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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access April 12, 2022

Rediscovered Mesolithic Rock Art Collection from Kamyana Mohyla Complex in Eastern Ukraine

Simon Radchenko ORCID logo
From the journal Open Archaeology

Abstract

The unique rock art complex of Kamyana Mohyla in South-Eastern Ukraine is known due to its numerous cave art engraved elements and settlements, which show how important is this site in the general picture of European prehistory as regards the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods of the region. However, the assemblages from this site include also a collection of portable rock art artifacts called “churingas.” Important elements of this assemblage are thought to belong to the Mesolithic. These specimens illustrate different aspects of the artist’s worldview and are capable of revealing a lot of additional data on the technological and cultural aspects of their creation. However, their study is complicate because of a very abstract imaging, lack of systematic approach to the artifact classification and absence of a well-defined stratigraphic context from which they have been recovered. Likely, current state of archaeological record and modern technologies introduces the new opportunity to rediscover, reconsider and reshape this collection.

1 Introduction

One of the most iconic features of prehistoric rock art sites and locations is the unique aspect of the place where they were recovered. Besides the numerous famous caves known in Central Europe, for example, Chauvet (Clottes, 2015), Niaux (Bahn & Vertut, 1997), Lascaux (Bataille, 1994) – their location is often open spaces near the mountains or even in the middle of the wasteland. This factor of location has already been considered as of great importance, especially closer to the Steppe climate zone on the vastness of Eurasian Steppe Belt (Wienhold & Robinson, 2017). As any kind of geological anomaly is quite rare in the Steppe, such anomalies attracted the attention from prehistoric times till today (Clottes, 2011). The rock art complexes that are not located among the mountains are typically formed by monadnocks of sandstone or schist that is considered to be an unusual attractor for the people through the ages (Clottes, 2011; Mykhailov, 2005; Samashev, 2006).

Even at the edge of the Eurasian steppe belt, the importance of such petrographic anomalies and their location remains the same. The most important rock art location in Ukraine is located in the south-eastern part of the country (North Azov sea region): it is called Kamyana Mohyla (Figure 1) (Mykhailov, 2005). The monadnock of sandstone originated 14 million years ago on the bottom of Sarmatian Sea (Radchenko & Nykonenko, 2019, p. 49). During millennia, this place was inhabited by different cultural groups that settled nearby and used the Kamyana Mohyla Hill as a special sacral place (Danilenko, 1986, p. 5; Kotova et al., 2017), creating their petroglyphs here using different tools and techniques (Mykhailov, 2017, p. 13). Among the rock art locations of the Eurasian Steppe Belt – Tamgaly (Samashev, 2006), Eshkiolmes (Baipakov, Maryashev, Potapov, & Goruachev, 2005), Karakiyasay (Khuzhanazarov, 1995) – Kamyana Mohyla (Figure 2) is the most western one and contains also a corpus of motifs that can be compared with those of the Bronze and Iron Age of Central Europe (Mykhailov, 2005; 2017, pp. 13–16).

Figure 1 
               The location map of Kamyana Mohyla.

Figure 1

The location map of Kamyana Mohyla.

Figure 2 
               Aerial view of Kamyana Mohyla and Molochnaya River.

Figure 2

Aerial view of Kamyana Mohyla and Molochnaya River.

The engravings of Kamyana Mohyla (Figure 3) are undoubtedly connected to the multilayered settlements nearby (Kotova, Kiosak, Radchenko, & Spitsyna, 2018) which show the traces of human occupation at least since the Upper Paleolithic period. The most important of these sites is Kamyana Mohyla 1 that yielded archaeological remains attributed to different periods that span from the Mesolithic to the Scythian times (Danilenko, 1986; Kotova et al., 2017). A few portable rock art specimens that were found there have been dated back to the Mesolithic (the artifacts associated with these instances belong to the Kukrek culture layers and are dated back to 9134 ± 13 BP [BE-6733] and 8340 ± 24 BP [BE-6731]) (Kotova et al., 2018). The whole complex is spread on the Kamyana Mohyla surrounding and includes also few dozen burial sites and locations 1–20 km away from the monadnock (Makhortykh, Kotova, Dzhos, & Radchenko, 2020; Mykhailov, 2006; Vyazmitina, Illinska, Pokrovska, Terenozhkin, & Kovpanenko, 1960).

Figure 3 
               The engravings of Kamyana Mohyla: (1) block from the “Goat Cave” (drawing made by S. Radchenko); (2) “bulls in defensive position” (after Radchenko & Nykonenko, 2019, Figure 7.3); (3) “Rain Bull” (after Radchenko & Nykonenko, 2019, Figure 11.2); (4) the fish image on the ceiling of Kamyana Mohyla grotto (image taken by S. Radchenko).

