Ancient rock art of Bhutan July 24, 2015

Archaeology, Thimphu: Bhutan: Located along a riverbed in the upper reaches of Thimphu are a series of open-air rock art. These rock art are set on a single, exposed rock face that stands along a tributary of the Thimchu.The contents of the rock art are varied in style, media, and theme. The earliest assemblage, which I label ‘prehistoric,’ includes several pictographs in red, along with a single petroglyph.

They are all zoomorphic in subject. The assemblage comprises a rather handsome looking mammal of the equid family; a four-legged animal with a pair of horns, rendered in an entirely different style, making it look a lot older; another horse-like mammal that is slightly engraved; and finally, two animals in flight. There are also other blotches of red – likely hematite pigments – but no comprehensible form could be deciphered from them.

The next assemblage is also in red, but is predominately made up of the letter ‘’, signifying clearly the arrival of writing and the prevalence of Buddhism in the region. This series, for obvious reasons, is from the historic period and, therefore, distinct from the paintings in the earlier series that lacked textuality. The historical layer is superseded by more modern mani writings in charcoal, and this layer in turn is succeeded by yet more mani mantras, in contemporary, synthetic paint.

Locals splash water on the paintings to make them more visible. This practice is, no doubt, detrimental to the survival of the paintings in the longer run, as it erodes the pigments from the surface. But part of the belief here is that the paintings are rangjung or self-arising, which is why they have not disappeared after centuries of washes.

It could be deciphered from the observations that the pictographs on the rock face represent several episodes of human habitation and expression. That the series of images evolved through time is not unusual for archaeological sites, but they must be understood in the right context in order to avoid the imposition of current belief systems to what is found from a distant past.

It is important to understand that, while the production of permanent marks on the environment may allow, especially in societies dependent on oral transmission of knowledge such as ours, those marks to be used as mnemonics and to establish the importance of the habits and practices of the mark makers, the transmission itself may not remain faithful through time. The images produced and the thinking behind their production are both subject to evolution, and therefore require careful contextual examination.

Thus, in this case, while there exists a cultural relationship between the site and the people living in the region, ethnographic analogies alone are unable to give us the answers. The ethnographic data collected informs us the rock art site is locally believed to be a ‘sacred site’ of the Zhabdrung.

The Zhabdrung would most likely have seen the pictographs, at least the earlier series, as it was along this very stream that he walked to Barshong from Mentsiphu on his flight to Bhutan from Tibet. Religious men and hermits, who wander about the mountains, also believed the site to be sacred. One of the paintings on the rock is that of Guru Padmasambhava’s riding pony. What is remarkable here is that the ethnographic data alone takes the date of the earliest pictographs back over a millennia to the 8th century AD. It is my belief, however, that the earliest zoomorphic pictographs are pre-Buddhist and, therefore, much older.

In the absence of a proven chronological benchmark, one could argue that the presence of the equids could be used as the terminus post quem. This is the most logical approach of establishing a chronology, but it needs further scientific testing.

Dating ancient rock paintings are extremely challenging, as the research on rock art made with organic and mineral paints is a lot less developed. It is at times possible, however, to relatively date these work.

In this case, the floor of the rock surface on which the rock art is found remains flooded for many months of each year, as the stream nearby swells during monsoon. The water, and the fact that the ground adjacent is washed off by the flowing stream annually make any attempt of archaeology within the vicinity almost ineffectual.

The horse-like mammal (zoomed in)

I have, therefore, attempted another relative dating methodology in this case – Uranium-series disequilibrium (U-series dating).

The successful use of U-series dating to date the calcite flowstone formed atop the surfaces of paintings in Spain by Pike et al (Science, 15 June 2012) provides us with a promising method to date the paintings in Bhutan, which are also layered with calcite growth. This is a less intrusive method, as only the calcite growth on top of the paintings is collected for dating, and not the pigments of the paintings.

Several such calcite samples and samples from the rock on which the art is painted were collected to be sent to relevant laboratories to accurately obtain a minimum age for the art. Assigning dates to the paintings is central to understanding when art and human symbolic behaviour began in the region.

Whether a Laptsa chorten, an engraving of mantras on rock, or a painting of a Buddhist master on a cliff face, we still alter our landscape, permanently marking our religious, social, and cultural identities and expressions. It is, therefore, worth to recognise rock art of great antiquity, so that we are able to protect and study them.

Our history not only began late, but is also punctuated by large periods of obscurity. Further, we know very little about the lives of the common people inhabiting the region, as the early available literatures primarily concerned with the religious communities, who were then the ruling elite. The earliest series of rock paintings are the first known prehistoric rock art in Bhutan, and give us a glimpse into a period of our land that has yet to be documented and understood.

I hope that this is the beginning of many such findings and the discovery of our ancient past. Let us keep our eyes and minds open, so that we are able to recognise and appreciate works of great antiquity, in order to better understand our distant past.

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