3 Nisan 2016 Pazar

Turkish Tashbaba Gravestone


Fully and partially preserved ancient Turkic stone statues discovered by the Kyrgyz archaeologists at Tuura-Suu, Issyk-Kul Region, Kyrgyzstan, are described with reference to the burial practices of the ancient Turks during the time when the Western Turkic and Tyurgesh states existed in the Tien Shan and Zhetysu. On the basis of archaeological parallels to the artifacts shown on the statues, their chronology and cultural attribution are assessed, and their diagnostic features are specified. The completely preserved statue showing a figure in man’s clothes and with weapons may be that of a high-ranking female warrior.


Stone statues of ancient and medieval nomads (known as “stone babas”) in the vast areas of Eurasian steppes have long been attracting the attention of travellers, researchers of archaeological sites, and scientists. Medieval stone statues with the appearance of male warriors, women, and rarely even children are rather widely distributed in the mountains and valleys of the Tien Shan, on the territory of Kyrgyzstan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, as well as in the Kazakhstan steppes. Such archaeological sites were first discovered in the Tien Shan in the early 19th century (Vinnik, 1995: 160).

In 1856, the stone statues located on the Issyk-Kul Lake coast were examined and sketched by C.C. Valikhanov, a Kazakh researcher and traveller. According to his description, faces “with tremendous mustaches” that “resembled the Mongolian type” and “a sort of a bowl” in the right hand were depicted on studied stone babas (Valikhanov, 1984:341–342).

In 1857, several statues located in the Tyup River valley to the south of the Issyk-Kul Lake were examined by P.P. Semenov-Tian-Shansky, a Russian researcher (Semenov, 1946: 182–183), who attributed them to the time when the Tien Shan was inhabited by the Wusun people. Later, in the second half of the 19th century, individual stone statues in the southern part of the Issyk-Kul Basin were examined or referred to in works by some Russian lovers of the antique who worked in the area (Vinnik, 1995: 162–164).

In 1890s, a considerable contribution to the study of various archaeological sites, including those pertaining to the culture of the Ancient Turks, was made by V.V. Bartold, who discovered, among others, the stone statues, some of which were located in the Issyk-Kul Basin. These sites included sculptures located on the west side of enclosures. V.V. Bartold provided a fairly accurate chronology and cultural attribution of the stone statues: “… figures with a sword in one hand and a bowl in the other were raised by the Turks in the 7th–8th centuries”. According to him, the custom of raising such sculptures was preserved for several more centuries after this period (Bartold, 1966a: 38–39).

Subsequently, V.V. Bartold summarized, in a special article, data known by that time from the written records and archaeological materials; here he suggested that the stone statues pertained to funeral sites of the ancient Turkic nomads (Bartold, 1966b).

In 1930–1950s, the archaeological expeditions led by A.N. Bernshtam worked in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, including the Issyk-Kul Basin, where several earlier unknown ancient Turkic sculptures were discovered. Among these, the statues with representations of sabers and daggers stood out. A.N. Bernshtam has dated the period of operation of these ancient Turkic cultural sites back to the 6th–8th centuries (1952: 79–81, 88, fig. 42, 43).

In 1950s, several stone sculptures were discovered in the Issyk-Kul Basin by the members of the Kyrgyz archaeological and ethnographic expedition (Vinnik,1995: 172–173). In the 1960s, the stone statues from the Zhetysu and Tien Shan, studied by that time, were analyzed and published by Y.A. Sher in his monograph. He proposed his own version of their classification and mentioned finding some sculptures at the burial-enclosures (Sher, 1966: 40).

In the same years, D.F. Vinnik started studying the sculptures. Many stone sculptures were brought to local historical and school museums; unfortunately, the locations of the discoveries were not always recorded. D.F. Vinnik best tracked the history of the study of stone babas in Kyrgyzstan (Vinnik, 1995).

In the 1970s, these sites were researched by V.P. Mokrynin, who made some additions to the earlier proposed classification of the statues. This researcher placed special emphasis upon studying sculptures depicting three-horned headdresses. According to Mokrynin, some of these sculptures are artifacts of the Ephtalite peoples (Mokrynin, 1975; Mokrynin, Gavryushchenko, 1975).

