Carved Idol Found In the Urals Sheds a New Light on Ritual Art


When gold prospectors started digging in the Shigir peat bog in the Ural Mountains, on 24 January 1894, they found some carved pieces of wood that looked quite strange.

There were ten fragments of wood that, pieced together, formed a tall idol measuring over 5 meters in length. It looked like it was carved from a single plank of larch wood. It was decorated with zigzag lines, hands, and human faces.

Scientists wrote about it as being the Shigir Idol, but the recent study shows that this idol is older than it was believed to be. Scientists previously thought it was dating back to Antiquity. But archaeologist Professor Thomas Terberger (Göttingen University, Germany) is one of the authors of the Antiquity paper. He said:

“Our analysis indicates that the Shigir Idol is around 11,500 years old. At that time, Europe and Asia were still emerging from the ice age. There were no farmers then. The only humans in this part of the world at this time were hunter-gatherers. Yet they created the Shigir Idol. The discovery of its antiquity therefore changes, dramatically, – our views about the birth of ritual art.”

Art Produced By Ancient Hunter-Gatherers

Unlike depictions in the caves in France or Spain dating back to over 30,000 years ago, this idol was covered in symbols, pointing toward the idea of art being used in rituals, not just a way of expressing the surroundings.

Until the 1990s, nobody knew how old the idol was. But in the 1990s, scientists used radiocarbon detectors to date a piece of wood. The monument proved to be almost 9,800 years old. However, scholars believed it was impossible because hunter-gatherers couldn’t possibly produce this piece of art decorated with so many symbols.

But the recent study that wanted to prove that the idol was indeed ancient, found a surprising answer, according to Terberger:

“The result was quite a surprise, I admit.”

The scale of this idol and the symbols carved in it would belong to a sedentary farming people, not to hunter-gatherers. They were not this sophisticated or capable of symbolistic thinking. However, they are the authors of this idol. They could have created more of these pieces, but since they were made from wood, not many have survived in time, unlike the stonework of the farmers. Terberger explains:

“We have to accept that hunter-gatherers had complex rituals and were capable of very sophisticated expression of ideas and art. These things didn’t start with farmers, they began with hunter-gatherers much earlier.”

Other discoveries over the years have come up with small tools with zig-zag symbols in Northern Europe, showing a connection with this idol. The purpose of the monument could be to honor a god, according to Terberger’s beliefs:

“From our current perspective, it is very hard to work out what was going on in the minds of the creators of the Shigir Idol. However, I am struck by the similarity of the idol with the totem poles of native Americans in the north-west Pacific region. What is certain is that its makers were saying a lot more than just an announcement that ‘I can build a big pole.’”


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