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Shigir Idol

Oldest Wood Carving, 10,000 BC
Russian hunter-gatherer sculpture

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Shigir Idol, Russia. Oldest wooden statue in the world
Shigir Idol: World's oldest surviving wooden statue. Image by Leonid Makarov. (Public Domain).

Shigir Idol: Summary

The Shigir Idol is the world's oldest known wood carving, dating to the final years of the Stone Age, about 10,000 BC.

A unique item of prehistoric sculpture, it was carved out of larch wood and then smoothed with an adze into a plank-shape.

It has a human head and is decorated on both sides with recognizable human faces and hands, as well as zigzag lines and other motifs.

It was recovered in fragments from a peat bog near Kirovgrad in 1894. According to Michael G. Zhilin of the Moscow Institute of Archaeology, it was the anti-bacterial effects of the peat, which prevented it from rotting.

Reconstructed, the Shigir Idol measures roughly 2.8 metres (9 feet) in height and has a rough, segmented appearance.

It is currently in the prehistoric art collection of the Sverdlovsk Regional History Museum in Yekaterinburg. Since 2003, it has been displayed in a custom-built glass case filled with inert gas.

It joins an impressive list of Russian mobiliary art, which includes treasures like: the Venuses of Kostenki, and the Gagarino Venuses, both from the Voronezh region; the Avdeevo Venuses from the Kursk region; the Zaraysk Venus from southeast of Moscow; and the Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BC) from Briansk.

Treasures from further afield include the Mal'ta Venuses and the Buret Venuses from Baikal Siberia, near Irkutsk.

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Discovery and Reconstruction

The idol was discovered by labourers in 1890, lying in pieces about 4 metres (13 feet) below the surface of a peat bog at Shigir, not far from Yekaterinburg.

The land owner Count Alexey Stenbok-Fermor donated the fragments to the local museum, where it remained, undated, for almost a century.

Initially, the pieces were used by Professor Dmitry Lobanov to reconstruct a figure roughly 2.8 metres in height.

Then, in 1914, another archaeologist, Vladimir Tolmachev, suggested including other unused fragments into the new structure - which raised its height to 5.3 metres (17 feet) - and made a series of scale drawings for reference.

Later, several of the extra pieces disappeared during the upheavals across Russia, so all that remains of Tolmachev's suggestion are his drawings.

Dating

Eventually, in the 1990s the Shigir Idol was carbon dated by the Institute of the History for the Material Culture in St Petersburg, and by the Institute of Geology in Moscow.

The date given was 7,500 BC, which transformed the carving into an extremely valuable piece of art.

But not everyone was convinced. Some experts had difficulty believing that hunter-gatherers from that time, were capable of crafting and decorating such a large object.

Later, beginning in 2014, a new series of tests by German experts from the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony, moved the dial back to 9,500 BC.

Finally, in 2021, scientists from the University of Göttingen, and the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, published the results of a series of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) tests which dated the Shigir carving to 10,000 BC.

This dating places it in the final period of Upper Paleolithic art - known in Europe as Magdalenian culture - and ranks it as the oldest art of its type in the world.

The AMS dating was corroborated by comparative analysis of the carving's geometric symbols, which showed that they were most similar to those at the famous Neolithic centre at Göbekli Tepe (9,500 BC), in modern day Turkey.

This demonstrated that elements of the Shigir sculpture are consistent with early Neolithic art in Eurasia, and confirms the carving is one of the greatest examples of Stone Age culture in Russia.

Shigir Idol: Characteristics

The Shigir Idol was sculpted from a piece of larch timber (159 years old), using a range of different stone tools, including three differently sized chisels.

Its body is flat and rectangular and features a series of horizontal lines at thorax level, which seem to represent ribs.

The surface is also decorated with seven faces.

The rest of the surface is ornamented with geometrical symbols, including chevrons, herring-bone and other abstract motifs, none of which have been deciphered.

More research is needed to analyze the object's ethnography and symbolism.

For more about the chronology of Russian sculpture during the Paleolithic, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Interpretation

The importance of the Shigir Idol lies in the fact that it has transformed our timeline of late paleolithic art, at least as far as hunter-gatherers are concerned.

Previously, larger-scale complex art was believed to be the exclusive handiwork of Neolithic farming people from about 8,000 years. These agrarian societies achieved a new level of sophistication which gave rise to larger and more complex art forms.

By contrast, it was taken for granted that hunter-gatherers were not capable of conceptual or symbolic thinking, or the organisation, needed to create larger structures.

However, the dating of the Shigir Idol shows this is not true and that the final years of the Upper Paleolithic were not a cultural wasteland as some scientists have suggested.

The apparent absence of any complex or monumental art created by hunter-gatherers, may simply be due to their use of wood (which rarely survives), unlike the stone works of later farming societies.

After all, it was only the freak combination of the acidic, oxygen-depleted (thus anti-bacterial) conditions of the peat bog, that allowed the idol to survive, and tell its tale.

Scientists involved in the dating and analysis of the carving have no doubts on the matter. "We have to conclude hunter-gatherers had complex ritual and expression of ideas. Ritual doesn't start with farming, but with hunter-gatherers," says Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

Note: Compare the Shigir Idol with earlier mobiliary art, made by hunter-gatherers, such as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BC), from the caves of the Altmuhl valley in southwestern Germany - the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world. Also compare the German carvings of lion, horse and mammoths from the Vogelherd Cave (38,000 BC).

See also the ivory carving "Swimming Reindeer" now in the British Museum.

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Meaning of the Shigir Idol

Despite the light it sheds on hunter-gatherers, the function and meaning of the Shigir Idol remains a mystery.

According to some experts, its height, together with its enigmatic geometric symbols suggests it may have been an early prototype of the totem pole - a form of cultural expression popularized by North American Indians - who themselves originated from eastern Russia.

Other scholars say the carving's decorative motifs may outline a version of the creation myth.

Others say the markings are some type of map or navigational aid.

Yet another interpretation says the idol may have been a "keep out!" warning sign not to enter a prohibited area.

References

(1) "The Shigir idol in the context of early art in Eurasia". Thomas Terberger, Mikhail Zhilin, Svetlana Savchenko (30 Jan 2021). Quaternary International. 573: 14–29.
(2) "Revelations on Shigir Idol change our understanding of ancient civilisations." Anna Liesowska. Siberian Times. 28 August 2015.
(3) "Carved idol from the Urals shatters expert views on birth of ritual art." Robin McKie, Science editor. The Guardian. Sun 20 May 2018.

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