12,000 Years of Mongolian Rock Art
The trans-Pacific flight one takes to get from the United States to Mongolia can be a long haul. Tusker Trail’s Eddie and Amy Frank know this journey well, having repeated it many times in order to lead their clients on their unparalleled adventures trekking the Mongolian Altai Mountains.
But on one particular flight, it was a chance encounter that opened up a new door to the hidden and infinite treasures of Mongolia, as well as a new friendship with one of the leading experts on the country’s archaeology and landscape. Sitting in front of Amy, Esther Jacobson-Tepfer was reading a book on Mongolian birdlife. Amy struck up a conversation about birds with Esther. A University of Oregon professor of Indian Art, Nomadic Art of Eurasia, and North Asian Rock Art, Esther has spent the last twenty years in Mongolia studying the fascinating cultural ecology of the Altai region.
Esther may have been hesitant at first to reveal some of the secrets of the region, such as its ancient rock art that could be easily destroyed if it ended up in the path of mass tourism. But when she realized Eddie and Amy were remote travelers and as passionate about preservation of land, culture and artifacts as she was, she gave them the “keys to castle”. Providing them with tantalizing details of rock art hidden throughout the Altai region, as well as maps on how to get there, Esther told Eddie and Amy that she wanted them to find and share these cultural treasures with their travel clients while at the same time educating them not to touch or destroy them.
Today, embarking on a journey with Tusker to Mongolia not only provides travelers the opportunity to see some of the most dramatic landscape the world has to offer, but it’s also an extremely rare opportunity to experience rarely seen rock art, as old as 12,000 years, that is extremely hard to locate.
Magnificent Rock Art
It’s pretty safe to say that most of the world is not well acquainted with Mongolian rock art. The remote regions of the country where many of the best examples of rock art can be found are not highly trafficked by tourists or even researchers. There have been some archaeologists who have studied the imagery carved and painted on rocks and boulders, including a few publications by Russian scholars, but it certainly seems that Esther’s research has taken the study to a new level. She has helped to bring to our attention regions that include some of the finest examples of rock art in all of North Asia.
Rock art in Mongolia dates back to the late Pleistocene period about 10,000 years ago and continues through the Bronze Age (c.3500-1200 BC), Early Iron Age (c.1000-550 BC) and Turkic period (c.900-1500 CE). The Altai Mountains, extending from the northwest of the country to the Gobi desert is a prime area to witness examples of rock art. There are other sites as well, though they are found scattered across the steppe of the southern and eastern portions of the country. In Bayan Olgiy, the starting point of Tusker’s Mongolian Trek, rock art is not hidden in caves like many other places, but out in the open. Any painted rock art has long since vanished, but there is a surviving art that has been chipped away on rock using stones or metals. The Oigor drainage and areas within the Tsagaan Gol river basin, are also home to a plethora of examples of well preserved rock art. Typical rock art imagery in Mongolia includes depictions of hunters and animals, riders on horses, carts and caravans, women birthing children and Shamanic symbols.
The artists of ancient Mongolia chose their materials and surfaces well, preferring hardened and smooth sandstone that can only be found in a few high valleys. The life of ancient Mongolians is represented in a stark and realistic way through rock art. The images are often archaic, indicated by the static depictions of animals with their large bodies and cone-shaped, tapering legs. The images also suggest their age, displaying rhinos that disappeared with the Ice Age 20,000 years ago and ostriches that roamed the steppe until the Early Holocene period 12,000 years ago. Most images stand alone and do not suggest they are using other images to tell a story or qualify them. The images do an excellent job of depicting the spiritual worldview of Mongolians of the time, and display an outstanding universal value.
It cannot be stressed enough that there is an ongoing need to document the ancient rock art tradition of Mongolia. Raising awareness of the tradition and promoting it in a sustainable way is the only way to protect it as a resource for cultural tourism. A better understanding of Mongolian rock art will help to provide a deeper understanding of Central Asian culture as a whole.
Opportunity of a Lifetime
Eddie and Amy Frank have been leading treks to Mongolia for six years now. They are highly experienced, professional trek operators who do everything in their power to ensure that their clients have life-changing experiences while traveling — and they have yet to disappoint. The awe-inspiring trek they offer through the rarely visited Altai Tavn Bogd National Park, on foot and horseback, is the adventure opportunity of a lifetime and not to be missed. Only 120 people travel through this region each year, so it remains pristine and untouched. And you can count on Eddie and Amy taking you to see the spectacular Mongolian rock art that few modern day people have encountered.
To get better acquainted with the Mongolian Altai before you go, Eddie & Amy recommend that you pick up a copy of the latest book published by Esther, her photographer husband Gary Tepfer and her colleague James E. Meacham. Titled “Archaeology and Landscape in the Mongolian Altai: An Atlas”, it is a fascinating, superbly researched and picturesque account of Mongolia history, seen through the eyes of the experts. It is truly unparalleled reading. The book documents the archaeological treasures of Mongolia in a way that has never been done before.
And once you’ve read the book, join Tusker’s exciting trek.