Ludy Europy Wschodniej
Turkic monumental sculpture

In the terrains of Central Asia and those near to the Black Sea, the tradition of creating steles has its origin in the 4th millennium BC and it is associated to the cultures of Aeneolithic period and the Bronze Age: the Low-Mikhailovsk, Kemi Oba, Pit Grave and Catacomb cultures in the European part, the Andronovo culture in the European and Asian part, Shurmaksk and Tashtic cultures in the Asian part. Later on, the anthropomorphic steles were made by the Scythians, some Altay peoples, the Turks, the Kyrgyz, living in the Yenisey River valley, perhaps that also the Uyghur people, while in Europe they were constructed by the Bulgarians and the Polovtsians.

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The beginning of the canon – an armed warrior with a vessel in his hand – had its roots in very distant past. The Scythian steles were meant to show a general image of an ancestor-man-warrior. It was not a detailed image, though some attributes were marked. Faces were engraved schematically. In the right hand, which was bended a little in the elbow, a rhyton, the left hand was lowered freely, though in some was put on the hilt of an akinakes. A typical ornament was a gryvna, a pendant worn on the neck. A Scythian warrior used also to have a belt. In some cases, main features linked to the gender were also marked.

It is beyond doubt, that the steles made by the Turkic peoples were related to the cult of the ancestors. Its meaning was a result of Chinese influence, where this cult has been developed already under the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) and became one of the religious bases of the political organisation of the state. The Chinese chronicles, Orkhon inscriptions and archaeological research have managed to prove, without ambiguity, that the 6-8th and 8-11th century steles, with images of men engraved and set on the stone walls (so-called sacrifice-cult gardens), show the dead and the stone balbals are there to symbolize the defeated enemies, who accompany the dead in the Underworld. The stone gardens were present in the Central Asia already in the 2nd century BC, where they were associated with the mentioned Shurmaksk culture. The Turkic gardens were enclosed by low walls of flat stones, which formed a square, of which the sides were turned to the four sides of the world. The statue was constructed within or, more frequently, beyond the wall, by the east side and the face of the statue was turned to the east. Beside the balbals set in a row on the east side to accompany the image of the dead, the figures of the animals (ram, turtle) or of the kneeling people were placed there as well. In the central part of the garden, there was a place of sacrifice, a kind of a small altar or a pit, in which the pieces of ceramics, ashes and burned bones were often to be found. It is possible that the tradition of building anthropomorphic statues and cult gardens was originally common to all, or a majority of the T'u-küe tribes, but with the passing of time only some peoples conserved it, while the others, following foreign influences, turned away from it.

The Russian researcher, J.A. Sher distinguished two types and six groups of Turkic statues

Type I:

  1. group 1 – the statues of males with a vessel in the right hand and armaments (sabre, sword or kindjal) that occur in the terrain of West Kazakhstan, Semirechye, South Siberia, Tien Shan and Mongolia;

  2. group 2 – the statues of males and of undefined gender, with a vessel in the right hand, without armaments, extant on same terrains as the first group;

  3. group 3 – the steles with human faces or heads, occurring similarly to groups described so far;

  4. group 4 – the statues of men, holding a bird on the right hand, relatively not numerous (the bird, according to the peoples of Siberia and Central Asia, as well as the Turkic tribes, symbolized one of the souls);

Type II:

  1. group 5 – the statues of males, with a vessel held in both hands, without armaments;

  2. group 6 – the statues of females, with a vessel held in both hands, occurring exclusively in the terrains of Semirechye; they are not at all present in Mongolia and South Siberia. The farther to the west, the more significant is their quantity. Volga is the border, beyond which they appear very numerously.

