Rock Painting of Shulgan-Tash Cave

Date of Submission: 14/03/2018
Criteria: (i)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Republic of Bashkortostan, Municipal Burzyansky district, Rural settlement Kiekbaevsky village council
Coordinates: N53 2 40 E57 3 50
Ref.: 6309

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The nature of the South Urals is beautiful! The dense forests on the mountain slopes alternate with sunny valleys filled with honey aroma, fast, clean rivers cut through deep canyons in white limestone massifs. Since ancient times, people have chosen this wonderful country. It was inhabited already in the Paleolithic age, and here developed one of the most ancient and interesting cultures in the history of mankind. Its spiritual center, the main sanctuary was one of the most beautiful and largest caves in the Urals - Shulgan-Tash or Kapova сave.

Time flowed, years fled and only in January 1760 one of the first explorers of the region P. I. Rychkov visited the cave and wrote an article Description of the cave, located in the Orenburg Province at the Belaya River, Which of all Caves in Bashkiria is considered the most famous and largest. The article was published in the book "Works and Translations for the Benefit and Amusement of Employees", published in St. Petersburg in 1760. This is the first description of the cave, more precisely, of its first floor.

P. Rychkov was a prominent scientist, corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy, traveler, historian, economist, archaeologist and ethnographer. His description of the cave is detailed and coincides with later ones. For example, in the Main Gallery he discovered a "dry human head", apparently mummified in the cave conditions.

10 years later I. Lepekhin visited the cave. He was naturalist, traveler and academician. In 1768-1772 he directed expeditions to the Urals, the Volga Region and the north of Russia.

His "Day Travel Notes" is the fundamental work of Russian science of the eighteenth century. This author is trustworthy. And it was him who described an area in the Kapova cave, which we do not know until now ...

Description by I. Lepekhin is very detailed, colorful and emotional: it is impossible to make up such things. Part of the description coincides with modern observations and cave maps, and everything that concerns the second floor is a mystery that speleologists and carstologists have been trying to solve for 200 years. Some authors believe that during these centuries the cave has changed a lot: some old passages were overgrown with calcite rubble, blocked by landslides, new courses and halls opened. Others believe that in conditions of poor illumination, in an unfamiliar environment of a huge cave labyrinth, the academician could easily make mistakes in azimuth measurements, especially if he did not record them in detail, or even from memory. In fact, Kapova cave remained almost the same as it was 200 years ago. It has not changed much since the people of the Stone Age left it. The age of the Cave is at least three to four million years. It was a large speleosystem before glaciation.

Shulgan-Tash cave is located on the right bank of the Agidel (Belaya) River, 40 kilome-ters from the center of Burzyansky district of Bashkortostan, Starosubhangulovo village, on the territory of the Reserve, organized fifty years ago in order to preserve the pristine beauty of this marvelous region.

In the second year of the existence of the Bashkir Reserve, in 1959, the Reserve employee, biologist A. V. Ryumin, found in the Cave the first drawings of the Paleolithic age in Russia. A new difficult task arose for scientists: how to save a jewel that has just been found, how to save drawings from further destruction? It became obvious that for the rescue of painting it is necessary to conduct systematic observations, to investigate all the features of the Cave, to create conditions for long-term preservation of the drawings.

Now that half a century after the opening of the drawings and 50 years of the Reserve have passed, which preserved the shore of the Cave with its ancient paintings, it's time to look back and sum up some findings and discoveries.

Before you here are the result of joint work of many people: Bashkirs and Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians, scientists and speleologists-tourists, young and not so much ...

The discovery of wall drawings painted with red ochre in the halls of two floors of the cave became the most important one in the field of the early history of mankind, proving the existence of a unique well-developed primitive culture here, in the Southern Urals, that created remarkable drawings of animals and complicated abstract signs. The way of A. V. Ryumin to this discovery was both long and difficult. He foresaw the existence of ancient Paleolithic painting in the Southern Urals, persistently looked for it and his efforts led to this great success.

