Armenian Rock Art Research Academy – Local Sites
Ughtasar: The Petroglyphs of Armenia
Rock Carvings of Armenia
Armenian National Dances
Rock-art in Armenia began in the Neolithic period, reaching its peak during the Bronze Age. Their role is important for revealing the historical realities of the Armenian Highland in VII-I millennium BC, to determine the origins of the Armenian people and demographic processes. Their great number, themes, style and variety testify the sacralized attitude of our ancestors to the rock-art sphere.
Rock-carvings have great cognitive value as a cultural source. As a specific form of expressing emotion and information, rock-carvings represent a medium of communication. And if then Rock-art had the functions of Recording, Storage and Conveying, for us now it has aesthetic and cognitive functions. These bases allow to designate petroglyphs as reliable sources and, therefore, means of revealing the past.
Armenian National Dances
Mata Hari once said, “The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word.” From the beginning of their journey Armenians went through various difficulties and overcame them without losing their nationality. A great way to prove this is Armenian National Dances which are one of the oldest ones in the area of Caucasus.
They reflect the entire story of the country by making one the part of it. When watching these dances, you feel like reading a poem about the history of Armenia. By dancing them yourself, you feel what Armenians felt- all the struggles during wars, strong belief in God, enormous power, love toward the country and family and happiness of the victory.
Dancing has always had an important place in the life of the Armenians. The Armenians had a lot of types of ritual dances. There was even dancing during the funeral. But with the adoption of Christianity, the church forbaded ritual dances during the funeral. Anyway, Armenians dance the same way as they did in the ancient times.
When you dance shoulder to shoulder, men and women, you feel the energy and the power. They get energy and power from dances. That’s why before going to the battle field the soldiers start dancing and they are ready to die, with a smile. This tradition comes from the ancient times and has been kept until now.
Rock—carvings are a unique source for the study of ancient culture. One of Armenia’s least known and interesting attractions is to be found at the top of Ughatasar Mountain. Aside from the natural beauty of the mountaintop valley, the views and the small lake, there is an abundance of ancient petroglyphs.
Once you get up there, after traveling so far off the roads, and not seeing any signs of human habitation, you feel like you’re transported to the land before time… and indeed, considering the age of these drawings, you pretty much have been. These caveman carvings etched into the stones show scenes of people, animals, hunting, dancing and other things you cannot even descipher.
The Ughtasar Petroglyphs are rock-carvings found on Mount Ughtasar (“Camel Mountain”), about 17.5 km northwest of the town of Sissian in Armenia’s southern province of Syunik. The site is reached only by four-wheel drive in good weather (the best time to visit is between mid July and the end of August).
The Ughtasar site is located by a small glacier lake nestled in a rim of an extinct volcano that blew itself out in the Pleistocene period. The lake can have ice floes year-round and patches of snow in the area never completely melt. The carvings are found on stones that surround the lake.
Although they attracted the attention of certain investigators at the beginning of the 20th century, they were not studied at that time. Interest in rock art monuments grew during the first decades of the 20th century, when A. Kalantar indulged himself in their study. Unfortunately, very little has been preserved from the rich material collected by him.
A. P. Deniyokhin also took part in the discovery of rock carvings in Armenia. During field studies the archaeologist S.H. Sardarian has discovered numerous rock carvings on the slopes of Aragats and the Gueghama mountains.
Over 2,000 decorated rock fragments extend to the foot of the Ughtasar mountain. Ughatasar Mountain has a crater on top that is filled with boulders covered in petroglyphs. These petroglyphs are images carved using stone tools onto dark brownish-black volcanic stones left behind by an extinct volcano.
Most images depict men in scenes of hunting and fighting, cultivating land, competing and dancing. Among the more complex carvings are what some say are among the earliest depictions of dance in the ancient world; scenes of ceremonial dance with two or more figures.
Others show figures performing, perhaps relating a famous fight or hunt, or depicting the figures as communal leaders. Other scenes are social in nature, depicting moments revolving around the central figure’s place in society, or performing ritual acts.
The number and development of the carvings suggest this field was used over thousands of years, beginning in the Paleolithic era (ca. 12,000 BCE). They are in the main considered memorials; commemorating the life and prowess of the dead. The rudimentary carvings are amazingly perceptive, recounting origin myths and tribal traditions, emotions, beliefs, defeats and victories of the ancestors.
