Subject Matter


Animals dominate the subject matter. The drawings replicate animals in remarkable proportional likenesses, suggesting that the early artists were very familiar with the animals they depicted. Some of the images are larger than the real-life animals. For example, there are several oxen that are over two meters long and a water creature, thought to be a dolphin (in Gayaalti) that spans 4.3 meters. (Anati, 2001) There are several different types and species of animals depicted in Gobustan: auroch, deer, goats, wild horses and asses, gazelles, predatory animals, boars, camels, sheep, birds, and sea creatures.


Aurochs are identifiable by their distinctively wide muzzles, wavy horns, and curved backs. Prehistoric artists often depicted aurochs life-size; they are much larger than domesticated bulls.

Aurochs and similar species may have been revered for spiritual reasons; for example, the bones and skeletons of oxen were unearthed in Gobustan burials sites. Farajova suggests that a cult of the ox existed in Azerbaijan in the Eneolithic period and the Bronze Age. (Farajova, 2009; p 120) Stylistically, some of the engraved aurochs in Gobustan resemble illustrations from Paleolithic period sites in Europe. (Farjova, 2009; 119) Symbolically, oxen and deer represented spring and fertility. (Farajova, 2009; 173)

The depiction of aurochs on rocks, tablets, and adornments is not unique to Azerbaijan. Farajova describes the widespread appearance of aurochs in world art. For example, she cites the example of the patron and supreme deity of Ur city of the Sumers (Nanna-Sina, the god of the moon), who was identified with the image of an auroch. (Farajova, 2009) The Azerbaijani examples may contain further clues about the cultural and possible religious significance that these large beasts had for early humans.

Auroch (Stone No. 3 ok), Beyukdesh Mountain, c. 5,000 BCE. 80 cm x 55 cm.


Deer representations have been located at the Yazyly hill and the upper terrace of Beyukdash Mountain. Ceramics found in the Big Khanalr Burial mound in Azerbaijan that have been dated to the Bronze Age and early Iron Age have similar representations of deer, which suggests that the petroglyphs may also be of those periods. Deer, along with oxen, were symbols of spring and fertility. (Farajova, 2009; 121, 173)

Deer (Stone No. 42 m), Beyukdash Mountain, upper terrace, Upper Paleolithic. 40 cm x 30 cm.


Mountain goats, also known as Capra ibex, are often depicted in a realistic manner.  Images of these animals are believed to be of earlier origin than depictions of another type of goat, Capra aegagrus Erxl. Similar depictions of goats are found in Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia. There are also depictions of “canna,” a now-extinct relative to the goat, on the Beyukdash Mountain. If the period when canna existed in Azerbaijan can be established, it may help identify the age of these petroglyphs. (Farajova, 2009; p 122)

Symbolically, goats were connected to the god of the sun, in addition to representing fertility and the Good. There are rock carvings of goats whose horns form a circle—possibly a solar emblem.

Goat and Kid (Stone No. 22 k4), Yazili Hill, Jingirdag Mountain, Iron Age. 40 cm x 50 cm.

Wild Horses – Asiatic Wild Asses

Horse skeletons in burial mounds in Gobustan suggest that a cult of horses existed in the Bronze Age. (Farajova, 2009; p 122)

Horses (Stone No. 45 a), Beyukdash Mountain, Neolithic Period. 50 cm x 42 cm.


Persian gazelles and gazelles, Gazella Subgutturoza Guld, are found on small statuettes and ceramics in the Caucasus. (Farajova, 2009; p 122) The majority of bone remains excavated at Gayaarasi were gazelle bones, and it is assumed that gazelles were hunted as the primary source of meat.

Gazelles(Stone No. 37 je), Kichikdash Mountain, Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic. 55 cm x 45 cm.

Predators – Big Cats

Images of big cats, specifically lions, are found on rocks in Gobustan, Gemigaya, Kelbajar, and Absheron. In Gemigaya there are also interesting images of leopards attacking besoar goats. (Farajova, 2009; p 123)

Big cats hold important symbolic status in many cultures. For example, many ancient peoples worshiped tigers as the embodiment of good and evil and Creator and Destroyer. Mythology often represents the tiger as the king of beasts and master of the woods.  In China, the tiger is both worshipped as a king and feared as a conveyer of illness. In Japan, the tiger is a symbol of courage. (Farajova, 2009; p 123)

Big Cat (Stone No. 239 yh), Beyukdash Mountain, Bronze Age. 165 cm x 80 cm.

