‘Votive Reliefs on Isolated Rocks’: Religious Geography in the Highlands of Southwest Anatolia

Tyler Jo Smith is Professor of Classical Art/Archaeology at the University of Virginia. Here she shares some of her ongoing research concerning rock-cut votive reliefs from the regions of northern Lycia and Pisidia, as well as her memories of the day she first encountered the ‘site with 40 horses’.

One late summer afternoon in 1992, a 108 year old man changed my life forever. As a graduate student and member of an archaeological survey team working in the mountainous terrain of northern Lycia in southwest Turkey, I had been tasked with the study and publication of a set of rock-cut votive reliefs from the ancient city of Balboura and its territory. Balboura then, as now, was not terribly well-known, though the geographer Strabo (13.4.167 C631) writing in the late 1st century BCE described it as once belonging to a tetrapolis along with Oinoanda, Bubon and Kibyra, also attesting four languages in the area: Pisidian, Greek, Solymian and Lydian. The reasons for conducting the survey, as well as the techniques used and the research questions addressed, have now been outlined in full by J.J. Coulton, the project director (Coulton 2012).

Importantly, the votive reliefs, like other rock-cut and free-standing remains in the region (e.g., tombs, theatres), had been known to earlier travelers and scholars, most of whom seemed mainly absorbed in recording inscriptions. When T. Spratt and E. Forbes (both attached to the H.M. Surveying Ship Beacon, as ‘assistant-surveyor’ and ‘naturalist’, respectively) visited Balboura in May 1842, while exploring the sites and geography of Lycia, they described the remains, the landscape, and the relationships between the two in some detail. Although making no mention of the rock-cut votive reliefs located on the south side of the acropolis or to one west of the city near a spring, they did make a note of the ‘sarcophagi, having lids, on which large and coarsely executed figures of lions in a crouching attitude are sculpted’ that bordered the road leading up to the city (Spratt and Forbes 1847, 268). Subsequent visitors (late 19th-20th centuries), such as George Bean (1903-1977),  continued to show interest in both archaeology and topography, and it is their hunt for inscriptions and settlements, as well as their awareness of mortuary practices and rural cults, that have shaped our perceptions of and approaches to the highlands of southwest Anatolia in the ancient past (Coulton 1998). The difficult landscape, and seeming inaccessibility of sites meant that – like Spratt, Forbes and many others – our team relied heavily on the help of resident informants and guides for their firsthand knowledge. One such person was the 108 year old man who enthusiastically climbed into the passenger seat of our Land Rover to lead us to the place with ‘40 horses!’ (‘kırk atlar!’).

Figure 1. A 108 year old man and his family, Çaltılar Village, 1992 (photo: T.J. Smith).

After a drive-thru stop for watermelon in a village along the way, our vehicle, loaded down with people and equipment, capped a steep hill at the end of a dirt track. Jim Coulton was driving, and over the deafening and repeated exclamations of ‘40 horses’ from our elderly guide, he shouted ‘Tyler, I think you better sharpen your pencil’. Up to this point, we had all become accustomed to spotting ‘votive reliefs on isolated rocks’ (Coulton 2012, 6), representing both home-grown cults and more widely attested deities. My eventual publication of them (both rock-cut and carved on slabs) would include 45 dedicated to the Dioskouroi (Castor and Pollux), 15 to an unnamed male Triad (perhaps the Theoi Agrioi, ‘wild gods’), four to a rider-god with a club (perhaps Kakasbos, an Anatolian deity), two to Herakles, five to Artemis Lagbene (a local epithet), and two to Zeus; and all would be dated (based on inscriptions and/or style) to Hellenistic and Roman times (Smith and Milner 1997). Whenever we came upon reliefs – be they isolated examples, pairs or small groups – it was necessary to take measurements, write out descriptions, and make photographs, to record their positon and orientation, and to note their proximity to natural features and manmade structures.

Figure 2. Rock-cut votive reliefs dedicated to the Dioskouroi, Kızılbel (photo: T.J. Smith).

The site with ‘40 horses’, Kızılbel, was completely unique in our survey area for its impressive cluster of rock-cut votives. There, on a single limestone rock-face, we came face-to-face with a rural sanctuary, or at the very least a significant cult place, to the Dioskouroi. A large number of reliefs, here and in general, portray the twins on horseback, with a frontal ‘goddess’ positioned between them standing on a base or placed inside an architectural niche (perhaps a cult statue of Artemis or Helen). This dramatic and unexpected site left us positively speechless, until we collectively realized the urgency with which all hands would be needed to record the vital information before the sun got too low in the sky. The only comparable example of a concentration of votives, at least from our survey, are the four Dioskouroi reliefs carved inside and just outside of a cave at the site of İntası (the protected environment of the cave preserved the reliefs to an unusually splendid state), though two shrines with large clusters of rock-cut votives to a rider-god are also attested in the general region (Coulton 2012, 150).

