniques could help us determine timelines and periods of occupation.

In the meantime, we must ensure that these monuments remain intact. Granted, steps are being taken by the government to protect some of these sites, but there are many more that are not being protected but rather lie exposed and neglected in open fields.

The eventual fate of these historical monuments is crucial - but not just for the sake of discovering more about early man's life in the Caspian region. These finds could also add to the world's general body of knowledge about prehistoric man. We're convinced that an incredible amount of history lies dormant in these rocks and soil and graves: the secret is to unlock it. Unfortunately, there is only a limited amount of time left to protect these ancient sites. We believe it is critical to draw international attention to this pressing issue, before it is too late.

Contact Abbas Islamov at

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