Wild Boars

The wild boar population in Azerbaijan expanded during the time of interglacial warming, about 11,400 years ago, and images of wild boar are found in Gobustan and other regions of Azerbaijan. (Farajova, 2009; p 123)

Boar (Stone No. 46 os), Beyukdesh Mountain, c. 5,000 - 3,000 BCE. 75 cm.


Images of camels are very rare. Most have been dated to the Middle Ages. Some researchers assume that camel breeding was introduced to the region via Central Asia and dates back to the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE. Camel bones excavated in the ancient Mingachevir and Fizuli regions of Azerbaijan support this claim. (Farajova, 2009; p 123)

Camel (Stone No. 108 d), Beyukdesh Mountain, Middle Ages. 35 cm x 27 cm.

Fish and Sea Creatures

Fish are rarely depicted in rock art. Only six have been identified in Gobustan to date. Of particular interest is a depiction of what is assumed to be a dolphin, found on Kichikdash Mountain. Bottle-nosed dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, can be found in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, but not in the Caspian Sea, although dolphins may have once existed there. Fish may represent the underworld or eternity.

Dolphin (Stone No. 5 b), Kichikdash Mountain, Upper Paleolithic. 430 cm long.


Considered by some scholars to be the most ancient examples of fine art in human history, female and male forms survive in great number and variety in Azerbaijan, including Gobustan, the Absheron peninsula, Nakhchevan, and Kalbajar. (Farajova, 2009; p 126) The style and execution of human figures evolved over time, and it is possible that these modifications were the result of changing cultural motivations, tastes, and tools. Some researchers believe that these images of the human form have religious importance and once played a role in sacred ceremonies.

Female Representations

Imagery of women is pervasive and varied. Women are depicted tattooed, naked or clothed in ritual attire, pregnant, and next to animals or symbols, and are sometimes represented as a single body part (for example, medallion-shaped vulvas).

In the Yeddi Gozel (Seven Beauties) cave on the upper terrace of the Beyukdash Mountain, there are ten engravings of women created using reverse bas-relief techniques. They have objects thrown over their shoulders, possibly mythical instruments or bows. (Farajova, 2009; p 128) Tattooed or clothed, the female figures are depicted without arms and feet.

Female figures are also found in combination with other forms and subjects, such as aurochs (Kichikdash Mountain). Images of women superimposed with animals are found in locations outside of Azerbaijan as well, such as the Chauvet cave in France. In Norway, there are Mesolithic petroglyphs of tattooed anthropomorphic figures in combination with deer.

Examples of pregnant women have been documented on the Beyukdash Mountain, upper terrace. In the Ana-zaga cave, Beyukdash Mountain, upper terrace, there are images of women in what could be described as ritual attire.

Farajova compares the tattooed female figures in Gobustan with the imagery found at excavations of ruins attributed to Tripolye culture (5,400-2,700 BCE) in present-day Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania. She also finds commonalities with Baluba tribes in the Congo, who created statues of women decorated with diamond-shaped tattoos around their navels.

Female Figure (Stone No. 2), Beyukdesh Mountain, Mesolithic Period. 50 cm.

Male Representations

The images of male figures that have been uncovered in Gobustan that are presumed to date to the Upper Paleolithic period are mainly stylized figures, tattooed, headless, and engraved slightly bent forward in profile. Usually their heads look “like oblong conic sprouts.” (Farajova, 2009; p 127) Farajova compares these male depictions to the so-called Venuses of Paleolithic Europe (an umbrella term for female figurines with similar attributes, such as exaggerated breasts, hips and sex, while others other parts of the body, such as arms, are absent), and she finds them to be remarkably similar. (Farajova, 2009; p 127)

A number of human figures that may be male were engraved on the stone cave Ana-zaga in Gobustan.  The figures are represented in loincloths, with accoutrements on their heads that could be feathered headpieces or hairpieces.

There are also violent scenes of battles on the upper terrace of Beyukdash Mountain that include men pierced by arrows and spears.

Male Figure (Stone No. 49 k), Kichikdash Mountain, c. 14,000 – 11,000 BCE. 8 cm.

Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Images

There are a number of images in Gobustan that merge the features of humans and animals—for example, human forms with three fingered hands, tails, hooves, and missing limbs, and heads sprouting feathers and horns. These half-human, half-animal beings may represent ancestors with supernatural powers, shamans dressed in ritual garb, or people in masks and elaborate headdresses. (Farajova, 2009; p 129) Human-animal hybrids appear in the religious iconology of other cultures. For example, in ancient Egypt, Inpu is the powerful jackal-headed god of the afterlife, and Sekhmet, the warrior goddess, is depicted with a lion head.

