One of the many fascinating mysteries about the Armenian Highlands is the existence of countless prehistoric megaliths known to the Armenians as the Vishapakar “serpent-stones” or “dragon stones”. Fascinating, not just because of their quantity (over 150 have survived. Imagine how many haven’t been found yet or didn’t survive the test of time), but most of all, because nearly nothing is actually known about these mysterious monuments.
Who build them? Why? When? What was their purpose and what do the strange animal carvings even symbolize? These are some of the questions that occupied my imagination for some time now. In this post I will try to explain what we know of these monuments so far and give you my personal theory on their meaning. I don’t claim to know their definite purpose but I hope that it’s an interesting enough perspective worth considering.
What do we know about the Dragon Stones?
Vishapakar “serpent-stones” or “dragon stones” are characteristic menhirs carved with strange animal imagery and found in large quantities throughout the Armenian Highlands. Virtually everything about them remains a mystery. Even their name derives from old Armenian folklore and no one really knows why exactly they are called the Dragon Stones.
So far c.a. 150 have been documented. Over 90 in the Republic of Armenia, the rest in neighboring regions. They are made of local materials (mainly basalt). Their height varies from c.a. 150–550 cm. Some of these stones are over 5 meters high.
Age of creation
Determining how old Vishaps are is particularly difficult. The monuments are placed away from neighborhoods, whose radiocarbon analysis of the organic residues would enable them to determine the approximate age. But there are a few things that we can say for sure.
We know they predate the middle ages because Armenian Christians carved crosses over some of the dragon stones.
That the dragon stones served as the inspiration for the medieval Armenian art of Khachkar (Cross-stone) carving is apparent from the fact that some of the oldest khachkars were first carved on the dragon stones.
We know they predate the Iron age, because some dragon stones were also carved on by the Urartu era cuneiform inscriptions. Like the inscriptions of the king Argishti II carved on a Dragon Stone at Garni.
The Bronze age
We know that the Vishaps have to at least be as old as the middle bronze age, because a burial in Lchashen was found with a reused dragon stone.
We know that the dragon stones probably are not later than the end of the MBA II (deﬁned here as 1800-1600 BC), since a dragon stone has been found reused on a burial in Lchaschen dated to the 1800-1500 BC (Khanzadyan 2005).A.Gilibert (2015) The Armenian dragon stones and a seal impression from Acemhöyük
We know they could predate the petroglyphs, because at least 1 vishap was found covered with petroglyphs at Karmir Sar.
Karmir Sar 1 is particularly remarkable since it is the only known vishapakar with petroglyphs cut into it – an exceptional case where rock art occurs “stratified” in a datable archaeological context.A. Bobokhyan, A. Gilibert & P. Hnila (2015)
The problem with that however, is that no one has properly and definitely dated the Armenian petroglyphs either.
So what else do we know? There are several objects that have been found and dated recently surrounding few fallen vishaps at Karmir Sar mountain (Armenia).
Archaeological data collected from excavated contexts indicate that Karmir Sar was visited and used for campsite activities at least from the late 5th/early 4th to the mid-second millennium BC, and then again from the 11th century AD to modern times.H. Osten, P. Hnila, A. Gilibert, A. Bobokhyan (2018) Integrated archaeo-geophysical survey on volcanic terrain: the case of karmir sar on mount aragats (republic of armenia)
Several collapsed Vishaps were found at Karmir Sar surrounded by stone circles (a.k.a. cromlechs) or as they were known in Armenian folklore the “tombs of the giants”.
There scholars found a charcoal that was radio-carbon dated to the late 3rd millennium (2198-2036 BC).
A charcoal (MAMS 25322) from the fill of the burial chamber of cromlech no. 4 (KS A) provided a late 3rd millennium date (2198-2036 cal. BCE)C. Purschwitz (2018) Chalcolithic and Middle Bronze Age obsidian industries at Karmir Sar: A mountain view on the lithic economies of the Southern Caucasus.
Furthermore a pottery sherd found at that site was estimated to date from 1895-1255 BC.
A sample charcoal from a pit found at the center of one of the cromlechs was even carbon dated to 5215-5035 BC. A charcoal from another pit dated to 4070-3970 BC. And a charcoal from the vishap foundation pit to 4265-4040 BC.
Conversely, the 14C-sample RTD 8866 from a pit at the centre of cromlech No. 1 in KS A (not a burial chamber), dated 5215-5035 cal. BCE, 95.4%; a charcoal from a pit in KS C dated 4070-3970 cal. BCE, 85.8%; thecharcoal RTD 8868 from the vishap foundation pit in KS D dated 4265-4040 cal. BCE, 91.1%.C. Purschwitz (2018) Chalcolithic and Middle Bronze Age obsidian industries at Karmir Sar: A mountain view on the lithic economies of the Southern Caucasus.