A. V. Ryumin correctly determined the time of creating the drawings as the Paleolithic. Not being an expert in archeology, A. V. Ryumin failed to determine the precise age of the images. He thought them to be 40 thousand years old. In fact, they appeared to be more than twice as young. It led to the wrong interpretation of many images scarcely discernible under the graffiti, clay and calcite films.

Much is still unclear in the history of the Shulgan-Tash cave painting. There exists a colour photo of the first composition on the eastern wall of the Hall of Drawings taken by A. V. Ryumin long before the restoration work started. The photo clearly reveals the red out lines of zoomorphic drawings with a large ugly graffiti upon them. It is impossible not to see those red images.

All in all A. V. Ryumin discovered about 50 drawings. Unfortunately he did not compile a well-done catalogue. Most images had not been cleared off yet at that time, and now it is difficult to exactly determine what drawings were found by him. The main thing is that he discovered the South-Uralian Paleolithic art centre.After the discovery of the cave painting the prominent archaeologist from Moscow O. N. Bader conducted research in the Cave since 1960 till 1978. He confirmed the authenticity of the drawings and their Paleolithic age but denied the existence of black drawings and sculptures.

The interpretation of some images found by A. V. Ryumin turned out to be wrong. They were acknowledged to be nature’s whim.

Only at the end of the work, in the process of clearing the walls, there were re-vealed two pictures done in black colour (Bader, 1979). Bader referred the age of these pictures close to Magdalenian.

Copying and photographing the images were carried out under O. N. Bader supervision. The most difficult and important work was done in the Hall of Chaos on the scarp of the southern wall. Only a bright red dot from which water kept washing out the ochre could be seen there. The restorers removed a thick (up to four cm) layer of calcite sinters and saw the brightest, fresh, close to polychromatic composition Horses of the Hall of Chaos.

More and more drawings were discovered in the process of this work. The situation is described differently on the schemes of different periods. Let us take the illustration from volume 11 of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia on p. 360 as an example. It has the composition of the eastern wall of the Hall of Drawings. The composition here lacks the image Pale Mammoth while it is present in the sketch published in 1973 (Mammoth № 9).

Many years of O. Bader's research resulted in discovering 50 images. The concise monograph Kapova Cave (34 pages) was published in 1965 which contained sketches of the main drawings and photos of poor quality. The artist K.N.Nikakhristo illustrated the edi-tion.

During his lengthy work in the Сave, O. Bader thoroughly studied all the images then accessible for observation and correctly deciphered many of them, while the All-Russian Scientific Research Geological Institute Named After А.P. Karpinsky (VSEGEI) group could do it only with the help of powerful modern digital phototechnology and a computer. For example, he correctly interpreted the picture of a bull on the west-ern wall of the Hall of Signs, though visually it was not obvious.

Above the hind part of Central Mammoth on the western wall of the Hall of Drawings O. Bader managed to see a barely distinguishable small figure of a running anthropomorph. When deciphering an image in the north-western corner of the Hall of Signs, O.Bader contrived to make out the triangular structure of the sign fragment but he failed to reconstruct it fully. To do it became possible much later, only with the help of computer.

The story with Pale Mammoth painted on the eastern wall of the Hall of Drawings beneath Mammoth the Dissident is not clear. At the present moment it is practically invisible. One can see only pale pink spots in this place. But this picture is painted clearly enough on the plastic cast in the Museum of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Bashkortostan in Ufa.

After O. N. Bader's death in 1978 the research work in the cave was continued by Leningrad scientists. Archeological investigation had been conducted by the experienced researcher V. Ye.Shchelinsky. Having analyzed the situation, Shchelinsky spotted the place for excavation near the northern wall of the Hall of Signs.