Carvings include depictions of animals (wild and domesticated aurochs urus – wild ancestors of cattle – goats, mufflon, gazelles, deer, horses, boars, wolves, dogs, jackals, leopards, bears and tigers); hunters with lassoes, traps, bows and arrows, pikes, spears and shields; carts and sleds pulled by oxen (aurochs). Cattle breeding and sheep and goat herding predominate. Interestingly, birds do not figure prominently in the Ughtasar carvings.
There are numerous cosmic symbols, including one for the zodiacal sign Aries and rudimentary calendars carved like wheels for dividing time by using a cross and four circles for the seasons. Geographic elements are also featured: rivers, lakes, springs etc., followed by astronomical bodies and phenomena: the Sun, the Moon, stars, stellar constellations and starry sky, comet, and lightning.
Later Chalcolithic and Bronze Age cultures continued to create petroglyphs at the site. People from later eras (Chalcolithic and Bronze Age) continued to record their prowess and beliefs on the stones. The largest variety and number of carvings date to this period and the early Iron Age, before it was finally abandoned except for a few carvings made by lonely shepherds spending their summers on the mountain top.
Although the site was discovered in the early 20th century, it was not really studied until the 1920s and again in the late 1960s; it is still not fully understood today. Common among them is their altitude (3,000-3,300m), their iconography and their locations near glacial lakes – which were not nearly as cold as they are now.
Spanning hundreds of kilometers of territory, the carvings («itsagir» or «goat-letters» in popular lore) found on the slopes of Ughtasar can also be found on dozens of sites in Armenia; on mountains near Tsghuk (Mets Karakhach), the Vardenis Range, and at the sources of the Yeghegis (Mt. Vardenis), Arpa (Mt. Khachatsar) and Vorotan rivers (Mt. Davagioz) to name a few.
The carvings on the rock fragments are rich with flora and fauna imagery, and depict hunting scenes, a wide array of animals, circles, spirals, dots, lines, and other geometric and abstract forms, and even zodiac signs.
Research suggests that the area served as a temporary dwelling for nomadic cattle-herding tribes, and studies of the rock carvings indicate that they were in use for hundreds of years, with peoples of later eras adding their ownengravings to the stones.
According to the research of Hamlet Martirosyan, the pictograms of Ughtasar represent a writing system known as “goat writing” or “itsagir”. Many scholars believe that this was due to the large number of goats drawn on the stones, but according to Martirosyan it is because in the ancient Armenian language, the words “goat” and “writing” were homonyms.
They would use these homonyms to express concepts through pictures, thus the abstract concept of “writing” (which in ancient Armenian can be expressed with words like “shar” – arrange, “sarel” – compile, “tsir” – a line) found its reflection in the representation of a goat (“zar”), because the words for “writing” and “goat” sounded the same.
Goats are a prevalent theme on the stones, possibly because the word “dig” in ancient Armenian meant goat and was close enough to “diq,” the ancient word for gods. By combining abstract signs with the images of animals and people in horizontal or vertical rows, prehistoric engravers were able to convey specific messages.
Reproductions of the petroglyphs, or rock engravings, of Ughtasar can be found all over Yerevan; they are inscribed onto silver jewelry, painted onto coffee cups, traced into hand-made pottery, and they adorn the walls of cafes. Reaching the petroglyphs of Ughtasar can be challenging.
Kochari is a very well-known dance in Armenia. It is a category of dance, and each region dances it with its individual style (different moves and music). The word Kochari means “knee, come” (Koch- knee, ari-come).
John Blacking in one of his books mentioned: “Group dancing, when dancers imitate jumping goats, is known as kochari. Dancers stand abreast, holding each other’s hands, The tempo of the dance ranges from moderate to fast. Squatting and butting an imagined opponent are followed by high jumps.”
Martial dances are also very common in Armenia. One of the most popular ones is called Yarkhushta, originated from the highlands of the historical region of Sassoun in Western Armenia. It is from a category of Armenian “clap dances.”
Yarkhushta belongs to a wider category of Armenian “clap dances” (ծափ-պարեր, tsap parer). The dance is performed by men, who face each other in pairs. The key element of the dance is a forward movement when participants rapidly approach one another and vigorously clap onto the palms of hands of dancers in the opposite row.