Figure 3

The engravings of Kamyana Mohyla: (1) block from the “Goat Cave” (drawing made by S. Radchenko); (2) “bulls in defensive position” (after Radchenko & Nykonenko, 2019, Figure 7.3); (3) “Rain Bull” (after Radchenko & Nykonenko, 2019, Figure 11.2); (4) the fish image on the ceiling of Kamyana Mohyla grotto (image taken by S. Radchenko).

The whole complex of Kamyana Mohyla was first reported at the end of the nineteenth century (Bobrinskiy, 1893). Later, the site has been investigated and excavated during the second half of the twentieth century (see Kotova et al., 2017) in a search for rock art panels (68 locations have been discovered so far); the complexes that surround the monadnock (mostly the settlement of Kamyana Mohyla 1, 185 m south-west from it) have been excavated since 1938 up to 2019, though still a lot of work remains to be done. Since 2004, the National Historical and Archaeological Reserve “Kamyana Mohyla” has been established to protect the Kamyana Mohyla Hill from destruction and plundering that occurred during the twentieth century (Tarasenko, 2017, pp. 138–141). However, the complex remains almost unknown outside of the country. The Kamyana Mohyla Hill has been studied according to the Soviet archaeological tradition using equipment and methods available at the time. Recent field work have brought a new breath to the site and the development of the research of Kamyana Mohyla rock art (Mykhailov, 2017; Radchenko, Kotova, Kiosak, & Tuboltsev,2018; Radchenko et al., 2020). The multilayered settlement of Kamyana Mohyla 1 as well as the whole complex (Gaskevich, 2020; Kiosak & Kotova, 2020; Kotova et al., 2017, 2018) are at present under investigation, providing photogrammetric study of some engravings and the archaeological research supported with modern methods and interdisciplinary approaches.

Besides the hundreds of engravings and archaeological sites, Kamyana Mohyla is important because of the presence of portable rock art specimens that have been found in the caves of this complex during the last 70 years (Danilenko, 1986; Mykhailov, 2005). The complete “portable rock art assemblage” from Kamyana Mohyla consists of more than 360 items; it has never been studied and published according to contemporary standards. Draft interpretations and descriptions have been put forward by Danilenko (1986) and Mykhailov (2005). However, this work was never finished. A part of this collection is considered to be connected to the Late Mesolithic of the region, namely the Kukrek cultural tradition (Danilenko, 1986, pp. 133–135; also Kotova et al., 2018), the life and beliefs of ancient artists who settled in Kamyana Mohyla in VIII–VI millennia BC (radiocarbon dating returned the interval of 7910–6430 BC (see Kiosak et al., 2022 [this Special Issue]). The current state of the art concerning the items requires its total reconsideration and introducing for a scientific audience. Therefore, here I’m intended to make a first step in this direction describing the context of these artifacts and the issues that are to be solved in future.

2 Historical Context

The first portable rock art specimen was discovered in 1952. However according to Danilenko, “the concretions of similar shape containing pictures have been found also in 1938 and were then called “churingas.” Unfortunately, all these specimens were lost during World War II and we are deprived of the possibility to consider the character of the engravings there” (Danilenko, 1986, p. 65).

Danilenko states that the name “churinga” has been chosen for such artifacts accidentally, mostly due to their similarity to the Australian sacral objects, described by Durkheim ([1912]2018, p. 206). These are considered to be stone- or wooden-decorated objects of a particular shape and of a religious significance by Australian aboriginal people. The word itself means an object that is “hidden” (tju) but also “that which is personal to me” (runga) (Strehlow, 1947, pp. 85–86). Australian churingas used to have their “voice” – they are used as an instrument for creation of a mysterious sound during the rituals. Applied to the rock art specimens from Kamyana Mohyla, the term “churinga” means a theoretically portable engraved piece of sandstone that were found inside the caves of Kamyana Mohyla Hill or nearby. Therefore, the stones that are determined as churingas differ a lot from the Australian specimens under the same name. To begin with, the Ukrainian instances are silent (Danilenko, 1986, pp. 65–66, 74). Moreover, unlike Australian churingas, some of the artifacts from Kamyana Mohyla have been shaped to introduce an animal or a human. So, it is more probable that they represent a figurine or sculpture than the churinga. However, as these instances and a collection in general are traditionally called “churingas,” we will follow this term, emphasizing that the word does not reflect their shape, function and lifecycle.

In 1952, Rudinskiy discovered the first figure close to the place that has been called “The Cave of Churingas” afterwards (Figure 4). According to Danilenko, it is “similar to the shape of a catfish. It is covered with engravings and rhombic figures that depict the body of a fish. The comparatively big mouth and an eye are also depicted […]” (Danilenko, 1986, p. 67) (Figure 5(1)). Danilenko mentions analogies with some Siberian and Trans-Caucasus stone fishes that are connected to the Underworld.