In Gemigaya there are also petroglyphs of bird-human hybrids. Bird-men are not unique to Azerbaijan; they are found in Egypt and elsewhere.

Farajova concludes that the anthropomorphic imagery was intrinsic to the ceremonial activities of primitive tribes. (Farajova, 2009; p131)

There are also images of animals that are unknown to science and defy classification. These fantastical creatures suggest great imagination on the part of the artists. 

Male Figure with Headpiece (Stone No. 29), Beyukdesh Mountain, upper terrace. c. 6,000 BCE. 40 cm.


Imprinted on the rocks of Gobustan are impressive, animated scenes with multiple characters engaged in communal activities like dancing and hunting.


On the Beyukdash Mountain upper terrace, life-size human figures are illustrated in positions that imply dancing. Some of these scenes date to between the 6th and 4th millennia BCE (Farajova, p 132). The dancing scenes of figures holding hands are reminiscent of the traditional Azeri Yally dance, and these images could be examples of very old versions of this dance. Yal means food, and it is presumed that the Yally was originally performed to ensure a successful hunt. Channeling magic through dance to advocate for a bountiful hunt continues to be practiced by some modern tribes. For example, Australian Aborigines perform ritual dances before hunts.

In some of the scenes, the lead dancers have horns on their heads. These could be deer or ox masks that demonstrate totemic beliefs—ox and deer were symbols of spring and fertility. (Farajova, 2009; p 173) There are also ritual scenes of people dressed in animal skins.

Human Figures Dancing (Stone No. 67 y), Beyukdesh Mountain, c. 6,000 – 5,000 BCE. 65 cm.


Hunting scenes are distinct in that they often include weapons such as bows and arrows, spears, and tridents, the last of which appear in what Farajova takes to be later images.

Aspects of the hunting scenes changed over time and attest to changing hunting practices; hunters on foot were eventually replaced by horsemen and aurochs were superseded by deer. Moreover, there are indications that in the later periods, as society developed and evolved, hunting because a prestigious sportsman’s activity reserved for the tribal nobility. (Farajova, 2009; p 134) Although the true meanings of the scenes remain a mystery, some scholars have suggested that hunting compositions, both within and outside of Gobustan, may have had magical functions—to acknowledge the animals’ nobility and sacrifice, and to empower the hunters.

Archer (Stone No. 118 im), Beyukdesh Mountain, c. 800 – 700 BCE. 40 cm.

Transportation Vehicles


The boats and land vehicles featured in rock art are important to the study of human migration, transportation, technology, and trade. Images of water vehicles are found around the world, and there are a number in Gobustan that differ from those found in northern and eastern regions of the world. (Farajova, 2009; p 135)

In ancient times, the Caspian Sea was connected to the Black Sea, expanding the potential for long-distance sea travel across Europe.  Indeed, Thor Heyerdahl, an anthropologist who visited Gobustan on a number of occasions, has offered the compelling theory that Norway was originally populated by early seafarers from Azerbaijan.

Archaeologists date the depictions of boats to the Middle Stone Age of the Mesolithic epoch. (Farajova, 2009; p 135) The imagery located near the boat engravings, such as images of women, hunters, and aurochs, has helped researchers in assessing their age. (Farajova, 2009; 135)

The oldest boat depictions are thought to be of small boats capable of carrying two to six passengers. These are found on the upper and lower terraces of the Beyukdash and Kichikdash Mountains. According to Anati (2001), the stratigraphic location of the boat drawings has led researchers to believe they date to at least 10,000 years ago, making them among the oldest known boat figures.

A another category of boat petroglyphs, labeled here as silhouetted images, are assumed to be reed boats and are found on the rocks of the Beyukdash and Kichikdash Mountains.  

Reed boats like those depicted at the Gobustan sites are also found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the coasts of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Crete, Corfu, Malta, Italy, Sardinia, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco.

Within the spectrum of boats, there are engravings of vessels with circles that may represent the sun at their tips. In at least one of these crescent-shaped “solar boats,” more than 40 human passengers are represented. In Egypt and the Algerian Sahara, images of ancient ships that resemble the solar boats found in Gobustan have been dated to the 7th to 5th millennia BCE. (Farajova, 2009; p 135)

Researchers differ in their interpretations of the significance of these petroglyphs. Some scholars see them as evidence of a robust fishing economy and of the importance that seafaring played in the livelihood of the communities that created them. Supporting this interpretation, trawls and sinkers as well as fish bones have been excavated in the area. Unfortunately, much of this material is fragmented, and of course any fishing implements made of organic materials, if they existed, have long since disintegrated without a trace.

