Kurgan stelae (Mongolian: хүн чулуу; Russian: каменные бабы; Ukrainian: Баби кам'яні "stone babas"; Kyrgyz: балбал [bɑlbɑl]) or Balbals (балбал balbal, most probably from a Turkic word balbal meaning "ancestor" or "grandfather") are anthropomorphic stone stelae, images cut from stone, installed atop, within or around kurgans (i.e. tumuli), in kurgan cemeteries, or in a double line extending from a kurgan. The stelae are also described as "obelisks" or "statue menhirs".
Spanning more than three millennia, they are clearly the product of various cultures. The earliest are associated with the Pit Grave culture of the Pontic–Caspian steppe (and therefore with the Proto-Indo-Europeans according to the mainstream Kurgan hypothesis). The Iron Age specimens are identified with the Scythians and medieval examples with Turkic peoples.
Such stelae are found in large numbers in Southern Russia, Ukraine, Prussia, southern Siberia, Central Asia, Turkey and Mongolia.
Anthropomorphic stelae were probably memorials to the honoured dead. They are found in the context of burials and funeral sanctuaries from the Eneolithic through to the Middle Ages. Ivanovovsky reported that Tarbagatai Torgouts (Kalmyks) revered kurgan obelisks in their country as images of their ancestors, and that when a bowl was held by the statue, it was to deposit a part of the ashes after the cremation of the deceased, and another part was laid under the base of the statue.
When used architecturally, stelae could act as a system of stone fences, frequently surrounded by a moat, with sacrificial hearths, sometimes tiled on the inside.
The earliest anthropomorphic stelae date to the 4th millennium BC, and are associated with the early Bronze Age Yamna Horizon, in particular with the Kemi Oba culture of the Crimea and adjacent steppe region. Those in Ukraine number around three hundred, most of them very crude stone slabs with a simple schematic protruding head and a few features such as eyes or breasts carved into the stone. Some twenty specimens, known as statue menhirs, are more complex, featuring ornaments, weapons, human or animal figures.
The simple, early type of anthropomorphic stelae are also found in the Alpine region of Italy, southern France and Portugal. Examples have also been found in Bulgaria at Plachidol, Ezerovo, and Durankulak. The example illustrated above was found at Hamangia-Baia, Romania.
The distribution of later stelae is limited in the west by the Odessa district, Podolsk province, Galicia, Kalisz province, Prussia; in the south by Kacha River, Crimea; in the south-east by Kuma River in the Stavropol province and Kuban region; in the north by Minsk province and Oboyan district of the Kursk province (in some opinions even the Ryazan province), Ahtyr district in the Kharkiv province, Voronezh province, Balash and Atkar districts in the Saratov province to the banks of Samara River in Buzuluk districts in the Samara province, in the east they are spread in the Kyrgyz (Kazakh) steppe to the banks of the Irtysh River and to Turkestan (near Issyk Kul, Tokmak district), then in upper courses of rivers Tom and Yenisei, in Sagai steppe in Mongolia (according to Potanin and Yadrintseva).
The Cimmerians of the early 1st millennium BC left a small number (about ten are known) of distinctive stone stelae. Another four or five "deer stones" dating to the same time are known from the northern Caucasus.
From the 7th century BC, Scythian tribes began to dominate the Pontic steppe. They were in turn displaced by the Sarmatians from the 2nd century BC, except in Crimea, where they persisted for a few centuries longer. These peoples left carefully crafted stone stelae, with all features cut in deep relief.
Early Slavic stelae are again more primitive. There are some thirty sites of the middle Dniestr region where such anthropomorphic figures were found. The most famous of these is the Zbruch Idol (c. 10th century), a post measuring about 3 meters, with four faces under a single pointed hat (c.f. Svetovid). Boris Rybakov argued for identification of the faces with the gods Perun, Makosh, Lado and Veles.
Bronze Age anthropomorphic funerary stelae have been found in Saudi Arabia. There are similarities to the Kurgan type in the handling of the slab-like body with incised detail, though the treatment of the head is rather more realistic.
The anthropomorphic stelae so far found in Anatolia appear to post-date those of the Kemi Oba culture on the steppe and are presumed to derive from steppe types. A fragment of one was found in the earliest layer of deposition at Troy, known as Troy I.
Thirteen stone stelae, of a type similar to those of the Eurasian steppes, were found in 1998 in their original location at the centre of Hakkâri, a city in the south eastern corner of Turkey, and are now on display in the Van Museum. The stelae were carved on upright flagstone-like slabs measuring between 0.7 m to 3.10 m in height. The stones contain only one cut surface, upon which human figures have been chiseled. The theme of each stele reveals the fore view of an upper human body. Eleven of the stelae depict naked warriors with daggers, spears, and axes-masculine symbols of war. They always hold a drinking vessel made of skin in both hands. Two stelae contain female figures without arms. The earliest of these stelae are in the style of bas relief while the latest ones are in a linear style. They date from the 15th to the 11th century BC and may represent the rulers of the kingdom of Hubushkia, perhaps derived from a Eurasian steppe culture that had infiltrated into the Near East.
European traveler William of Rubruck mentioned them for the first time in the 13th century, seeing them on kurgans in the Cuman (Kipchak) country, he reported that Cumans installed these statues on tombs of their deceased. These statues are also mentioned in the 17th-century "Large Drawing Book", as markers for borders and roads, or orientation points. In the 18th century information about some kurgan stelae was collected by Pallas, Falk, Guldenshtedt, Zuev, Lepekhin, and in the first half of the 19th century by Klaprot, Duboa-de-Montpere and Spassky (Siberian obelisks). Count Aleksey Uvarov, in the 1869 ‘‘Works of the 1st Archeological Congress in Moscow (vol. 2), assembled all available at that time data about kurgan obelisks, and illustrated them with drawings of 44 statues.