Sher associated the canon of imaging of the type I with the members of Turkic war aristocracy, while of the type II with the people not related to the military domain, though still being aristocracy. A similar division of the structure of the nobles was a conclusion derived from the analysis of later, though linked to the Turkic steles, statues of the Polovtsians. The construction of the sacrifice-cult gardens and the statues of the dead was not only meant to hail the dead ancestors, it was not only a sign of respect for the past, but also resulted from a fear of the rage of the dead, fear of the death and fear of the mystery of the Underworld. It is probable that they were constructed right after the decease or during the celebrations, during which the kinsmen of the dead gathered to sacrifice and feast with the image of the ancestor and also spoke to him by the power of the shaman. The celebrations were connected to the traditions of Turkic peoples. They were organized in the 3rd, the 7th, the 9th, the 12th, the 20th, the 40th, the 49th and the 52nd day after the decease, after a half of the year, in the first year and exceptionally 3, 5 and 7 years after. The meetings with the dead, the “conversations”, feeding and plying him with drink lasted for 3 years. It is possible that one of these dates were linked, among the Turks and later among the Polovtsians, with the construction of the statue – wooden or stone.

The features of the early Turkic customs, related to the cult of the ancestors, were continued by the Polovtsians. What was found in situ allowed to reconstruct the cult places and contributed in proving the these, concerning the worship of the ancestors-protectors of the kinship. The statues were never placed on the kurgans of the Polovtsians, mostly they were older cemeteries of the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Turkic peoples, placed usually on the water divides or hills, which were the natural points of orientation in the terrain. Two or three steles were installed on the central or north-east part of the kurgan, the face was always turned to the east. It is define to tell, without ambiguity, the moment in which the Central Asian cult of the ancestors, related to the Turkic tribes, has been overtaken by the east fractions of the Kipchaks. It is known that the Polovtsians transformed it into a cult of the warlord – the protector of the horde, tribe or kinship, and of the mother – birth giver, providing immortal forces for the kinship to be continued. In some cases, the constructions forming a circle, a square or a trapezium were built around the statues, and their meaning was similar to those of the early T'u-küe tribes. The images were also surrounded with an oval wall, usually of one layer. Perhaps that the original objective of the walls was to protect the living from the dead. Such walls, according to the beliefs, could prevent the dead or the evil spirits from “stalking” the living. Within the walls, in the corners or before the statues, cobblestones were placed or sacrifice pits were constructed. In some cases, the hearths were surrounded with stones. The constructions similar to these are known also in Mongolia and in the Sayan-Altay foothills, although there the statues were usually constructed beyond not within the wall. In the places designed for the sacrifices, the skulls of horses, rams, bones of the cows, dogs, wolves, hunted animals, the remains of people and the fragments of crushed, handmade ceramics of the nomads and Byzantine amphorae were discovered. A part of the cult places also carried the traces of destruction. The stone statues were crushed, the wooden steles were buried in special pits. The interpretation of this phenomenon is ambiguous. The statue could be destroyed, so that the one of the ancestor's souls could be liberated, in order to help him in his journey to the Underworld and it was the last stage of the commemorative ceremony that hailed the ancestor. The destruction of statues could also express the fight of the Islam against anthropomorphic images, but this these is seemingly denied by the fact that the cult places finally disappear as late as in the 14th century (Islamization of the Horde).