The most important part of the dance is when dancers who are facing each other clap onto the palms of each other. Traditionally soldiers were dancing Yarkhushta before the war to feel more powerful and to awake the battle spirit in them.
Yarkhushta has traditionally been danced by Armenian soldiers before combat engagements, partly for ritualistic purposes, and partly in order to cast off fear and boost battle spirit for more effective hand-to-hand combat.
The tune of the dance is played intentionally very loudly by two zurna or p’ku (Armenian: պկու) hornpipes and one or more double-headed bass drums, each struck with a mallet and a stick from opposite sides of the drum’s cylinder.
It has been demonstrated that the combination of hornpipe’s high-frequency tone and the bass drums’ deep, low-frequency beat create a combination of sounds with wide peak-to-peak amplitude that is capable of placing the dancers in the state of euphoric trance.
This factor amplifies the effect of adrenaline/epinephrine rush that the dancing of yarkhushta usually produces. Traditionally soldiers were dancing Yarkhushta before the war to feel more powerful and to awake the battle spirit in them.
It is mentioned in the works of Movses Khorenatsi, Faustus of Byzantium, and Grigor Magistros. In modern-day Armenia, yarkhushta is popular in settlements populated by resettlers from Sassoun, especially in villages around the towns of Talin, Aparan, and Ashtarak.
The dance was popularized in the late 1930s by Srbuhi Lisitsian who taught at the Yerevan Dance College. In 1957, the dance underwent further choreographic refinement by folk culture enthusiast Vahram Aristakesian and performed by folk dance troupe from the village of Ashnak.
The dance was revived in the 1980s by the folk group Maratuk and, later, by the folk ensemble Karin. There are attempts to introduce yarkhushta into curriculum of dances and songs of the Armenian Army.
There are several poems and samples of visual art that touch on the theme of yarkhushta. Among them is the poem “Dance of Sassoun” («Սասունցիների պարը») by Gevorg Emin published in 1975. The feature films Men («Տղամարդիկ», 1972) and Yarkhushta (2004), produced by Gagik Harutyunyan.
Another well-known Armenian martial dance is called Berd. The dance originated from an old Armenian city called Vaspurakan. In the beginning, this was a game called Gmbetakhagh when people were making a fortress by standing on each other’s shoulders. After some time, the game transferred into a dance. The dancers are usually men who show the process of building a wall for the defense of territories during the battle.
Uzundara (Bride’s dance)
Uzundara or Bride’s dance is Armenian national, lyrical dance. It has originated in the valley between Agdam and Prishib villages in Karabagh. The dance reflects the fighting spirit of Armenian women and the fact that they are ready to fight with men to protect their country.
The word “Uzundara” means a long valley. It is very common to dance Uzundara during Armenian weddings, that is why very often people call it Bride’s dance. The bride either dances alone or with a group of other girls.
In the Uzundara dance, girls make various snakelike moves by using their hands and body. The reason for this is that in Armenian mythology it is said that there was a snake that had four heads each of which embodied a country.
One of his not venomous heads represented Armenia. The second one represented a friendly nation. The other two heads were poisonous and represented enemies. By making snakelike moves, women distracted the snake’s poisonous heads.
One of the most famous and energetic Armenian dances is called Shalakho. There are different versions of the dance, but the most spread one is where two men dance-fight to win the heart of their loved woman.
Nowadays, both men and women dance Shalakho during various events in Armenia. Women have slow and lyrical moves as in the most Armenian dances. Men’s moves are very different from women’s ones. They dance faster and more energetically.
Shavali (In-laws’ dance)
Shavali was a compulsory wedding dance in Armenia which was originated in Karno province. The dance was also called Dance of In-laws’ as either bride’s or groom’s parents danced it during the wedding.
Now the dancers of Shavali are both men and women of middle ages. If just women dance Shavali, the dance looks like “Uzundara.” The moves of the dance are exquisite and very tender.
Ververi or Ver-ver is an Armenian group dance. The dance consists of two parts. The beginning of the song has a slow tempo. After some time, the tempo changes and gets faster. The word “Ver” in Armenian means up, and the word “Ververi” means go up and up. Previously the dance was called “Vernapar” the meaning of which is “a dance to up.”
The dancers usually were young and strong men. They were jumping very high by teaching children they needed to grow up and to be strong to protect their country. Also, in Armenian mythology, it is said that this dance would change the entire way of living for all the existing species in the world (including human beings and animals).