Later in the 19th century, data about these statues was gathered by A.I. Kelsiev, and in Siberia, Turkestan and Mongolia by Potanin, Pettsold, Poyarkov, Vasily Radlov, Ivanov, Adrianov and Yadrintsev, in Prussia by Lissauer and Gartman.
The Historical museum in Moscow has 30 specimens (in the halls and in the courtyard); others are in Kharkiv, Odessa, Novocherkassk, etc. These are only a small part of examples dispersed in various regions of Eastern Europe, of which multitudes were already destroyed and used as construction material for buildings, fences, etc.
In the 1850s Piskarev, summing all information about kurgan obelisks available in literature, counted 649 items, mostly in Ekaterinoslav province (428), in Taganrog (54), in Crimea province (44), in Kharkiv (43), in the Don Cossacks land (37), in Yenisei province, Siberia (12), in Poltava (5), in Stavropol (5), etc.; but many statues remained unknown to him.
Scythian balbals, later Kuman, commonly depict a warrior holding a drinking horn in their upraised right hand. Many also show a sword or dagger suspended on the warrior's belt.
Writing about Altai kurgans, L.N. Gumilev states: "To the east from the tombs are standing chains of balbals, crudely sculpted stones implanted in the ground. Number of balbals at the tombs I investigated varies from 0 to 51, but most often there are 3–4 balbals per tomb". Similar numbers are also given by L. R. Kyzlasov. They are memorials to the feats of the deceased, every balbal represents an enemy killed by him. Many tombs have no balbals. Apparently, there are buried ashes of women and children.
Balbals have two clearly distinct forms: conic and flat, with shaved top. Considering the evidence of Orkhon inscriptions that every balbal represented a certain person, such distinction cannot be by chance. Likely here is marked an important ethnographic attribute, a headdress. The steppe-dwellers up until present wear a conic malahai[what language is this?], and the Altaians wear flat round hats. The same forms of headdresses are recorded for the 8th century. Another observation of Lev Gumilev: "From the Tsaidam salt lakes to the Kül-tegin monument leads a three-kilometer chain of balbals. To our time survived 169 balbals, apparently there were more. Some balbals are given a crude likeness with men, indicated are hands, a hint of a belt. Along the moat toward the east runs a second chain of balbals, which gave I. Lisi a cause to suggest that they circled the fence wall of the monument. However, it is likely that it is another chain belonging to another deceased buried earlier".
Some kurgan obelisks are found still standing on kurgans, others were found buried in the slopes. Not always can be stated if they were contemporary with the kurgans on which they stand, existed earlier, or were carved later and lifted onto the kurgan. Kurgan obelisks are of sandstone, limestone, granite, etc. Their height is from 3.5 m to 0.7 m, but more often 1.5–2 m. Some of them are simple stone columns, with a rough image of a human face, on others the head (with the narrowed neck) is clearly depicted; in most cases not only the head is depicted, but also body, arms, and frequently both legs, and headdress, and dress. On more crude statues is impossible to discern sex, but mostly it is expressed clearly: men are with moustaches (sometimes with beard, one bearded kurgan obelisk is in the courtyard of the Historical Museum in Moscow), in a costume with metal breastplates and belts, sometimes with a sword, etc.; women are with bared breasts, wearing peculiar headdresses, with girdles or necklaces on the neck, etc.
Other obelisks show figures completely naked and usually only their head is covered, and legs are shod. Kurgan statues are sitting (frequently females), and standing (mostly males); in both cases the legs are not depicted. If the legs are depicted, they are either barefoot, or more often shoed, in high or low boots (bashmaks[what language is this?]), sometimes with distinguishable trousers with ornaments. Many female kurgan obelisks (and some male) are naked above the belt, but below a belt and dress are visible, sometimes two dresses, one longer underneath, and another on the top, as a semi-'kaftan' or a short furcoat, with appliques and inserts (the ornaments of inserts consist of geometrical lines, double spirals, etc., or even cuirass). Others have stripes on the shoulders, many have two stripes (seldom three, or one wide across), plates (apparently, metal) on the breast attached to a belt or, more often, to two belts. On the belt sometimes is possible to distinguish a buckle in the middle or thongs hanging from it with sometimes attached bag, a round metal pocket mirror, knife, comb, sometimes also is shown (male statues) a dagger or a straight sword, a bow, a ‘kolchan’ (quiver), a hook, an axe. On the neck the men wear a metal band, women wear a necklace of beads or scales, sometimes even 2 or 3 are visible, some have a wide tape or a belt dropping from the necklace, ending with a 4-corner cloth. On the hands, wrists and shoulders (especially for nude figures) are bracelets (rings) and cuffs, in the ears, for women and men, are earrings, on the head (forehead) sometimes is an ornamental bandage or a diadem. The female braids can not always be distinguished from ribbons or bandages, they also are depicted for men. In some cases the male hat undoubtedly represents a small helmet (‘misyurka’), sometimes with crossing metal strips. The female headdress is more diverse, like a hat with curved brims, ‘bashlyk’, Kyrgyz (Kazakh) hat, etc.
The type of the face is not always depicted clearly. The vast majority of women join hands on the navel or at the bottom of the stomach, and hold a vessel, frequently cylindrical, like a cup or a glass. Sometimes it is so blurred that it can be taken for a folded scarf. One male figurine holds a bowl in the left hand, and a sword in the right; and another has hands simply joined, without a bowl, one female figurine holds a ring, some hold a rhyton (drinking horn).
Several Cuman kurgan stelae from the 9th to 13th centuries BC located at the Ukrainian site of Izium were destroyed by the Russian forces in March and April 2022 when they occupied the area for six months during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.