These datings provide evidence of human presence at Karmir Sar in the Chalcolithic period (c.a. 5000 BC) and open up the possibility that the vishaps also date to this period.
During excavation, the chosen context turned out to be that of a vishap deposited horizontally in the centre of a cromlech. As found, the vishap was re-used in a secondary position – its original location could not be ascertained.H. Osten, P. Hnila, A. Gilibert, A. Bobokhyan (2018) Integrated archaeo-geophysical survey on volcanic terrain: the case of karmir sar on mount aragats (republic of armenia)
Since most Vishaps are found without any stone circles surrounding them, and not all stone circles have Vishaps at their center, it’s hard to perceive both monuments to be related. So these dragon stones could very well pre-date or post-date the Calcholithic construction of cromlechs.
The vishap in Operation D was found collapsed (more accurately, it had been made to collapse) in front of its original foundation pit. By falling, the vishap had sealed a platform consisting of stone slabs and a hardened surface (for offerings?). The platform was originally built in front of the worked face of the vishap… Analysis of coal samples from the stone structure sealed by the fallen vishap is being performed at the Weizmann Institute (Israel) and may help clarify dating matters in the near future.H. Osten, P. Hnila, A. Gilibert, A. Bobokhyan (2018) Integrated archaeo-geophysical survey on volcanic terrain: the case of karmir sar on mount aragats (republic of armenia)
Then there are the obsidian tools found at Karmir Sar. They seem to be found both beneath the and above the cromlechs.
More than 1100 obsidian artefacts have been found during the 2013-2016 excavation campaigns at Karmir Sar, distributed over all the excavated contexts. Their occurrence below, upon and between the stone structures indicates that many of them may not be connected to the construction periods of the structures themselves and suggests the presence of multiple use episodes.C. Purschwitz (2018) Chalcolithic and Middle Bronze Age obsidian industries at Karmir Sar: A mountain view on the lithic economies of the Southern Caucasus.
Their dating is also very difficult and estimates range from Neolithic (c.a. 10.000 BC) to middle Bronze Age (3000 BC).
From a chronological point of view, flake artifacts are very undiagnostic and such ad hoc tool industries were characteristic of several periods, probably starting with the Neolithic to Chalcolithic transition.
The age of the majority of the Karmir Sar flake industry is difficult to estimate, since most of the artefacts are (chronologically) undiagnostic. The situation is becoming quite complicated, as there is plenty of evidence of multiple use episodes at Karmir Sar, starting in the Chalcolithic Period and continuing (with some gaps) until modern times.C. Purschwitz (2018) Chalcolithic and Middle Bronze Age obsidian industries at Karmir Sar: A mountain view on the lithic economies of the Southern Caucasus.
And finally there have been seeds found at the site dated from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages.
This is the first time that plant remains have been recovered from the sacred contexts of vishap monuments (stone stelae called “dragon stones”). The Middle Bronze Age remains of cultivated plants have been identified as common bread wheat, hulled barley, and emmer; these cereals were probably the main plant food for the communities that erected and worshipped the vishap monuments of Karmir Sar. The charred grains of cereals found in the vicinity of the vishaps (and related structures) and attributed to the Middle Bronze Age are in all probability related to the ritual activities that occurred at the vishaps and represent remnants of offerings and/or festive food used during rituals. The finds of medieval seeds on the site are probably related to the activity of transhumant pastoralists.R. Hovsepyan (2018) Seeds from vishap contexts: archaeobotanical finds from the high-mountain site of Karmir Sar (Mt. Aragats, Armenia)
Most of the Vishaps seems to have been reused at Karmir Sar. Which means they either predate or post-date the cromlechs. It’s therefore possible that:
- Vishaps were created during the Chalcolithic (7000 years ago) together with the cromlech (stone circles).
- During the Chalcolithic (7000 years ago) people found much older Vishaps at Karmir Sar and build sacred worship sites (cromlechs) around them.
- People who created Vishaps brought them to much older ancient cromlech (stone circle) sites.
- Both the cromlechs and vishapakars are much older. The site was used by people long after its creation.
Thus it seems clear that the dragon stones are extremely old monuments. How old exactly no one knows for sure. We know these monuments existed in the middle ages, they certainly existed during the Iron age, and even during the Bronze age. It’s fairly possible they predate the above mentioned artifacts by attracting people for millennia who have build sites for worship due to the existence of these monuments.
Based on their shape and iconography, three main classes of dragon stones have been identified:
- Fish: Stones cut and polished into the shape of a fish.
- Bovid (family of cloven-hoofed mammals): Stones carved as if the hide of a bovid had been draped or spread on them.
- Combines the iconographies of the first and the second one.
All three types of dragon stones are carved and polished on every face but the “tail,” which is invariably left uncarved. This indicates that dragon stones meant to be standing stones.