Figure 4 
               Location map of the places where churingas were found. (1) By M. Rudinskiy; (2) by Danilenko; (3) by Mykhailov; (4) by Dzhos.

Figure 4

Location map of the places where churingas were found. (1) By M. Rudinskiy; (2) by Danilenko; (3) by Mykhailov; (4) by Dzhos.

Figure 5 
               Some churingas described by Danilenko (1986): (1) fish-like sculpture, found by M. Rudinsliy in 1952 (after Danilenko (1986), p. 65, Figure 20); (2–4) churingas from the Wizard Grotto; (5–8) churingas from the Cave of Churingas. (2) after Danilenko (1986), p. 97, Figure 48; (3) after Danilenko (1986), p. 102, Figure 55; (4) after Danilenko (1986), p. 98, Figure 49; (5) after Danilenko (1986), p. 119, Figure 72; (6) after Danilenko (1986), p. 128, Figure 87; (7) after Danilenko (1986), p. 128, Figure 88. (1–7) No scale.

Figure 5

Some churingas described by Danilenko (1986): (1) fish-like sculpture, found by M. Rudinsliy in 1952 (after Danilenko (1986), p. 65, Figure 20); (2–4) churingas from the Wizard Grotto; (5–8) churingas from the Cave of Churingas. (2) after Danilenko (1986), p. 97, Figure 48; (3) after Danilenko (1986), p. 102, Figure 55; (4) after Danilenko (1986), p. 98, Figure 49; (5) after Danilenko (1986), p. 119, Figure 72; (6) after Danilenko (1986), p. 128, Figure 87; (7) after Danilenko (1986), p. 128, Figure 88. (1–7) No scale.

More than 20 years later, in 1973, during the new excavations carried out in Kamyana Mohyla and its neighborhoods, Danilenko found 146 churingas inside the two grottoes of Kamyana Mohyla, namely the “Wizard Grotto” and “The Cave of Churingas.”

In the book, published few years after his death, he started the process of these churingas interpretation (Danilenko, 1986). According to Danilenko, the “Wizard Grotto” and the portable rock art specimens discovered inside it were attributed to the Upper Paleolithic period (Danilenko, 1986, pp. 74–116). He published and described 29 churingas retrieved from the “Wizard Grotto” Figure 5(2–4) and provides an interpretation according to his view of the Upper Paleolithic cultural world and the relevant interpretative tradition (Danilenko, 1986, pp. 74–116). Unfortunately, the interpretation of this collection was interrupted by Danilenko’s sudden death. Moreover, the quality of his drawings is not clear enough (Figure 5).

During the excavation carried out in the Kamyana Mohyla Hill, he also studied another cave. According to Danilenko, “up to 40 churingas” (Danilenko, 1986, p. 118) were found there (Figures 4 and 5). He calls this place “The Cave of Churingas” and shortly describes the finds that he discovered (Danilenko, 1986, pp. 118–130).

“The main part [of the stones] contains geometrical and linear engravings, some are clear; the constant feature is the similarity to the shape of a fish. The churingas we have excavated can be divided by shape into several categories: dolphin-like, fish-like, spindle-like (with or without fins); flatfish-like and finally, catfish-like ones” (Danilenko, 1986, p. 118).

Due to their different shape, condition and motifs, Danilenko also attributed all these finds to the Late Mesolithic or Early Neolithic period. He considers the Cave of Churingas a Mesolithic and Neolithic complex and interprets all of fish-like stones as probably Mesolithic. All of the assemblages described by Danilenko are stored in the Institute of Archaeology of National Academy of Science of Ukraine in Kyiv.

Later, during the 1980–1990s, the research at Kamyana Mohyla were continued by Mykhailov, the head of the Kamyana Mohyla National Reserve. He excavated many rock shelters and locations in the Hill, which greatly improved the collection of the churingas. In his book (Mykhailov, 2005), he published almost 100 drawings of portable rock art specimens and provides a short description of each of them. Sometimes, he also enriches the technical description with a semantic interpretation (Figure 6).

Figure 6 
               Some churingas described by Mykhailov: (1) Neolithic churinga (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 12); (2) Upper Paleolithic, a head of a lion (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 32); (3) Neolithic amorphic block (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 13); (4) block with the image of a bird (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 39); (5) Neolithic Zoomorphic block (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 19); (6) Early Bronze Age sculpture (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 41).