Soon at a depth of about half a metre there appeared coals in the pit. It was an occupation layer of the Paleolithic age! The finds went one after another. A lot of stone items, decorations chips and bone carvings were found there. This was a sensation, because until now it was believed that people did not live in the Kapova cave. It turned out that lived, but above all the Cave was a sanctuary, a temple. Right in this occupation layer a broken piece of limestone was uncovered with a drawing painted in ochre. It was a rare stroke of luck. Now it became possible to confidently say that both the occupation layer and the wall drawings were approximately of the same age. With the help of radiocarbon dating the age of the occupation layer was defined as Late Paleolithic and the Madeleine culture, the end of the Ice Age.

The Russian Geographical Society (RGS) speleologists supervised by Yury Lyakhnitsky began their work as the members of the South-Uralian Paleolithic expedition lead by V.Shchelinsky. Later they continued the work as an independent group. The complex programme of speleological research required the organization of independent scientific expeditions and the participation of different experts in them. Such work could only be carried out by the joint efforts of the All-Russian Scientific Research Geological Institute Named After А. P. Karpinsky (VSEGEI) and the Commission of Speleology and Carst Studies of the Russian Geographical Society.

Along with the arrangement of complex monitoring of dynamic and geoecological parameters, museumification and the development of the activities aimed at the preservation of the painting, one of the main tasks was the complex comprehensive fixation of ancient images. It was necessary because of the rapid degradation of the drawings during the long period of time when the condition of the drawings was not monitored and the fixation of the images with modern methods was not done. A new technique was needed for the complex fixation of images, including photographic, topographic, morphometrical and other ones which could preserve ancient images as fully and accurately as possible.

The obtained parameters should give sufficiently full and precise characteristics of the drawings and their combinations on the whole and, if necessary, afford their reproduction.

Numerous paintings of the cave are heterogeneous to a great extent. For their registration, analysis of their peculiarities and revealing the regularity of their disposition in the cave it is necessary to classify them and, first of all, to establish basic concepts.

The most common concept, uniting all the drawings, stains and signs is represented by the word “image”. Images may be artificial (done by man) and natural (done by nature).

Artificial images are conventionally referred to as ancient (Paleolithic), a later period (Eneolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age), “old” (medieval) and modern (18-21th cc.).

First of all the images should be grouped according to their morphology and contents. The most important types are zoomorphic and anthropomorphic drawings and abstract conven-tional geometric signs. In addition to them we also have to single out one more complicated type: stains.

Morphology, stylistic character and colour being taken into consideration, it is possible to make a classification reflecting all the peculiarities of the images. This will enable us to draw conclusions about the conceptions of ancient “artists”, the epoch of image creation and their aim. These groups of drawings will help to do a historical and artistic analysis of “the painting”.

Shulgan-Tash cave images may be divided into a number of types which may further be subdivided into smaller groups. The first large type is numerous red zoomorphic drawings, very realistic. Their stylistic peculiarities and configuration are very close to the Western European Madeleine.

Most of them are contour drawings. Inside them one can see some zones where the lines of their contours thicken and some parts and details of the figures are shaded. There are several silhouette drawings, actually fully shaded, but the depth of their colour is not homogeneous.

Most images in the Hall of Drawings belong to the zoomorphic contour type, for example, “Walking Mammoth” on the eastern wall of the Hall of Drawings. A typical silhouette image is “Red Mammoth” of the second composition on the western wall of the Hall of Drawings. All of them are painted in red ochre.

So the Cave images are rather heterogeneous. It is one of the Cave's peculiarities that puts forward complicated and difficult tasks of interpreting and fathoming the collected material. Certainly, the Cave images do not match the notion “painting”, for they represent a complex system of conventional ritual symbols and abstract, probably, information signs.

The best known and well preserved are red realistic contour images on the second floor in the Hall of Drawings. Most of them are mammoths (7), two woolly rhinoceroses and a bull. Almost all of them are contour drawings; only one “Red Mammoth” is shown in silhouette, fully painted with red ochre. The colour of these images is in fact scarlet, its intensity being average or low.

