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The Deer Stones of Mongolia

© Julien Faure

In the steppes of central Mongolia, hundreds of “Deer Stones” and aristocratic tombs have been unearthed after a decade of excavation by archeologists. Who made them? When and for what purpose?

The impressive monoliths - up to 4 meters high - are engraved with multiple deer drawings. Each deer, jumping toward the sky in a circlar motion around the stone, shows incredible details and precision, and take the soul of the dead to the afterlife.

Since 2006, a joint mission between Monaco and Mongolia has been carried out every year. Jérome Magail, chief archeologist, and his team have excavated dozens of aristocratic tombs near these stones. He reveals the existence of a complex culture and social organization with strong animist beliefs. The stones symbolize the funerary ritual of the nomadic tribes living approximately between 1200 BC and 300 BC.

The nomads who are living in the steppes of Mongolia today - two thirds of the Mongolian population is nomadic - are the distant descendants of those ancient riders. A millennium has passed, but their way of life and the beliefs system remain the same.

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In Tsatsyn Ereg and Jargalant archeological sites, central Mongolia, located 500 km from the capital Ulan Bator, hundreds of “deer stones” and aristocratic tombs were inventoried during a decade of orchestrated by the Anthropology Museum of Monaco and under the direction of Jérôme Magail.

Erected in the steppes, these impressive monoliths can reach 4 meters high. Each one is engraved with curious jumping deers. The drawings, highly codified, are identical on a thousand other stones all over the Mongolian territory.

They are associated with a specific funerary ritual of the nomadic tribes living around 1200 BC to 300 BC. Archaeologists and anthropologists studying the tombs and the monoliths reveal the existence of a shared culture and a complex social organization on a territory roughly three times the size of Germany.

The steppes of High Asia were inhabited by a mosaic of peoples and cultures having in common the same nomadic lifestyle, regulated by pastoralism and horse breeding. North to the Great Wall, the tribes, well organized, were able to face a Chinese growing empire. Nomadic against sedentary.


In 1200 BC a civilization emerges with the stunning art of engraved headstones : hundred “deer stones” were discovered reflecting the animistic beliefs of that time.

The engraving, extremely precise, shows great artistic consistency from a stele to another, even distant by several hundred kilometers.

The main theme is a jumping deer. Common in many mythologies, the sacred animal carry the soul to the hereafter. Placed near the tombs, each stone ensure that the dead will join the afterlife. The deer cannot be domesticated, contrary to the horse. Its wood grows and falls along with the season. Half-vegetal and half-animal, it follows with the cycle of nature. The man would not entrust his soul to a horse -a domesticated animal then belonging to the men’s world- but he would to a deer, filled with the spirit of nature.

Deer are spinning – almost flying – around the stone, going up on one side and down on the other to catch the soul in the ground. Their size decreased on top as if they were moving away. The procession of deer sometimes starts with a shorten deer at the bottom which symbolize the animal arising from the underworld.

The weapons of the warrior are engraved at the foot of the stone: shields, daggers, knives, axes and bows. These objects appeared that end of the Bronze Age and then allow a relative dating. At the top, a circle symbolizes the moon or the sun: the afterlife world.

In Tsatsyn Ereg, 108 stones were found, always around a large tomb.

click to view the drone footage of the stone site

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