Figure 6

Some churingas described by Mykhailov: (1) Neolithic churinga (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 12); (2) Upper Paleolithic, a head of a lion (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 32); (3) Neolithic amorphic block (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 13); (4) block with the image of a bird (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 39); (5) Neolithic Zoomorphic block (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 19); (6) Early Bronze Age sculpture (after Lobanova & Mykhailova, 2017, p. 41).

However, some of the churingas he discovered remain unpublished. Moreover, we do not know the contexts from which they have been retrieved and they have never been drawn. The assemblage found by Mykhailov consists of 231 elements, most of which are now in the stores of the Reserve. The finds come from 13 different locations (grottoes and polissoirs) and even from the surface around the Kamyana Mohyla Hill (Figure 4). Unfortunately, Mykhailov did not specify the location of polissoirs No. 8 and 11.

Mykhailov distinguishes churingas, sculptures and blocks. Moreover, he tries to describe them without any kind of common structure. The author did not provide any detailed description of the method he employed that would allow applying the same method or validating it. According to Mykhailov, the assemblage consists of artifacts attributable to the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Meso/Neolithic, the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.

Speaking of the engraving interpretation, Danilenko and Mykhailov follow numerous rock art researchers and usually focus on style, semantic meaning and archaeological context. Obviously, the category of style is subjective and cannot be the reason for sufficient interpretation and sometimes leads to the crucial failures and misunderstanding (Bednarik, 2015, 2017a,b). The low level of credibility is also peculiar to the semantic interpretations and should be avoided. This is even more obvious for the extremely schematic portable art of Kamyana Mohyla. Even if some particular notches and engravings have their semantic meaning, we are incapable to understand it without informed knowledge (Taçon & Chippindale, 1998). Obviously, to understand these art instances in their entirety, we usually need to considerate their cultural and archaeological context (Plonka, 2003, pp. 17–21; Volkova, 2011, pp. 471–472; Weserby, 1927).

In this regards, the portable art of Kamyana Mohyla is ambivalent phenomenon. On the one hand, the churingas are out of any cultural and stratigraphic context. The caves of Kamyana Mohyla were never inhabited so the artifacts cannot be linked with any cultural horizon. Furthermore, it is impossible to provide the informative analysis of the stratigraphy for the caves filled with sand. On the other hand, the landscape around the site is rich for prehistorical settlements and burials. The biggest one that is located quite nearby has been habituated by the representatives of the Mesolithic Kukrek culture and Neolithic Surska and Azov-Dnieper culture for ages. Though both Danilenko and Mykhailov have obviously considered this during their interpretation of Kamyana Mohyla portable rock art instances, a huge amount of new data (and new methodological considerations) has arrived since the previous interpretation endeavor. It should be taken into account to clarify and expand our view on the Kamyana Mohyla portable rock art complex.

However, this does not bring us closer to the dating or understanding of rock art instances. Despite the accomplished level of our knowledge of prehistoric culture and mindset, the idea of semantic interpretation of rock art still seems to be too presumptuous (Bednarik, 2013; 2015, pp. 26–27, 2016). Moreover, the rock art engravings usually cannot be analyzed through chemical or physical analysis – the dating of rock art through chemical, physical or geological methods requires organic materials (for an overview, see Bednarik, 2000, 2010). Robert Bednarik claims that the geological erosion can be used for the direct dating of engravings (Bednarik, 2019a,b). Though this method proved its efficiency in some situations, it will barely work with the portable art (and has never been tested in this way) because of lack of the original surface to compare it with eroded one. This far, we do not have any efficient method for dating of Kamyana Mohyla portable rock art collection. Therefore, the studying of it means receiving all the available information on what the collection is and what the particular specimens and engravings are. This process implies a number of methodological considerations.

3 Methodology

The first issue regarding the portable rock art of Kamyana Mohyla that we have to face is whether it consists of portable items or not. According to the official glossary of International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO), mobiliary (or portable) art is “a form of palaeoart consisting of or made on objects small enough to be easily carried by humans” (IFRAO Glossary, 2020). However, portable art is generally considered to be second and the last category of rock art after the “parietal art.” This classification is still in use (Leroi-Gourhan, 1988, p. 7; Whitehouse, 1983, pp. 331–332; for detailed review, see Abadía & Morales, 2004, pp. 321–322), though was criticized as it faces numerous limitations (Abadía & Morales, 2004; Sieveking, 1979, pp. 7–8). For instance, according to this consideration, the Scythian Stellas and the sculptures from Lepenski Vir should be considered as portable ones despite there was no intention to carry them somewhere after they were located (Plonka, 2003, p. 10). Therefore, the real feature of portable art is the intension of its creator to use the artifact as the portable one (Abadía & Morales, 2004, pp. 321–322; Plonka, 2003, p. 10). Unfortunately, we do not have enough data to apply this criterion to the portable rock art of Kamyana Mohyla. However, it is possible to analyze the size and weight of the so-called “churingas” to distinguish those that we cannot consider as “mobiliary.” The size of churingas from Kamyana Mohyla Reserve shows that some of those larger than 45 cm are too heavy to be “easily carried” (Figure 7). The average group (at least one parameter is between 23 and 45 cm) should be considered depending on other parameters. The group of smaller finds (0–23 cm) is most probably to be considered as the portable stones.

