The incredible Shigir Idol, a wooden wonder of the prehistoric world, dates back to approximately 11,600 years in 2018. Now, a new study has pushed that date back an additional 900 years. This means that the oldest known wooden statue in the world is more than twice as old as Stonehenge!
Pointing out the staggering age of the Shigir idol
The new study is published in International Quaternary and it shows that given the age of 12,500 years, the haunting humanoid statue is also more than twice as old as the pyramids at Giza, a state made all the more surprising by the fact that it is made of wood. The lead author of the article, Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist with the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony, Germany, proposed a reason behind the creation of the statue to the New York Times :
“The idol was carved during an era of great climate change, when early forests stretched across a warmer late glacier to postglacial Eurasia. The landscape changed, and art – figurative designs and naturalistic animals painted in caves and carved into rock – did too, perhaps as a way to help people cope with the challenging environments they encountered. ”
Shigir idol illustration. ( Public domain )
The many faces of the idol of Shigir
Standing taller than a two-story building, it is 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) long, although it was originally 5.3 meters (17.4 feet) before parts of the artifact were accidentally destroyed during the Soviet era, the idol is believed to have been a large tree over a century old, shaped and decorated with a stone spoon implement.
The body of the prehistoric sculpture is flat and rectangular, and the horizontal lines intersect at approximately chest height, appearing to represent ribs. Ancient artists gave the idol seven faces at different levels of the statue, suggesting to scholars that the positions probably relate to a hierarchy. Three figures are located one above the other on both the front and back, and a seventh figure connects both sides, completing the composition.
An early reconstruction of the Shigir Idol from 1894. (Sverdlovsk Regional Museum)
Researchers believe that the idol’s high cheekbones and straight nose may reflect how the creators looked at the time.
Does the statue contain a coded message?
The incredible wooden sculpture was pulled out of a bog on the western outskirts of Siberia, Russia, 125 years ago. As in a time capsule, the idol was excellently preserved some four meters (13.5 feet) underground, protected by the antibacterial properties of the peat, which prevented its decomposition.
Shigir Idol – The oldest known wooden sculpture in the world. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The sculpture was found in numerous fragments, but when it was rebuilt, the surface was found to be covered in Mesolithic symbols and geometric designs, including chevrons, straight lines, herringbone pattern, wavy lines, and more. If it is an intentional message of primitive writing, it would make Shigir Idol the oldest code on the planet.
These mysterious markings have yet to be deciphered, but many suspect they may contain coded information. If translated, we can gain insight into Mesolithic man’s understanding of the natural and spiritual world.
Does the Shigir Idol contain coded messages? “Faces” appear throughout the sculpture. ( YouTube screenshot )
Professor Mikhail Zhilin, from the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes this could be the case, saying: “This is a masterpiece, which has gigantic emotional value and strength. It is a unique sculpture, there is nothing like this in the world … The ornament is covered with nothing but encrypted information. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the idol. ”
The messages remain “an absolute mystery to modern man,” but Zhilin says that prehistoric artisans must have “lived in complete harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development and a complicated spiritual world.”
The new research is a victory for Russian academics, who had been defending the idol age to some skeptics in the scientific community. Natalia Vetrova, general director of the Sverdlovsk Regional History Museum said Siberian times in 2018 that previous claims of Shigir Idol’s antiquity “were not recognized by the international scientific community. And we wanted to know for sure and tell the world how old our idol is. ”
A glimpse into the lost world of prehistoric woodwork
Terberger also says that “This is extremely important data for the international scientific community. It is important to understand the development of civilization and art in Eurasia and humanity as a whole. ”
With its complex iconography, Shigir Idol also presents archaeologists with new perspectives on the hunter-gatherer societies of Europe and Asia at the time of their creation and on prehistoric woodwork. It reveals that the artwork of the time was more diverse than the animal images and hunting scenes that are often linked to that period.
Despite the fact that Paleolithic artists living in forested regions would have had an ample supply of wood at their disposal, it is likely that much of their artwork was lost because wooden creations would have deteriorated over the years. centuries, unless they have been preserved in ideal conditions. like the bog that saved the Shigir Idol. As the scientists argue in their article, “Woodworking was probably widespread from the Late Glacier to the early Holocene. We see the sculpture of Shigir as a document of complex symbolic behavior and the spiritual world of the hunter-gatherers of the Urals from the Late Glacial to the Early Mesolithic. ”
Head of Shigir Idol, the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world. (Sverdlovsk Regional Museum)
Further excavations of the many unexplored peat bogs in the Urals may reveal more examples of prehistoric wooden artwork. However, Artnet notes that “lack of funding means there are currently no ongoing excavations” in this area.
Featured Image: The Idol of Shigir. Source: Terberger et al., Quat. Int., 2021
By Liz Leafloor
Updated March 25, 2021.