Mystery surrounds an extensive pattern of earthen works discovered in Kazakhstan.
From Saudi Arabia to Syria, hundreds of ancient stone geoglyphs (motifs produced on the ground and typically formed by durable elements of the landscape) stretch across the desert plains. Known as the “works of old men” and similar to the Nazca Lines of Peru, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Best seen from the air, these ancient artworks raise many questions. What do they represent? When were they built? Who built them? What purpose did they serve?
Recently, more geoglyphs were discovered in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic extending from the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains. Known for its mineral and fossil fuel deposits, in 1991 Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence, although its communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in power virtually unchallenged ever since.
Satellite pictures of Kazakhstan’s remote and treeless northern steppe have revealed colossal earthworks – geometric figures of squares, crosses, lines, and rings the size of several fields, recognizable only from the air. The largest, near a Neolithic settlement, is a giant square of 101 raised mounds, its opposite corners connected diagonally. Another forms a kind of three-limbed swastika, its arms ending in zigzags bent counter-clockwise.
Spotted on Google Earth in 2007 by Dmitriy Dey, a Kazakh economist and amateur archaeologist, the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs remain largely unknown to the outside world. Dey surmised that the figures constructed along straight lines on elevations were horizontal observatories to track the movements of the rising sun.
One hundred million years ago, this region was a destination for Stone Age tribes seeking fresh hunting grounds. People have lived here ever since and it was first thought that the Mahandzhar culture, which flourished from 7,000 BCE to 5,000 BCE, was linked to the figures. However, it is doubtful if nomads would have stayed in one place for the length of time needed to lay ramparts and dig out lake bed sediments to construct the huge mounds – originally 6 to 10 feet high.
It is more likely that the structures date from a later period. In fact, using a dating technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), archaeologists have determined that the structures were started around 2,800 years ago and built at the beginning of Kazakhstan’s “iron age,” when iron tools and weapons gradually replaced those made of bronze.
Although the purpose of the mounds is unknown, excavations have yielded the remains of structures and hearths that may have been used as sanctuaries. No artefacts have yet been found, but during the period from the 9th to the 1st centuries BCE, the region was occupied by the Scythians, who established and controlled a vast trade network connecting Greece, Persia, India, and China.
Scythian jewellery, especially gold ornaments, is well documented so a discovery may yet be made like the astonishing finds at Kul-Oba, the first Scythian royal barrow to be excavated in modern times.