Other scholars emphasis the spiritual significance of these petroglyphs, especially the solar boat images, and the beliefs that they may have symbolized. For example, there are ancient belief systems that worshipped a sun god and trusted that the souls of the dead would be carried to the next world on solar boats. Other scholars associate these images with sun myths.

Farajova takes a balanced approach, noting that while the representation of boats and the associated archeological evidence support the existence of a robust fishing economy, boat depictions may also have had spiritual, cultic, or mythological significance. (Farajova, 2009; p 136)

Solar Boats (Stone No. 8 g), Mesolithic Period. 87 - 90 cm.

Land Vehicles

Although much rarer than depictions of boats, images of chariots and wheeled vehicles can also be found in Azerbaijan. In Gobustan, only one such image exists, located on Yazly hill. Evidence indicates that during the Bronze Age, vehicles with wheels were pulled by trained horses or domesticated aurochs. Fascinatingly, a stone wheel was unearthed in the region. (Farajova, 2009; pp 136, 137)

Besides being direct representations of travel technology, land-vehicle images may be significant as indicators of communal beliefs. For example, we can imagine solar chariots as symbols of supernatural transportation, the shipping of souls, or creation myths. They could also reference the path of the sun and inform calendars for practical purposes, such as agriculture. (Farajova, 2009; p 137)

Two-Wheeled Cart (Stone No. 55), Yazili Hill, Jingirdagh Mountain. Bronze Age. 20 x 35 cm.


In addition to more realistic images, graphic and geometrical symbols are inscribed throughout the landscape in Gobustan. These symbols possibly represent concepts such as the elements of the natural environment (fire, sun, water, life, and earth) or in some instances fertility and the female sex. Researchers consider it possible that the caves in Gobustan where geometrical drawings are found were used for ritual purposes and animal sacrifices. Cupules in cave sites are thought to have been involved in water and rain rituals, as well as the more practical process of preparing pigments. Research in this area is promising, but requires more attention and resources. (Farajova, 2009; 138)

Looking to other ancient cultures, Farajova contends that in Gobustan, images that are generally interpreted as animal hoof prints are actually depictions of the female anatomy, as they are similar to images of this subject found in other locations where more extensive research has been conducted to date and identify the engravings. The womb, pregnant belly, and female sex organs are symbols connected to the beliefs of ancient eastern religions that held the earth in esteem as a divine mother and life force. (Farajova, 2009; 138)

Within the image lexicon, the circle represents the sun, the semi-circle represents the moon, and zigzags depict the rain and water. Other symbols that appear include triangles, chevrons, female and male symbols, swastikas, and crosses.  Also present are labyrinthine rectangular and round images with geometric images inside. (Farajova, 2009; 144) There are different ways to interpret the meanings of these symbols and imagery and one is to analyze the signs in relationship with one another, especially when they are found in close proximity. (Farajova, 2009; 138) For instance, on one rock on the Beyukdash Mountain, the image of a boat is found beside zigzag markings, which could be an effort to represent waves of water and is significant because it suggests that there are larger, deliberate narrative structures to at least some of the Gobustan engravings. In another example dating at least to the Upper Paleolithic on the upper terrace of Beyukdash Mountain, there are designs that are assumed to symbolize “heavenly water spilling on the Earth.” (Farajova, p 140)

Many of symbolic, graphic images found in Gobustan are thought to date to the Middle Ages. However, similarities between the Gobustan engravings and tamgas (totemic markings representing specific groups, tribes or clans) from Mesolithic monuments in Mongolia challenge this assumption and imply that some the symbols found in Gobustan may date to an earlier time (Farajova, 2009; 141) It is possible that some of the tamgas found in Azerbaijan arose at the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene period. (Farajova, 2009; 143)

In Gobustan there are a number of instances where crosses and swastikas coincide with images of animals and people. The swastikas in Gobustan date as far back as 4,000 BCE. The examples of crosses and cross-like images necessitate more attention before ascribing dates and historical significance to them.

Swastika and Goats (Stone No. 35 k), Yazili Hill, Jingirdagh Mountain. Bronze Age. 66 cm x 47 cm.

Previous Page: Methods & Chronology      Next Page: Additional Finds