Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Margie Jones
06/12/2023

In 1985, a 5000-year-old untouched burial was found in Karakol village, Russia. The fantastical images, found on the stone slabs used as walls of the burial, were made in 3 colours, white, red and black, the first case of polychrome rock paintings ever found in Siberia

Some have been called celestial bodies and there are artful depictions of animals and birds.

The finds are from an ancient previously untouched burial in Karakol village in the Altai Republic.

They were uncovered in 1985 but are now yielding new and unexpected secrets.

The vivid decorations were found on the stone slabs used as walls of the burials.

Scientists were stunned by the fact that the drawings were made in three colours, white, red and black,  the first case of polychrome rock paintings ever found in Siberia.

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images
These magnificent paintings were found in the Altai Mountains. Pictures: Vladimir Kubarev/IAET SB RAS, The Siberian Times

The remains of people buried inside the stone graves were also painted with the same colours, with spots of red ocher found below eye sockets and traces of a black and silvery mineral called Specularite prominent in eyebrows area.

But then comes the really fascinating aspects of these ancient paintings.

The colourful images on these stones were made at different times, and using an elaborate technique grounded in science.

The earliest were engraved visuals of elks, mountains goats and running people with round horns on their heads.

Then slabs of rock with the petroglyphs were broken off the mountain, taken into the tomb and turned upside down to decorate its insides.

Next and slightly on top of the petroglyphs were made drawings of eleven human-like figures.

To complete them, the prehistoric artists had to do a lot more than just mixing the techniques of engraving and drawing with mineral paints.

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Perhaps these figures represent a narrative of a funeral ritual, waiting for a researcher who can read and comprehend it. Vladimir Kubarev/IAET SB RAS, The Siberian Times

It is now clear that some 5,000 years ago the tomb painters knew how to carry a basic chemical reaction in order to create not just a red colour but the precise tone they desired.

A team of scientists from the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, Russia’s leading research and development centre for nuclear energy, working with the Paleo-Art Centre of the Institute of Archeology, proved that the red parts of tomb drawings were made of thermally modified ocher.

The white-coloured sections of the artworks were made by scraping which revealed light-reflecting rock crystals.

For the black colour, the prehistoric artists of  Karakol used soot.

The meaning of the tomb drawing is not deciphered yet and the funeral rite of the ancient inhabitants of Altai remains an unknown.

The eleven human-like figures make a single composition, finished with a continuous red line drawn over the images.

Perhaps these figures represent a narrative of a funeral ritual, waiting for a researcher who can read and comprehend it.

But the scientific techniques behind the artwork, and especially the complex process used to make the pigments of red seen in the paintings and on the skulls in the grave, is now clear.

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images

It is now clear that some 5,000 years ago the tomb painters knew how to carry a basic chemical reaction in order to create not just a red colour but the precise tone they desired. Pictures: Vladimir Kubarev/IAET SB RAS, The Siberian Times

Roman Senin, head of the synchrotron research department at Kurchatov Institute said: ‘We determined the phased composition of pigments, that is, the structure of the crystal lattice of individual grains of the dye.

‘Some structures are not typical for natural samples, but are the product of heat treatment.

‘Simply put, the primitive artist heated the mineral to a certain temperature in order to get the colour he needed.’

The full results of the new study will be presented at the 43rd International Symposium on Archeometry in May 2020 in Lisbon.

Alexander Pakhunov, one of the authors of the study, of the Institute of Archeology,  Russian Academy of Sciences, said: ‘The results of the analysis of the composition of paints used in the funeral rite of Karakol people testify to the ability of the ancient inhabitants of Altai to distinguish pigments by colour and properties.’

The scientists believe the different tones carried separate meanings, yet to be understood.

The karakul art works date to the early and middle Bronze Age.

Revealed: the sophisticated painting techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images 

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