Almost all the images from the Hall of Drawings are zoomorphic, done in one style as if according to a certain canon. Each composition has one anthropomorphic schematic drawing. The only sign in the Hall is a large trapezium with twelve ribs, painted in the right lower corner of the first composition.

It is, no doubt, an indivisible group, closest to the Western European Madeleine culture. If we use Leroi-Gourhan's classification, it belongs to the transitional group between the third and the fourth ones. The coal from O. N. Bader's pit under the eastern wall of the Hall, according to laboratory analyses, is 17-10 thousand years old. It is the Late Paleolithic and the Madeleine culture.

The compiled Catalogue of Drawings and Signs of Shulgan-Tash (Kapova) cave are reflected, illustrated and preserved the appearances of the unique cultural monument having the sole, comparatively well-preserved Paleolithic painting in the eastern part of Eurasia.

Altogether, 195 images have been fixed in the Cave, 140 of which have been discovered in recent years. The obtained information gives a new characteristic to this unique monument and reveals the existence in Paleolithic of an independent centre of ancient culture in the Southern Urals, which is in many aspects analogous to that of Western Europe in the Pyrenean-Cantabrian area.

The cave images are inseparable from its spacious halls, long and high galleries and narrow secluded niches. The cave is not just a home for ancient drawings. It is their habitat that greatly influenced the consciousness and creative process of an ancient artist.

There are 195 images listed in the Catalogue but in all probability new images will be discovered in future, especially after further clearing of the walls. It is a fresh meaningful confirmation of the thesis that in the Paleolithic the Southern Urals contained an independent, highly developed centre of the great early culture of mankind.

The problem of the preservation of images

The survival of the drawings is dependent on their conservation. Disappointingly, the drawings in the cave have been affected for millennia by negative factors of anthropogeny and hypergenesis. Many environmental conditions are damaging factors: carst waters (infiltrating and inflowing), pellicular and condensate moisture, microclimatic alterations (temperature and humidity) the overgrowth of calcite sinters, peeling of the paint layer and the corrosion of limestone by microbiota (micromycetas - mould, microfungi and algae).

The negative influence exerted by man is also extensive, primarily uncontrolled, unreg-ulated tourism. The presence of large numbers of people in the cave raises the temperature and humidity, increases the concentration of carbon dioxide to a dangerous level and leads to the microbiological pollution of the cave. The cases of barbaric treatment of the images are not so rare.

In the West after the discovery of the remarkable Paleolithic drawings at Altamira, Lascaux and other caves, access to them was allowed to thousands of people. In a comparatively short span this brought about serious adverse effects: light, warmth and breathing caused intensive growth of microscopic blue-and-green algae, which covered the drawings with ugly stains (“green danger”) and the increase of carbon dioxide concentration resulted in the rapid growth of calcite crystals and sinter crusts which covered the walls of the caves together with the drawings (“white danger”). An increase of humidity and a rise of temperature brought about intensive condensate formation. Red drops began falling from the roof and walls: the moisture was corroding the colourant. Mass tourism in the caves with Paleolithic paintings was banned. Armored gates with intricate locks were installed at the entrance to the caves.

A temporary way out was found through the creation of duplicates of the caves. Precise copies of the halls with drawings together with their full interiors were made from plastic and other materials. Certainly, this involves considerable expenses.

In connection with above mentioned, very timely was Russian President Vladimir Putin`s Instruction № VP-P44-5133 of July 28, 2010 on the development of a museum complex on the basis of Kapova cave. Activities for improving the excursion itinerary, the preparation of which we had initiated, underwent further development. A possibility opened up to ameliorate the museum complex on the whole, to renovate the stock of instruments and to carry out activities for improving conditions for the conservation of the images.