Figure 7 
               The size of churingas according to Mykhailov. (1) Portable ones; (2) the average group; (3) not portable.

Figure 7

The size of churingas according to Mykhailov. (1) Portable ones; (2) the average group; (3) not portable.

The second important factor concerning engraved stones is the condition of their surface. As the site is a sandstone monadnock, stones and huge blocks can easily crush and crumble, break away from the bigger part of the rock or the cave wall. In this case, the stone can be misinterpreted as a churinga or a part of the sculpture being, however, just a part of a wider cave art figurative scene. Some of these instances can be recognized as they are covered with “desert varnish” (and, obviously, engravings) just from one side (Figure 8(1–4)). Moreover, the shape of such stones can be processed to create a sculpture or an image. However, usually the modification of shape is presented only on the front side and the back one remains clear, covered only with natural notches (Figure 8). The sortation of the collection to exclude this kind of misinterpreted churingas allows narrowing their list ones more.

Figure 8 
               Churingas (according to B. Mykhailov) with only one side processed. (1 and 2) Churinga No. 4724; (3–5) 3D model of a churinga No. 3862 (made by S. Radchenko). (1 and 3) A front side of an instance with the “desert tan” and engravings; (2 and 4) a clear back side; (5) a natural notch that was considered as artificial one.

Figure 8

Churingas (according to B. Mykhailov) with only one side processed. (1 and 2) Churinga No. 4724; (3–5) 3D model of a churinga No. 3862 (made by S. Radchenko). (1 and 3) A front side of an instance with the “desert tan” and engravings; (2 and 4) a clear back side; (5) a natural notch that was considered as artificial one.

The analysis of rock art and portable rock art surface has been often performed with photogrammetric methodology that was successfully developed and implemented in the last few decades. The petroglyphs all around the world have been studied through different types of 3D-model analysis. The most iconic and fruitful in our case is the definition of the notch superimposition on rock art instances (see Arcà, 2018; Mélard, 2010). Such processing might also be helpful for the definition of the particular image on the artifact (Mélard, Boust, Cogné, & Maigret, 2016). To improve the efficiency of such processing, the virtual light simulation tools have been implemented (Graff, Piquette, De Bruycke, & Kelany, 2018; Porter, Huber, Hoyer, & Floss,et al., 2016) and proven to replace RTI techniques for 3D objects. This workflow has been tested for the Vishap engraving inside one of the Kamyana Mohyla caves and proved to be extremely informative and efficient (Radchenko et al., 2020) (Figure 9).

Figure 9 
               The Vishap sculpture from Kamyana Mohyla (Location No. 55). (1) An image of a figure, covered with engravings (after Radchenko et al., 2020, Figure 4); (2) mesh of Vishap Figure 3D model (after Radchenko et al., 2020, Figure 6); (3) restored sequence of creation of the engravings groups, based on the interpretation of Harris matrix (after Radchenko et al., 2020, Figure 13).

Figure 9

The Vishap sculpture from Kamyana Mohyla (Location No. 55). (1) An image of a figure, covered with engravings (after Radchenko et al., 2020, Figure 4); (2) mesh of Vishap Figure 3D model (after Radchenko et al., 2020, Figure 6); (3) restored sequence of creation of the engravings groups, based on the interpretation of Harris matrix (after Radchenko et al., 2020, Figure 13).

To sum up, the methodology for the processing and interpretation of portable rock art instances from Kamyana Mohyla used so far by Danilenko and Mykhailov (that consists of photo fixation, drawing and then semantic interpretation) shows its bad efficiency in terms of collection understanding. The interpretations both of parietal art specimens (Radchenko & Nykonenko, 2019; Radchenko et al., 2020) and of portable ones are debatable and should be provided after the accurate observation, sorting and research. Such an observation should start from the reflection on the object’s portability due to their measured metric parameters (length and width) and weight. Next issue is the appearance of desert varnish and the shape of the specimen in general. Implementing these criteria is helpful to distinguish the portable rock art specimens from “non-portable” ones (see Figure 8(3–5) as an example of the latter) and is also helpful for the general reconstruction of the specimen’s life cycle. Onward, the analysis of their spatial context is required – both for every object and as a whole. Finally, the detailed photogrammetric 3D modeling is needed for the high precision analysis of the instance’s shape. This is not only a source on the additional metric data (such as instance density), but is also required to provide the detailed and precise drawing of the object. Last but not least, the surface analysis of the engraved stones 3D models showed its efficiency in defining the relative chronology of the notches (Radchenko et al., 2020) and the technological issues of their creation (Mélard et al., 2016).

