5,000 Years Ago, Ancient Scientists Used Chemical Reactions to Create Pigments in Altai Mountains
By The Siberian Times reporter
Scientists have unlocked intriguing 5,000-year-old secrets of prehistoric illustrators behind the stunning artwork of Karakol. These magnificent paintings found in the Altai Mountains show ancient figures with round horns and feathers on their heads.
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.
These magnificent paintings were found in the Altai Mountains. Pictures: Vladimir Kubarev/IAET SB RAS, The Siberian Times
Tomb Decorations Through Time
The remains of people buried inside the stone graves were also painted with the same colours, with spots of red ochre 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.
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
5,000-Year-Old Painters Made Chemical Reactions
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 ochre.
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.
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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.
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 karakol art works date to the early and middle Bronze Age.
Top image: Amazing artwork was found on walls on a stone tomb in Siberia. Picture: Vladimir Kubarev/IAET SB RAS
This article, originally titled ‘Revealed: the sophisticated techniques of ancient artists who created these fantastical images’ was originally published on Siberian Times and has been republished with permission.