The future of the unique monument depends on the holding of a number of major events. First of all - from the construction of the museum the historical and cultural complex "Shulgan-Tash", in which there will be mock-ups of the halls of Shulgan-Tash cave and copies of its rock art. In the same connection, it is important to promote the Rock painting of Shul-gan-Tash cave on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Our main task is to preserve the unique Paleolithic cave painting of Eastern Eurasia for future generations.

Recent Scientific Discoveries

In November 2017, the International Expedition on the Restoration of Paleolithic Painting of the Shulgan-Tash cave was conducted for more than three weeks under the guidance of the experienced restorer Eudald Guillamet (Andorra).

Under the thick calcite filament it was found a realistic, carefully executed image with the knowledge of nature .... two-humped camel. The contour of the rear part of the animal was previously seen from under the plane cleared back in the late 1970s. A couple of years ago it was in this part of the composition that a sample of calcite drift for uranium-thorium dating was drilled, which gave an interval from 14 to 37 thousand years ago. The totality of these data makes the biography of the detected camel almost flawless, and the image does not cause fear of its authenticity.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

In one of the largest and most beautiful caves of the Urals - Shulgan-Tash cave, discovered as far back as the 18th century on the banks of the Agidel River in Bashkortostan, in 1959 rock painting dating to the era of the Upper Paleolithic (17-10 millennium BC) was found.

On three floors of Shulgan-Tash cave, which is 3323 meters long, there are more than 15 halls. The vertical amplitude is 165 meters with deep underwater cavities (80 meters), representing a three-story system of karst cavities with intensely developed siphon circulation.

The drawings, made with red ocher, are painted on the walls of the halls on both floors of the cave. This discovery was the most important in the field of Ancient History, proving that not only in Western Europe, but also in Central and Eastern Europe, there is Ancient Paleolithic painting of various animals such as mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bulls, horses and complex abstract signs.

There are 195 images in the cave, 110 of them have been discovered in recent years.

Images in the cave are inseparable from its spacious halls, long high galleries and cramped secluded niches. The cave is not just a container of ancient drawings, but also their natural environment, which significantly influenced the consciousness and creative process of the ancient master.
The received information in a new way characterizes this unique monument and testifies to the existence in the Paleolithic in the Southern Urals of an independent center of the most ancient art in many respects similar to the Western European and Pyrenees-Cantabrian centers.

Criterion (i): The most important cultural object of the nominated territory is Shulgan-Tash cave (Kapova). In 1959 in it was discovered rock painting of the Late Paleolithic era. It is the largest and most ancient complex of rock painting in Central and Eastern Europe.

Colorful images of animals differ in their realistic character, although they are not without primitivism and schematism. Figures of mammoths, rhinoceroses, bull, humans, various signs are distinguished by their expression and deep identity. With great expressiveness are depicted horses. The image style has not literal analogies either in the Urals or in Western Europe. Groups of drawings with mythological symbols stand out, in particular, testify to the existence of the cult of a horse. Similar examples of the presence of clearly mytholog-ical compositions among Paleolithic rock paintings in the world are extremely rare, which makes the Shulgan-Tash cave painting a unique phenomenon on a world scale.

The most important components of paleo-painting of Shulgan-Tash cave are conventional signs of purely geometric appearance. It should be noted that the conventional signs of the Shulgan-Tash cave are original and do not have direct analogies among the geometric forms of images in the Paleolithic wall painting of Western Europe.

Considering the time of the creation of the drawings, their artistic expressiveness and selfstyled stylistics, the high level of technology for their implementation at that time, it can be argued that the rock paintings of the Shulgan-Tash cave are a masterpiece of the crea-tive human genius of the Upper Paleolithic age.