An application of all of these considerations to the described portable art collection from Ukraine and (especially) its Mesolithic part leads us to the reshaping of the artifacts complex in general and approaches to the slightest clarification concerning this unique rock art complex.

4 Materials and Discussion

The descriptive list of the “Kamyana Mohyla” Reserve’s storage states that 41 of portable rock art specimens were attributed by Mykhailov to the Mesolithic due to their fish-like shape. They were retrieved from three different caves (Figure 10). Some of them have a shape of fish, bear or zoomorphic creatures; others are just blocks with geometric engravings. However, on the same basis, some of the specimens were attributed to the Neolithic (Figure 11). Most of the Neolithic churingas were discovered in the same grottoes as were the Mesolithic ones (Figures 10 and 11). Moreover, most of the churingas that Mykhailov connects to the fish or fishing were attributed by this author to the Neolithic Age (37 out of 100 Neolithic artifacts represent fish or its part). Only four fish-like pieces have been attributed to the Mesolithic and seven to the Chalcolithic or the Bronze Age, while two remain uninterpreted. Following Mykhailov’s death in 2008, the interpretation of the collection was never finished.

Figure 10 
               Locations where the churingas interpreted as Mesolithic ones have been found. (1) Location where M. Rudinsliy found the fish-like churinga in 1952; (2) the Cave of Churingas (No. 54); (3) the Goat Cave (No. 60); (4) the Cave of a Bison (No. 36).

Figure 10

Locations where the churingas interpreted as Mesolithic ones have been found. (1) Location where M. Rudinsliy found the fish-like churinga in 1952; (2) the Cave of Churingas (No. 54); (3) the Goat Cave (No. 60); (4) the Cave of a Bison (No. 36).

Figure 11 
               Locations where the churingas interpreted as Neolithic ones have been found. (1) The Bull grotto (No. 9); (2) the Cave of Churingas (No. 54); (3) location No. 65; (4) the Cave of a Bison (No. 36).

Figure 11

Locations where the churingas interpreted as Neolithic ones have been found. (1) The Bull grotto (No. 9); (2) the Cave of Churingas (No. 54); (3) location No. 65; (4) the Cave of a Bison (No. 36).

Out of the 41 churingas that Mykhailov interpreted as Mesolithic, 34 called “Mesolithic, XII–VII millennia BC” and 7 are presumably “Meso/Neolithic VIII–VI millennia BC” and can be generally considered as Late Mesolithic ones. The discussion concerning the Mesolithic and Neolithic cultural layers of the settlement nearby and the related dating is close to the end; both Mesolithic and Neolithic layers are presented here. Applying to the settlements in the Kamyana Mohyla surroundings, the term “Neolithic,” however, implies an existence of ceramic complexes, not an appearance of agricultural or pastoral-oriented societies (Kiosak & Kotova, 2020).

There is only one “non-portable” stone among the Mesolithic churingas of Kamyana Mohyla. Three more (No. 3849, 3861 and 4715 after Mykhailov) are “barely portable” and contain geometric engravings (as well as desert varnish) only from one side. One more (No. 3850) is “barely portable.” Though it is covered with linear notches from both sides, the sandstone is extremely soft and the “desert varnish” is absent. Therefore, its surface would likely be eroded through millennia. This one has been found on the surface of the Hill instead of any kind of a cave.

Taking this into account, the list of Mesolithic churingas, collected by Mykhailov, has been shortened to 36 stones. Most of them are covered with some geometric engravings, some are considered to be zoomorphic (Figure 12). Only one of these instances has been found on the Hill, others are located in the Cave No. 60 (the so-called “Goat Cave”) and Cave No. 36 (“The Cave of a Bison”). The semantic interpretation of these churingas is barely possible as the engravings are mostly schematic. Apparently, Mykhailov attributed them according to his assumptions on the dating of cave art instances nearby. For instance, the central rock art panel from the “Goat Cave” has been (mis-(?)) interpreted as Mesolithic one (Figure 3(1)). Mykhailov provided it semantic interpretation as a scene of goat domestication during Mesolithic (Mykhailov, 2005, pp. 106–110) that does not correspond neither with the archaeological materials from the settlement nearby (Kotova et al., 2017) nor with the recent data on the goat domestication in Eurasia (Zheng et al., 2020). The semantic interpretation of this scene as the depiction of domestication one is obviously wrong; the more relevant version, however, still waits for the publication.

