Across Eastern Europe and into parts of Central Asia, anthropomorphic stone stelae have dotted the landscape for centuries. These flat, plank-like monuments with human features were being constructued all the way back in 4,000 B.C. In the late medieval period, Turkic nomads known as the Polovtsians or Cumans—the last people in the region to continue the tradition—were still carving and placing statues along the steppes near the Black Sea.
Large stone monuments, like Easter Island's Moai and Stonehenge, tend to attract attention, and lots of it. But sometimes even large stone statues can be lost to history. As a group of researchers from Poland and the Czech Republic found, “indifference” and “lack of understanding” has haunted this collection of stelae for centuries:
Monumental anthropomorphic statues that make a huge impression on researchers and tourists from Western Europe, are not seen by eastern European communities as a part of their cultural heritage. In the opinion of many people met by the authors, the anthropomorphic stelae were not worthy of interest or investment of efforts and resources for their rescue and display, because they did not arise such excitement as, for example, golden inventories from Scythian graves.
Thought to be the embodiment of evil spirits, the stelae were targeted by the Orthodox church in the 16th century, destroyed and reused as building material for centuries after, then used as target practice by soldiers in both World Wars. The few that did survive and make it to museums were inexpertly repaired, sometimes in ways that damaged the statues even further.
Today, these statues face a new threat to their preservation, as many are available for sale on the black market, and still more are still used as building material, forming walls, garden decorations, or even benches.
The Polish and Czech researchers have been working to maintain the stelae, stored in an outdoor sculpture park in East Ukraine's Veliklanadolskyi Forest Museum. One of the researchers, Aneta Gołębiowska-Tobiasz, just published a book on their years of work. She and her collegues hope that one day, there might be a tourist trail of some kind through the region, which would allow visitors to see the statues both in museums and in nature. But their first challenge is convincing the people already in the region that it's worth preserving these mysterious rocks.