Figure 3. Rock-cut votive relief to the Dioskouroi, with possible donor panel attached, at the site of Yazır Lake (photo: T.J. Smith).

Careful recording of the rock-cut reliefs, from across the survey area, led to some unexpected conclusions:

  • the majority are south-facing
  • many are located close to natural water sources
  • they occur in both urban and rural locations
  • a single location can belong to more than one cult
  • they occur both near settlements and in funerary contexts

These findings are consistent with similar reliefs (i.e., cults, artistic style) from outside the survey area, both in northern Lycia and in Pisidia, indicating more widespread trends and practices. More recent study of reliefs from Pisidia, as well as the discoveries and publications of other teams of archaeologists working throughout these highland territories (Smith 2011), has greatly changed my thinking about the reliefs over time.

Moving beyond attempts to name the rider-god (is he Kakasbos? Maseis?), or to unlock the true identity of the statuesque female between Castor and Pollux, it seems more exciting to consider the physical settings of the votive reliefs in more depth, given that they are rock-cut and therefore permanent and unmovable in the landscape. As part of reflecting on their role in the religious geography of these places, we might also consider human reaction to them over time, from antiquity to the present, as well as how the natural environment has both weathered them and protected them (Smith 2018). Some examples, moreover, have always been more readily visible than others, a situation highly dependent on their chosen location. For example, a deeply cut Triad relief, located near a spring at the site of Mal Muğara, can only be reached after a steep and rather precarious climb, and even then it is largely hidden between two rocky outcrops (cf. Smith and Milner 1997, pl. 1a). Why was this location selected? Is it because of the nearby spring or another natural feature? Was this a place that travellers or pilgrims visited? Or, did something, actual or mythological, occur at this spot? If we broaden the scope of inquiry beyond such specific cases, we might wonder about the agency of the itinerant sculptors who did the carving, as none of these reliefs could have been prefabricated in such circumstances (cf. Lawton 2017, 9-11). And, finally, what is it about the landscape that might have motivated this sustained phenomenon of devotional rock-carving, a practice that was not prevalent in Greco-Roman antiquity? Apart from the obvious availability of good stone, it is arguable that the life-giving mountains themselves and their importance for both agriculture and animal husbandry, served as both the backdrop and the canvas – creating a symbolic landscape, if you will, of the type associated with other religious traditions, among them Buddhism (Wesler 2012, 176-178). But did the messages and meanings embedded in the dramatic natural landscape of the southwest Anatolian highlands, once consecrated with a rock-cut votive, endure as timeless expressions of religious geography? Like many generous local people who led us to remote rock-cut votives depicting frontal faced gods and heroes, our 108 year old guide believed these old-fashioned carvings were in fact the products of ‘Ottoman times’.

Figure 4. The author recording a rock-cut Triad relief at Mal Muğara (photo: J.J. Coulton).

By Tyler Jo Smith


Coulton, J.J. 1998. ‘Highland Cities in South-West Turkey: the Oinoanda and Balboura Surveys’, in R. Matthews (ed.), Ancient Anatolia: Fifty Year’s Work by the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, 225-236. London: British Institute at Ankara.

Coulton, J.J. 2012. The Balboura Survey and Settlement in Highland Southwest Anatolia. London: British Institute at Ankara.

Lawton, C. 2017. The Athenian Agora 38: Votive Reliefs. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Smith, T.J. 2011. ‘Highland Gods: Rock-cut Votive Reliefs from the Pisidian Survey’, Anatolian Studies 61, 133-150.

Smith, T.J. 2018. ‘Interaction, Cult and Memory: Another Look at the Rock-cut Votive Reliefs of Southwest Anatolia’, Colloquium Anatolicum 17, 119-136.

Smith, T.J., with N.P.  Milner 1997. ‘Votive Reliefs from Balboura and its Environs’, Anatolian Studies 47, 3-49.

Spratt, T.A.B. and Forbes, E. 1847. Travels in Lycia, Milyas, and the Cibyratis. London: John Van Voors.

Wesler, K.W. 2012. An Archaeology of Religion. Plymouth: University Press of America.

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