The stone statues, related to the T'u-küe tribes, occurred in a vast zone of the Asian steppe, stretching from the South foothills of the Ural mountains, the steppes of West Kazakhstan, Semirechye, South Siberia, Sayan-Altay foothills and the northern part of the Tian Shan mountains, to Mongolia. The center, from which the tradition of constructing statues in the cult gardens was spreading, was localized in the Minusinsk Depression and perhaps in the Altay, but the early specimens of steles have not been found. The emergence of the oldest stone statues, dated for the 6th century BC, in the terrains of Semirechye and Tian-Shan is associated with the expansion of tribes that are defined by archaeological literature as the creators of “culture of the early Turks”. These peoples constructed sacrifice-cult gardens, anthropomorphic statues, balbals, they buried the dead with horsemanship equipment and specific inventory. The invasion of Turkic peoples to these terrains was connected with the creation of the first Turkic Kaghanate (551-630) and its division into East and West Kaghanatei. The presence of the T'u-küe on these lands in the middle of the 6th century is mentioned by the Chinese sources, such as the Chronicle of Suei-Shu and „The Description of Chinese Empire's lands”. A period of blooming of the Asian stone sculpture is associated with the influence of Sogdian art in the time of West Turkic Kaghanate's stabilisation. The centre of the Sogdians was placed in Samarkand, although the Sogdian merchants had their colonies everywhere across Asia. They were not merely occupied with trade, but they also carried the ideas, related to the widely comprehended culture and art. Thank to them, the ideas of Nestorianism, Manichaeism and Buddhism have reached the Turks and it is probably from them that the T'u-küe accquired the runic writing. Certain elements of the funeral rite also came with the Sogdians. A different manner of imaging in the steles belonging, according to J.A. Sher, to the type I, the detailed presentation of the body proportions, the softness of the relief's lines, the stylization of the details of faces and, most importantly, realistic hands and fingers had their analogies in the lands of the Sogdians and shown the influences of the Buddhist schools. The upper chronological dividing line of creation of the anthropomorphic steles is the end of the 10th or the beginning of the 11th century, when the Turkic tribes of Semirechye and Tian-Shan became part of the political influence zone of the Kara-Khanid Khanate [footnote 1] , which resulted in a slowly progressing Islamization of the subordinate population.

In the European part, spreading of the anthropomorphic sculpture was analogical to the borders of the territory of the Polovtsians, which is referred to by the oriental sources as Desht-i Kipchak. Its surface stretched for 750 km from the west to the east and 500 km from the north to the south. This data has been reconstructed on basis of the information from written sources and such archaeological specimens as kurgans and statues. The concentration of steles is related to the location of encampments and cemeteries that were particularly attractive to the nomads. Beside the cult objectives, the steles had a pragmatic meaning, as they were a kind of signposts in the steppe. That is why the statues were placed at the bifurcation of the roads or at the water divides. Usually, two or three of them were located at the older kurgans.

The eastern frontier of the territory, in which the Polovtsian statues occurred was based on Volga, beyond which only rare and single specimens occur. The northern stretched along the steppe and forest steppe. The western was established along Dnieper, as on the left river bank the steles are concentrated, while on the right they appear only to Ingulec. The southern frontier is sealed by Crimea, Priazovia and Ciscaucasia.

The Polovtsian statues have been constructed on the steppes by the Black Sea for approximately 260-270 years. The oldest sculptures, associated to Polovtsians appeared in the terrains of the lower drainage basin of Donets in the middle of the 11th century almost simultaneously to their settlement by the nomads. It was meant to be proved by: the technology of building and the canon of imaging the character, analogically to the Turkic steles from 10-11th century and the fact that the captured terrains were used for Winter encampments, from which the Polovtsians used to depart for the Spring-Summer pastures or for war. Initially, they were flat sculptures in form of steles or poles, with faces, hands and vessel marked, related to the similar images known from the Semirechye. The blooming of the art of sculpture dates for the 2nd half of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century. The statues of that period present whole silhouettes of standing or sitting characters. They represent a masterful craft, showing not only the details of the vestments, ornaments, armaments and vessels, but they also show individual portrait features. After the Mongol invasion, the custom of creating steles stays preserved until the end of the 13th century or the first decades of the 14th century. The sculpture is formed in a pole, in which the face, the details of vestments and rarely the vessel as well is visible. The limbs of the character are usually not marked. With the assimilation of the Polovtsians and with spreading of Islam, the custom and need of creating statues has dissapeared.

[1] Known also as Ilek-Khanids – (933-1212), the first Muslim Turkish dynasty, ruled in the East Turkestan, the southern region of the Tian-Shan mountains was also under their influence.


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