Over the last few decades, the stone statues in the Tien Shan have been studied by other researchers, including K.S. Tabaldiev and Y.S. Hudiakov. During excavations of the Ala-Myshyk burial ground, they discovered burial-enclosures made of rocks, and stone sculptures (Tabaldiev, Hudiakov, 2000: 66–70). The results of studies spanning the last decades were embodied in monographs, in which the materials on ancient Turkic stone statues and burial-structures were analyzed (Tabaldiev, 1996: 60–82; 2011: 130–143; Hudiakov, Tabaldiev, 2009: 68–87).

In the 1990–2000s, summary studies devoted to these sites located in cross-border regions of Kazakhstan and Eastern Turkestan were published (Hudiakov, 1997; Ermolenko, 2004: 22–31; Dosymbaeva, 2006: 25–51, 87–119). In recent years, earlier unknown ancient Turkic burial structures and stone statues have been studied in various regions of Kyrgyzstan, including the Issyk-Kul Basin (Sulaimanova, 2005, 2007; Moskalev, Soltobaev, 2008). The researchers continue to discover such sites. Several interesting finds were discovered in Tuura-Suu, to the south of the Issyk-Kul Lake.

Circumstances of discovery of stone statues at Tuura-Suu

While moving along the expeditionary route around the Issyk-Kul Lake, in August 2014, the authors of this article inspected three stone statues raised in the local schoolyard in Tuura-Suu, located in a mountain valley to the south of the lake. Of special interest are two of them, found within the limits of this location. One stone statue in good preservation was located on the southern edge of the village on the left-bank Tuura-Suu River terrace, on the surface of a slightly sloping earth mound resembling a tumulus. It was positioned face down in the ground. Only the back of the head and a part of the back of the statue, blackened with the passage of time, could be seen on the surface. The sculpture was excavated by students from the archaeological team headed by K.S. Tabaldiev, with the participation of a teacher and students from the local village school. Later, the Tuura-Suu residents objected to the continuation of excavations at the statue’s location, because the mound surface had been in use as a cemetery for some time, and thus contained graves from modern times.

The head of the second sculpture was discovered a few years ago, during the construction of a pise building in the area of a farmyard situated at approximately 30 m to the north of the mound where the first statue was found. Carrying on excavations at the location of this find proved to be impossible as well, since it was occupied by a modern building. Unfortunately, attempts to find the main part of this sculpture have not met with success. No stone structures pertaining to commemorative sites near which stone statues could be located have been revealed either.

One more statue, made of a massive stone slab, was discovered in the neighborhood of Tuura-Suu. All three sculptures were installed by local residents on stone and concrete pedestals in the local schoolyard.

Description of stone statues

A massive stone head, depicting a man of impressive appearance, is the only preserved part of the first statue (Fig. 1). Arched brows are marked in a low bas-relief; narrow, long slanted eyes, a straight nose, a neatly trimmed mustache, tightened lips, and a clean-shaven chin are shown on the large oval face. Small semicircular adornments, probably earrings or earclips, are depicted at the lower portions of the large ears lobes. A headdress, most likely a leather hat with an oval top, a decorative strip with a downturned corner located on its front portion, and wide earpieces tightly fitting against the temples and back of the head, is represented in a rather realistic manner. The ends of the earpieces are fastened with straps tied together on the back of the headdress. The height of the preserved portion of the sculpture is 60 cm; its width is 33 cm. All elements of the statue are rendered very accurately and vividly: they are indicative of high professional skill in the sculptor who made this statue.

Fig. 1. Head of a stone sculpture and its drawings in full faceand in profile.

Another stone statue is fully preserved. It depicts an adult man sitting “in an oriental manner”, crossing his legs (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Stone statue and its drawings in full face  and in profile. 

A hat with a spherical top, a horizontal strip on the front portion, and wide earpieces, turned up and fastened from the back, is represented on the head. A rather young, nice-looking face is depicted, on which arched brows, a straight nose, narrow lips, and a smooth oval chin are marked. The absence of a mustache, which is a typical feature of most ancient Turkic male warriors, is rather unusual. Small earrings or earclips are depicted in the lower portions of the ears. A necklace in the form of a narrow strip is shown on the front, open part of the neck. Long hair combed on both sides and falling on top of the shoulders is represented on the head. Clothes open at the shoulders, most probably, a double-breasted robe, are shown on the body. Cuffs along the breasts of the robe on the bosom are rendered by means of wide strips. 

