The Eerie Balbal Statues of the Eurasian Steppe
Ancient nomads are virtually invisible in the archaeological record, as they left few traces of their lifestyle behind. Unlike sedentary populations, nomads did not have permanent structures, nor did they use pottery and ceramics, which are easily breakable for people on the move. Nevertheless, across the Eurasian steppe, ancient nomadic populations did leave a lasting mark on the world - the mysterious Balbal statues which stand like sentries in the vast plain of land that stretches from Ukraine to Mongolia.
Acording to a Daily Sabbah article, they were made by the Göktürks, a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples established in Central Asia before Islam, and this wide distribution of the sculpted stones is indicative of the geographical reach of the Turks. Most of the surviving artifacts, however, are found in Kyrgyzstan.
In the Eurasian Steppe, the nomadic Turkic and Mongol tribes were said to have had a variety funerary customs. Apart from burial and cremation, these nomads also practised abandonment and the exposure of corpses in trees. It is claimed however, that there was a change in practice around A.D. 628, as the Annals of the Suei record that the Turkic nomads changed their funerary customs from cremation to burial. Some burial sites were unmarked, most famously perhaps in the case of Genghis Khan. Other burials, however, were more conspicuous in the landscape, and marked with the erection of a temple, inscribed stelae or balbals.
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Ancient balbal statue in open air museum of Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Marina Pissarova / BigStockPhoto
The word balbal exists in several languages of the Steppe region, including Russian, Ukrainian and the Kazakh language. It has been suggested that balbal is derived from the Turkic word baba, meaning ‘father’ or ‘ancestor’. Generally speaking, balbals are pieces of stone or wood stuck into the ground. They would often depict a human figure. Most balbals are between half a metre to a metre in height, and are depicted standing upright. Although both male and female balblas exist, the former are much more numerous than the latter. On one hand, there are relatively plain balbals, in which a flat body is topped by a head with facial features carved on it. On the other, there are balbals with lots of fine detail. For instance, some balbals are depicted holding bowls, whilst others are carved with weapons on their belts, yet others are shown with jewelry, such as earrings. It has been suggested that these elaborate balbals were produced some time after the plain ones.
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Although there are numerous balbals across the Eurasian Steppe, archaeologists are unable to agree on whom the balbals were depicting. Judging from the objects depicted on the balbals, it has been suggested that these were high status individuals in their tribes. Thus, it has been claimed that the balbals were set up to commemorate the dead, who were possibly members of the elite. The 13 th century Flemish traveller, William of Rubruk, wrote “The Comans (a Turkic nomadic tribe) raise a great tumulus over the dead, and set up a statue to him, its face to the east, and holding a cup in its hand at the height of the navel.” On the other hand, it has been speculated that the balbals actually depict the enemies vanquished by the deceased, or who were executed during the funeral. There are also those who believe that the balbals are cult objects that possess magical powers. In the south of Kazakhstan, for example, locals have been offering sacrifices to the balbals in order to appease the spirits. It is also believed that the balblas there have the ability to resolve problems brought before them.
Ancient balbal statues in open air museum of Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Marina Pissarova / BigStockPhoto
By the 10 th century, the production of balbals, particularly in the steppes of Central Asia, declined drastically. This is perhaps due to the arrival of Islam, which forbade the depiction of human images. Nevertheless, the balbals made in earlier centuries have survived until today, an indication of the region’s pre-Islamic past.
It has been claimed that the number of balbals has been decreasing each year, as they have been stolen, broken up and even destroyed. This problem was highlighted as early as the middle of the 20 th century by the Kazakhstani scholar Alkei Margulan, and is still persisting today. It is vital that the balbals are preserved so that the heritage of the ancient nomads of the Eurasian Steppe may be handed down to future generations.
In 2016, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) announced its plans to transform an ancient Göktürk burial ground into a museum.
Top image: Ancient balbal statues on the field at overcast sky in central Asia. Credit: Marina Pissarova / BigStockPhoto
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