Archaeologists of the 19th and 20th century (Atrpet, N. Marr, Y. Smirnov, A. Kalantar, B. Piotrovskiy, G. Kapantsyan) believed vishapakars to mark nodal points of prehistoric irrigation systems. The main stress was put by early authors on symbolism of vishapakars. However, there seems to be no valid evidence for such a claim.
Arsen Bobokhyan of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences in association with A. Gilibert & P. Hnila of the Freie Universität Berlin describe their research as follows:
Considering that the stones bear a permanent memory of sacrificial rituals inscribed in their material, we propose to see in the dragon stones barrows not just burials, but first and foremost a previously unknown typology of high-altitude sacred sites for ritual performances.Vishapakars/Dragon Stones: High-Altitude Monuments in Armenia and Problem of Their Protection
Alessandra Gilibert (an archaeologist specialized in the ancient Near East) seems to have contributed much to modern research into this phenomenon. Her take on the purpose of these monuments is therefore worth mentioning.
It seems natural to assume that they had a religious meaning and that they were involved in rituals, including the actual draping on some of them of a prepared skin. A crucial fact is that virtually every known dragon stone was recorded at high altitude summer pastures and in close proximity to water sources.
The prepared bovine hides with head and extremities carved on the dragon stones clearly reﬂect the fact that similar hides were actually draped on the megaliths in the context of speciﬁc (seasonal?) rituals taking place on high altitude summer pastures, and speciﬁcally near water sources. The killing, the manipulation of the carcass, and the subsequent oﬀering of one or more bovines may have also involved the pouring of sacriﬁcial blood on the megalith, perhaps to be identiﬁed with the wavy lines coming out of the bovid heads on dragon stones.
Just a crazy theory
Now that we have covered most of what we know of the dragon stones and some speculation on their purpose. I would like to give you my theory on these monuments and explain my interpretation of the iconography. By no means do I imply to know their real purpose and certainly entertain the possibility of being completely off, nevertheless, I find the following perspective interesting enough to cover in this article.
First of all, I believe the dragon stones are of much older age. I suspect their true age to be closer to the era of the monuments of Göbekli Tepe (Portasar in Armenian) dated to c.a. 10.000 BC. It’s evident that pre-historic people inhabiting the Armenian Highlands, could carve intricate imagery on stone stelae, long before the bronze age. It’s also evident that these stones have been reused by many subsequent cultures up until the middle ages. I think these monuments have been impressing many generations of Armenian ancestors.
Gilibert too noticed that there is something odd about the lack of parallels for these artifacts. She says:
A speciﬁc problem in understanding the dragon stones is posed by the apparent lack of parallels that may help frame the dragon stones within a larger context of megalithic habits. This fact is surprising: after all, in the Middle Bronze Age the Armenian Highland was a region well embedded into a much greater web of economic and cultural interconnections and exchange. Besides, the dragon stones are not a negligible religious gadget, but impressive monuments of great emotional and ritual impact. In particular, we would expect the dragon stones to leave a range of secondary traces in the archaeological record, and speciﬁcally we would expect to ﬁnd images of dragon stones on other visual artifacts.A.Gilibert (2015) The Armenian dragon stones and a seal impression from Acemhöyük
However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an absolute lack of parallels from the Bronze age if the dragon stones weren’t actually created and venerated in the bronze age. By the Bronze age, they might have simply become relics of a long forgotten culturally significant religious practices. Thus, instead of looking for visual clues of parallels during the Bronze age, perhaps research should direct their attention to the Neolithic sites like the Göbekli Tepe or Çatalhöyük.
Furthermore, I suspect the iconography of the dragon stones to represent a fertility cult. Let me explain! As we have discussed above, there are 3 main types of Vishapakars identified:
- The fish represents the male reproductive organ.
- The sheep (bovid) represents the female reproductive system.
- And the third type combines the two to create life.
If this theory is correct, it would fit well with the fertility iconography of Göbekli Tepe (Portasar) as well as that of the pre-historic Metsamor phallic monuments and icons found in Armenia.
Off course it’s entirely possible that my interpretation is flawed. For one, there is no direct imagery of reproductive organs or scenes of reproduction on Vishapakars like there are at Göbekli Tepe and Metsamor. The Vishapakar iconography is more symbolic it seems. It’s odd that the sheep (bovid) has fluids flowing out of its mouth, though. There are also other animals including birds on these rocks. The fact that these stones can be found all over the Armenian Highlands on such a vast territory indicates that these monuments weren’t created by some isolated cult either. Why the fish and the horned sheep? Was their purpose practical? Symbolic? Ritualistic? Superstitious? Or something else entirely?
Let me know what you think of the dragon stones and their purpose in the comment section. I’d love to read your perspectives.