The face of the sun god, sheep chased by men with bows and arrows, ritual masks and shamanic sacrifice — all carved into rock thousands of years ago — shed light on prehistoric pastoral people on China’s borders.
Titled: “A Voice from Ancient Time,” an exhibition of spectacular and intriguing petroglyphs from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China is underway through November 18 at the China Art Museum.
More than 130 items are displayed, including 20 actual petroglyphs cut from rock, as well as 50 rubbings and 61 photographs. Pictures of petroglyphs from other regions and countries are also displayed for comparison.
Ningxia, a rugged, scenic region on the ancient Silk Road, is China’s richest source of petroglyphs depicting daily life and beliefs of prehistoric peoples.
Significant petroglyphs are also found in the bordering Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The carvings depict people, faces, sheep, buffalo, fish, hunting and herding scenes, sexual intercourse, masks, shamans, rituals, sacrifice, symbols, celestial bodies and deities.
They are made by gouging, incising, scratching and abrading.
A few of the more recent works contain mineral colors.
They date from the Paleolithic Age to the Iron Age, dating from 30,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago. Many are found in the open on boulders along ancient travel and herding routes.
“Petroglyphs are called the historic record carved and painted on rocks,” says Qiao Hua, senior researcher of Ningxia Rock Art Research Institute.
“Most of China’s historic books recorded the lives of emperors and rarely reflected how ordinary people lived, but you can find much of this information in petroglyphs, including religion and daily activities.”
Considering transport difficulties, only 20 pieces at show are actual petroglyphs. To help visitors appreciate the broader context, petroglyphs from other parts of China and other countries are exhibited.
Ningxia petroglyphs, representative artworks of the northern petroglyph system, focus more on hunting, herding, warfare and dances, while those in southwestern China depict more religious activities. Those in the southeast near the coast depict boats, fish and fishing, among other things.
Trove of human faces
Ningxia petroglyphs are also distinguished by their trove of human faces carved into rocks of the Helan Mountains. Around 6,000 petroglyphs are found on the 1.5-kilometer-long rock cliff in the eastern foothills. Of those, 708 are images of faces, including those of humans and gods.
One of the most dramatic is the face of the sun god, staring with big, round eyes, rays extending around his face.
Most of the human faces are simple. Some, probably those of shamans, wear horns, feathers and headdresses.
“If you observe the faces closely, you may find that the facial features are actually pieced together by various artistic symbols, which is very interesting,” says Qiao. “And if you study the lines closely, you will also figure out roughly when they were made.”
The earliest petroglyphs typically feature thick, deep lines, while later carvings have more delicate lines, indicating the artists mastered the use of various cutting tools. More recent carvings were painted with mineral dyes.