The person holds a vessel resembling a wide-pan metal mug at the arch handle with his right hand, while his right arm is bent at the elbow. The left hand is also bent at the elbow, and its palm is located at the abdomen, below the mug. Turn-back cuffs are outlined on both sleeves. A belt with a buckle, a few plates, and clips, plus a saber in a sheath with two loops, suspended from it by two straps, are depicted around the waist. The saber has a smoothly curved blade, a straight guard, and a handle with a finial bent towards the cutting edge. Pouches of different shapes suspended from the belt decorated with plates are shown as well. Probably one of them is intended as a tinderbox. A pouch with a tinderbox suspended from the belt on the right side of a depicted person is generally represented on the ancient Turkic statues. Legs in soft knee-boots, crossed as if the person is sitting cross-legged “in the Turkish manner” are depicted at the lower portion of the sculpture. Flaps of the upper garments spread sideways are shown on the sides of the figure. The sculpture’s height is 152.5 cm, its width is 52.5 cm.

The statue is made with great skill. The figure is represented in proportion, while some individual characteristics of the depicted person are emphasized. One may suggest that this statue as well as the sculpture, only the head of which is preserved, has been made by a talented sculptor, whose artistry noticeably exceeded the common level of ancient Turkic stone cutters who made statues. Ordinary sculptures are crude stone slabs, on which the face, the right arm, bent at the elbow, with the hand holding a vessel, the left arm and a belt are represented.

Fig. 3. Schematic stone statue and its drawing

One more statue is made of a massive stone slab (Fig. 3). Its height is 105 cm, and its width is 45 cm. The sculpture has a large head. Arched brows, slanted eyes, a straight nose, and a mustache are depicted on the face. A bowl is shown in the hand of the right arm, bent at the elbow. The left arm and a horizontal band representing a belt are discernible on the statue. Not all elements of this statue are adequately visible. It can be attributed to rather common, schematic ancient Turkic statues known in the Tien Shan and Zhetysu.

Chronology, cultural attribution, and interpretation of statues

The chronology issues of anthropomorphic stone statues in the Tien Shan and Zhetysu have been repeatedly reviewed by researchers of medieval archaeological sites on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (Bartold, 1966b; Sher, 1966: 22–29, 40; Mokrynin,1975; Hudiakov, 1997). Various views were expressed with respect to the time of their occurrence and cultural attribution. In the past, many researchers interpreted stone statues as “sepulchral figures” on the graves (Radlov, 1989: 431–436). Eventually, it was established that the sculptures were installed in the ancient Turkic commemorative complexes. The ancient Turkic stone statues are often traditionally referred to as “balbals” in scientific and popular and scientific literature on the archaeology of Kyrgyzstan (Bernshtam, 1952: 79).

In the 1960s, the researchers of the medieval sites in Central Asia established that this term referred to stone slabs placed in a row near commemorative enclosures (Kyzlasov, 1966: 207). It has been ascertained as a result of excavations in the Tien Shan that some stone statues were located in the vicinity of square or rectangular commemorative enclosures made of stone slabs and rocks (Sher, 1966: 14; Mokrynin, 1986: 109–110; Tabaldiev, Hudiakov, 2000: 67–68).

Apparently, the characteristic features of their appearance, including the posture and depicted artifacts of the intact stone statue and the broken-off head of the second statue discovered in Tuura-Suu, suggest that these sculptures pertain to the ancient Turkic culture. On the basis of their perfect workmanship, these sculptures could have been made in the 7th–8th centuries AD, when the sculptural techniques of the Western Turks and Tyurgesh reached a rather high level of development (Hudiakov, Tabaldiev, 2009: 77). A schematic stone statue from Tuura-Suu can pertain to a wider time span of the Early Middle Ages (Tabaldiev,1996: 65).

A rather nice-looking, “womanly” face without a mustache, as well as with long hair hanging to the shoulders, represented on the fully-preserved, threedimensional sculpture from Tuura-Suu, along with the representation of a necklace, made some interested local people lean towards the supposition that this statue could depict a young woman, even though men’s clothing and a bladed weapon on a warrior’s belt decorated with plates were shown. However, long hair falling on top of the shoulders cannot serve as a distinguishing feature of women, since ancient Turkic men wore their hair long too, as evidenced by images of ancient Turkic warriors in some records of the visual arts (Hudiakov, Tabaldiev, Soltobaev, 1997); although the Western Turks often tied their hair into numerous small braids. Besides, men were depicted with a mustache.