Figure 12 
               Churingas, interpreted by Mykhailov as Mesolithic ones (images taken by S. Radchenko). (1) Amorphic, animal with a long head (No. 3836); (2) subrectangular, zoomorphic creature (No. 3842); (3) amorphic, zoomorphic creature (No. 4696); (4) phalloid shape (No. 4698); (5) oval shape with vertical notches (No. 4701); (6) oval, zoomorphic figures on both sides (No. 4706); (7) triangular, therianthropic figures on the front side (No. 4708); (8) oval, anthropomorphic figure on the front (No. 4709); (9) subtriangular, head of a fish (No. 4712); (10) oval shape (No. 4737).

Figure 12

Churingas, interpreted by Mykhailov as Mesolithic ones (images taken by S. Radchenko). (1) Amorphic, animal with a long head (No. 3836); (2) subrectangular, zoomorphic creature (No. 3842); (3) amorphic, zoomorphic creature (No. 4696); (4) phalloid shape (No. 4698); (5) oval shape with vertical notches (No. 4701); (6) oval, zoomorphic figures on both sides (No. 4706); (7) triangular, therianthropic figures on the front side (No. 4708); (8) oval, anthropomorphic figure on the front (No. 4709); (9) subtriangular, head of a fish (No. 4712); (10) oval shape (No. 4737).

However, this would be a one-sided view on the Mesolithic portable rock art complex on Kamyana Mohyla. It has been noticed before that Mykhailov unlike Danilenko considers some fish-like churingas to be Neolithic. However, numerous research on the culture and habitation of Late Mesolithic societies in Europe force us to reconsider this approach.

Considering the modern state of the archaeological record, it is reasonable to suppose that the northwestern Pontic area had already been inhabited by a range of different cultural groups upon the arrival of Central European early farmers (including complex, river-oriented societies) (see Radchenko et al., 2020). Such fishing-oriented societies settled the shores and banks of the big European rivers during Late Mesolithic times (in the first part of Atlantic period) and drawn much attention during the last 50 years (see Kitagawa et al., 2018; Tringham, 1971) and has been specifically developed for the territory of Ukraine (Zaliznyak, 1998). It is true for numerous iconic settlements – Rakushechny Yar on the Don (Dolbunova et al., 2020; Gorelik, Tsybrij, & Tsybrij, 2016), Surskyi island on Dnieper (Demchenko, 2016), Buh-Dniester culture sites on Dniester and Southern Buh (Danilenko, 1969; Kiosak, 2014; Kiosak & Salavert, 2018; Markevich, 1974) and even the Schela Cladovei-Lepenski Vir culture on Danube (Bartosiewicz & Bonsall, 2004; Bonsall et al., 2004). These groups have a number of mutual features such as common tendency to exploit freshwater resources and, likely, the presence of fish symbols in the ritual life of the group. The Kamyana Mohyla 1 and other consequent settlements on the Molochnaya River nearby Kamyana Mohyla were likely related to that process. Moreover, fish bones and numerous Unio shells have been found during recent excavations there (Danilenko, 1986).

Since fish has been an important source of food supply, the fish-related beliefs are likely to be the part of life for Mesolithic societies (Kryzhevskaya, 1991; Neprina, 1988, 1991; Tsybrij, 2004). Consequently, the fish images are likely to appear during that period. Probably, on Kamyana Mohyla, they are also related to the Late Mesolithic cultures. For instance, in Ukrainian Steppe, some cultural groups have been probably catfish oriented (Danilenko, 1950, p. 129; Telegin, 2000, p. 70). It has been reflected in the cave art of Kamyana Mohyla – the image of a catfish appears here on the sandstone protrusion (Figure 11) (Radchenko et al., 2020) and is likely to be duplicated on the portable art instances.

Same trend to picture fishes in Mesolithic age is well-known in Eastern Europe and the Asian part of Russia (Kungurova, 2004; Oshibkina, Krainov, & Zimina, 1992). The most iconic example of fish-oriented beliefs is presented by the settlement of Lepenski Vir. Its dwellers focused on catching Huso huso, the largest of sturgeons in Danube. The figurines within the site are somehow similar to this very species (Živaljević, 2012, Figures 5 and 6).

Following all abovementioned, it is reasonable to reconsider all the fish-like portable rock art instances from Kamyana Mohyla (mostly figurines) as Late Mesolithic ones. Thirty-three specimens attributed to Neolithic (following Mykhailov) that picture a fish or a part of a fish has been found in the same caves (“The Cave of a Bison” and “The Goat Cave”), two has been located directly on the slope of the Hill, one is nearby the “Polissoir No. 8” (on the Northern slope of Kamyana Mohyla Hill (Mykhailov, 2005, p. 95)) and the last one has been discovered in the location No. 65. If we are to exclude those are too big to be portable (or would be too big if pictured the whole figure of a fish instead of its part) and also those were presumably the part of a stone wall (without desert varnish and processing traces on the one side), the list will shorten up to 19 instances. The interpretation of their shape and engravings could also be helpful, but this exhaustive process is yet to come. All of figurines from the “short list” (Figure 13) (except the small stone from the Polissoir No. 8 that is barely similar to a fish) have been found in the same caves as Mesolithic ones and possibly is the part of the same portable rock art complex.