Criterion (iii): According to the location and content of the drawings, it can also be argued that the Shulgan-Tash cave in ancient times was the sanctuary with which the mythological representations of Paleolithic people are related. Each hall with drawings in the cave was part of this sanctuary and apparently performed its functions. The veneration of the Shulgan-Tash cave, which included pilgrimage, various rites, ritual stone splitting and rock paintings with ocher, is a unique example of the tradition of the cult of caves, widespread in the Urals since the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. The tradition of cult stone splitting for this epoch is fixed in neighboring caves and in other cave sanctuaries of the Southern Urals, it was preserved up to the era of the early Middle Ages and even up to the ethnographic modernity. The tradition of drawing ocher drawings in the depths of the caves persisted in the Southern Urals for 8-9 thousand years. The Shulgan-Tash cave remained a sanctuary for many thousands of years, which is confirmed both by archaeological finds and by the results of studying Bashkir folklore. As modern studies of ethnographers show, the worship of the Cave by local Bashkirs has been preserved to this day.

Thus, the cult worship of Shulgan-Tash cave and related traditions for thousands of years and partly preserved to this day is a unique evidence of the cultural tradition.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity: The measures and precautions taken as soon as the inventors discovered the Сave, then as part of the conservation mission, guarantee the maintenance of the natural conditions indispensable for this preservation.

Almost all the images from the Hall of Drawings are zoomorphic, done in one style as if according to a certain canon. Each composition has one anthropomorphic schematic drawing. The only sign in the Hall is a large trapezium with twelve ribs, painted in the right lower corner of the first composition. It is, no doubt, an indivisible group, closest to the Western European Madeleine culture. If we use Leroi-Gourhan's classification, it belongs to the transitional group between the third and the fourth ones. The coal from pit under the eastern wall of the Hall, according to laboratory analyses, is 17-10 thousand years old. It is the Late Paleolithic.

The authenticity of the Property is demonstrated by numerous carbon - 14 dating made in the Hall of Drawings.

Integrity: Attributes justifying criteria (i) and (iii), namely the exceptional aesthetic interest of representations of the Shulgan-Tash cave, the information provided by its remains on the frequentation of deep caves in the Upper Paleolithic, and the testimony that these vestiges and these representations bring us on the Paleolithic civilization are integrally contained in the cavity.

Elements of Shulgan-Tash cave form geographic and natural components, which protect Paleolithic and picturesque compositions. It is both rivers, mountains and powerful South Ural vegetation.

The site has changed little since the people of the Stone Age left it. There was a large speleosystem here before the glaciation.
Shulgan-Tash cave is located on the bank of the Agidel (Belaya) River in the territory of the Nature Reserve, which is the buffer zone of Shulgan-Tash cave.

Comparison with other similar properties

Approximately one million years ago, great glaciation hung over mankind. From the polar regions to the forests and steppes, the entire crushing glacier began to move. People left their usual places of life. A terrible cold shook the earth, fierce predators appeared, such as a sabertoothed lion, along the ground staggered mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.

The very existence of people hung in the balance. And at this critical moment in history, people began to create. In the depths of the caves, in the silence and darkness of the subterranean, they first began to draw, creating a reflection of the world around them.

Today it is recorded in Western Europe about 41 large and small caves of the Paleolithic era with rock paintings dating from 30 to 10 thousand years BC, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Rock paintings of the Shulgan-Tash cave of the Late Paleolithic, Madeleine culture of the 18th and 17th thousand years centuries, which has a high expressiveness and original stylistics, is a unique monument and testifies to the existence in the Paleolithic of the territory of the modern Russian Federation of a center of ancient art, in many respects similar to the Western European and Pyrenean-Cantabrian centers.

The main major nominations for rock art in Western Europe that arose during the Upper and Late Paleolithic periods: Foz Coa, Cosquer, Clastres, La Garma, Niaux, Chauver, Arcy-sur-Cure, Cussac, Altamira, Lascaux, Le Tuc d'Auboubert, Fontanet. For comparison there is an indication of the chronological location of the rock painting of the Shulgan-Tash cave of the late Paleolithic and the Madeleine culture, which is firstly proposed for Central and Eastern Europe by the Russian Federation for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.