Among the Western Turkic and Tyurgesh stone statues, a considerable number of women’s sculptural images are represented. Typical features involve socalled three-horned headdresses, as well as earrings, necklaces, and shoulder clothes without a belt. These persons hold vessels in their hands (Sher, 1966: 22–29). The sculptural images of women are much rarer at the commemorative sites of the Eastern Turks in Sayan-Altai and Mongolia. Sometimes female breasts were marked on the stone statues (Hudiakov, Belinskaya, 2012: 127–128). The Tuura-Suu sculpture significantly differs from the ordinary ancient Turkic female statues found in the Tien Shan and Zhetysu by type of formation and range of artifacts. Among the artifacts shown, only the necklace can be attributed to woman’s adornments. If this statue actually represents a woman, this should be recognized as a very rare, exceptional case. A high-ranking Turkic female warrior could be a prototype for this statue (Ermolenko, 2004: 64).

Note that female warriors act as independent literary and historical characters in the heroic epic and historical legends of many Turkic and Mongolian peoples of the Central Asian historical and cultural region. These materials date back to the Middle Ages. The deeds of Banu-Chechek (Banu Çiçek-SB), a high-ranking warrior maiden who arranged trials and fought against her bridegroom as an equal, are described in an Oguz epic legend. According to V.P. Darkevich, the scenes from this legend are represented on a silver ladle manufactured in Khazaria in the 8th–9th centuries and found in the Kodsky town in Western Siberia (1974). The motifs of a warrior maiden fighting against her bridegroom are also presented in epic legends of some present-day Turkic peoples, including the Azerbaijani, Turks, and Turkmens (Korogly, 1975: 72).

Such warlike female characters are present in the epic poem of the Sayan-Altai Turkic peoples (Maadai Kara, 1973: 256, 414). The Kyrgyz heroic epic poem “Manas” contains a colorful description of a combat before a battle, when a young Kalmyk female warrior, a “dashing” Saikal, fought arms in hand against Manas himself, the Kyrgyz leader, an epic warrior and national hero (Manas, 1988: 361–371). “Zhanyl Myrza”, another Kyrgyz epic legend, narrates a high-ranking woman, the leader of the Noiguts, a Kyrgyz tribe, who, in the course of her rule, commanded forces and fought against the Dzungars. As supposed by A.A. Asankanov, a known Kyrgyz scientist, this woman ruled the Noiguts in the 17th century (2010: 34–35).


The head of a male statue from Tuura-Suu renders a typical appearance of an ancient Turkic man with a mustache, wearing a headdress. On the basis of its size, this statue should be markedly larger than the fully preserved one. On the basis of the appearance of the analyzed sculptures and conditions of their discovery, both of them could pertain to ancient Turkic commemorative statues of the same chronological period, when a high level of sculptural techniques was reached. In terms of workmanship, these sculptures noticeably exceed stone statues, common for the ancient Turkic culture of that time, one of which has also been discovered in the neighborhood of Tuura-Suu.

The analysis of the ancient Turkic sculptures discovered in Tuura-Suu has allowed clarification of their cultural attribution and the chronological period when they could have been made and mounted. The studies of these sites can be important evidence of the fact that ancient Turkic sculptors could reach a very high level of workmanship, coming close to the creation of three-dimensional sculptures. The assumption made above, that one statue from Tuura-Suu may represent an ancient Turkic female warrior, is consistent with the folklore sources of many Turkic peoples of the Central Asian historical and cultural region. This suggests possible participation of some women from the ancient Turkic ruling elite in the military function of the nomadic societies in the Western Turkic and Tyurgesh states.

Y.S. Hudiakov - Novosibirsk State University Russia
K.S. Tabaldiev - Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University Kyrgyzstan
A.Y. Borisenko - Novosibirsk State University Russia
Z. Orozbekova - Novosibirsk State University Russia
* Research performed under the Project (No. 2718) for state scientific work and under the basic part of the public contract of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. Copyright © 2015, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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Received January 21, 2015



Tash baba (Taşbaba) = Stone+Father; Represent the Leader

Balbal; Represent the enemies he killed to serve him in the other world, doesn't matter of he is a Turkish or other nation.


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Tashbaba - Kazakhstan

Tashbaba - Kipchak Turks - Ukraine

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Scythian Tashbaba

Scythian Tashbaba - Ukraine

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"The archaeologists also found a well-preserved stone faces" (!!!) says the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, but this is Turkish Balbal - Chinanews:


Turkish Tashbaba and Balbal in Mongolia
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Goddess of Phrygia and Tashbaba from Kazakhstan

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