Figure 13 
               Fishing-related churingas of Kamyana Mohyla, described by Mykhailov (images taken by S. Radchenko). (1, 2, 4–8) Fish-like figurines; (3) block with the image of a fish on a front side. (1) No. 458; (2) No. 462; (3) No. 3840; (4) No. 4695; (5) No. 4703; (6) No. 4769; (7) No. 4779; (8) No. 4838.

Figure 13

Fishing-related churingas of Kamyana Mohyla, described by Mykhailov (images taken by S. Radchenko). (1, 2, 4–8) Fish-like figurines; (3) block with the image of a fish on a front side. (1) No. 458; (2) No. 462; (3) No. 3840; (4) No. 4695; (5) No. 4703; (6) No. 4769; (7) No. 4779; (8) No. 4838.

Among 12 other fish figurines that was interpreted neither as Mesolithic nor Neolithic, only six fits to the criteria of size and surface parameters. This shortens the list of location where the Mesolithic churingas has been found to three (Figure 14).

Figure 14 
               Location map of clearly Mesolithic complexes on Kamyana Mohyla (except for Polissoir No. 8). (1) The Cave of Churingas (No. 54); (2) the Goat Cave (No. 60); (3) the Cave of a Bison (No. 36).

Figure 14

Location map of clearly Mesolithic complexes on Kamyana Mohyla (except for Polissoir No. 8). (1) The Cave of Churingas (No. 54); (2) the Goat Cave (No. 60); (3) the Cave of a Bison (No. 36).

Counting all these complexes together, the Mesolithic portable rock art collection from Kamyana Mohyla contains approximately 101 instances (including those “up to 40” found by Danilenko in the “Cave of Churingas”). However, further analysis of their surface, notches and engravings together with spatial and archaeological contexts is required to continue the accurate processing of this collection.

5 Conclusion

The site of Kamyana Mohyla in Ukrainian Steppe is a unique archaeological and rock art complex rich with numerous prehistoric materials. Though it has been studied for long, lot of work still remains undone and we are indeed on the very beginning of the comprehensive understanding of the site. Among the numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age rock art specimens and archaeological sites, Kamyana Mohyla introduces a huge amount of data on local Mesolithic population, its habitation and beliefs.

Mesolithic portable rock art instances from here, typically called “churingas,” form a collection of many artifacts that are waiting for the comprehensive interpretation achieved through contemporary methods and approaches. Unfortunately, we do not have an opportunity to date these instances or at least place them into any time lap for sure. Even the basic analysis of these data requires considering what the portable rock art is in relation to the specific materials. Talking about the rock art of Kamyana Mohyla, we need to reconsider the collection taking into account many aspects, such as the portability of instances, the features of their surface and the data obtained from the photogrammetric study. It is dubious that we will ever be able to recognize the real meaning of Kamyana Mohyla churingas for sure; however, we are capable of moving forward in the systematic analysis of this dataset. For now, it is clear that the huge collection of almost 100 artifacts is related to the Mesolithic population of the region nearby. The most part of this dataset is probably connected to the complex river-oriented societies focused on fishing as the important part of their economy. This phenomenon has been reflected into numerous portable rock art specimens, gathered into the caves of Kamyana Mohyla and its surrounding.

The first steps to the processing of portable rock art collection from the Ukrainian site shed some light on the nature of the complex and its prehistorical context. They also brightened the obstacles that prevent us from a comprehensive understanding of this collection. However, an exhaustive research is still required to obtain all the possible data from the churingas of Kamyana Mohyla. As usual, the hope remains that such study is yet to come.


Special Issue published in cooperation with Meso'2020 – Tenth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, edited by Thomas Perrin, Benjamin Marquebielle, Sylvie Philibert, and Nicolas Valdeyron


  1. Funding information: The research was supported by H2020-MSCA-COFUND, G.A. nr. 754511 – “PhD Technology Driven Sciences: Technologies for Cultural Heritage (T4C)” – second call.

  2. Conflict of interest: Author states no conflict of interest.

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Received: 2021-04-27
Revised: 2022-01-29
Accepted: 2022-02-23
Published Online: 2022-04-12

© 2022 Simon Radchenko, published by De Gruyter

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