In 1894, gold prospectors found a 5-meter long carved wooden idol in a peat bog close to Yekaterinburg. It had been carefully smoothed into the shape of a plank and covered with unmistakable human details and hands.
The skull was human-like and the mouth had an “o” shape. The monument was kept in Yekaterinburg museums for over 100 years, as it was believed to be only a few thousand year old.
The Journal Antiquity published an article on April 24, 2018, stating that the figure was created from one Larchwood log 11,600 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest examples of monumental art in the world. The Shigir Idol, according to the authors, is similar in age and look, but not in material, to the stone sculptures of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, which is often regarded as the first colossal ritual constructions. Both monuments are different from the naturalistic renderings of the glacial period.
It also shows that intricate, large-scale art was created in multiple locations. The idol is likely to have been constructed by hunter/gatherers and not later farming communities as previously thought. “We have to conclude that hunter/gatherers had complex rituals and ways of expressing their feelings. “Ritual does not begin with farmers, but with hunter-gatherers,” explains co-author and archaeologist Thomas Herberger of the University of Göttingen in Germany.
Radiocarbon dating of the idol revealed that it was 9800 years old. The conclusion was dismissed by many academics as being too unlikely. They argued that hunter-gatherers couldn’t have created such a large sculpture and could not have had the rich symbolic imagination to embellish it. New samples were taken in 2014. In 2014, the team announced at a Yekaterinburg press conference that the samples had revealed older dates. This brought the sculpture’s age back to 1500 years, when the world was still recovering from its last ice age.
These dates were calculated using samples from the core log that had not been affected by any previous attempts to preserve the wood. “The older you go, the more you will find.” [the date] becomes—very it’s indicative some sort of preservative or glue was used,” said Olaf Jöris, an archaeologist at the Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution in Neuwied, Germany, who was not involved with the study. The dates of an antler carving found near the original location in the eighteenth-century gave credence to the findings.
This statue was built during a period when trees were growing in warmer, postglacial Eurasia. Peter Vang Petersen (an archaeologist from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, who was not part of the research) said that as the landscape changed so did art. This may have been to help people adapt to the new woodland conditions. “Paleolithic art, naturalistic animals and paleolithic figuratives all end with the end of the Ice Period.” Petersen explained, “After this, you have really stylized pattern that are hard to decipher.” “They were hunters, but they had an entirely different outlook on life.
Experts disagreed with the interpretation of Shigir symbols at a Yekaterinburg symposium in 2017. They compared them to more recent anthropological examples. The most similar findings from that time period are from Göbekli, almost 2500 kilometers away, where hunter-gatherers congregated for rituals and carved equal stylized creatures on stone pillars over 5 meters high.
Herberger sees a modern parallel in the Pacific Northwest totem poles. These totem poles are used to venerate ancestors and worship gods. Mikhail Zhilin of Moscow’s Russian Academy of Sciences, co-author of the book, believes that the statue could be symbolic of devils or woodland spirits. Petersen believes that the zigzag carvings might be a form “Keep out!” Warning signifying dangerous or prohibited territory
The shadows are being revealed the culture that created the idol. Zhilin is now back in Shigir, and has set up special equipment to dig several meters deep into the soggy soil. He and his team also discovered hundreds of more small bone points and daggers dating back to the same period. They also found elk horns engraved with animal heads.
They have also discovered lots of prehistoric evidence for carpentry such as stone tools and woodworking tools. Even a piece of a smoothed pine log using an adze. Zhilin says, “They were skilled in working with wood.” This idol reminds us that stone wasn’t the only material used to build art and structures in ancient times.
It was just the most likely to survive. This may have affected our understanding of prehistory. Herberger explained that wood does not generally last. “I’m certain there were more, but they weren’t saved,” Herberger said.