Shigir Idol: Twice as Old as the Pyramids and Stonehenge

The Shigir Idol is the oldest known wood idol in the world. It was carved approximately 12,000 years ago during the Mesolithic Period, shortly after the end of the last Ice Age. The Shigir Idol was first found by gold miners in Shigir, West-Yukrainia (currently Russia) and it is the oldest figurative sculpture of our history.

There are several theories on what Shigir Idol represents, such as Shigir Idol is an ancient totem made by one of all prehistoric Siberian cultures related to early Native American groups; Shigir Idol’s body includes many symbols and shapes that resemble other ancient symbols found in the Americas.

Another theory says, Shigir Idol was made as a kind of totem used to scare away evil spirits and as such Shigir Idol works as a sort of guardian against bad luck. Shigir Idol may also have been tied to spiritual beliefs, but it’s unlikely Shigir Idol was worshipped or considered sacred to those who believed in it. Shigir Idol then would be a testament to ancient Siberian people practicing animism that is the belief that everything has a spirit (both animate and inanimate objects).

Despite the theories, idol sculptor made this idol for some unknown purpose and thus far no one knows who he/she was or what exact purposes were behind making this piece of art.

Shigir idol has a clearly visible face on it. The rest of them have too many common elements to be counted as a new figure, so they can simply be said to be variations of Shigir Idol whose figures cannot appear again due to some unknown circumstances. Shigir Idol can currently be seen at Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

shigir idol
Sverdlovsk Regional Museum

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Discovery

On January 24, 1890, at a depth of 4 meters (13 feet) in the peat bog of Shigir near the village of Kalata (now Kirovgrad) and roughly 100 kilometers from Yekaterinburg, miners discovered ivory carving on the surface. 40 years prior to this discovery, research had begun in this region following the discovery of a variety of ancient objects in an open-cast gold mine.

It was broken down into ten parts. Professor D. I. Lobanov reassembled the major fragments to create a sculpture 2.8 m (9.2 ft) tal. However, during the early 20th century, archaeologist Vladimir Tolmachev [ru] proposed a variation of this reconstruction by incorporating the unused pieces. The original height of the statue, according to his design, was 5.3 m (17.4 ft). Later, some of these fragments were lost, leaving just Tolmachev’s sketches of them as evidence.

shigir idol
The wood used to carve the Shigir Idol is around 12,250 years old. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

Dating

According to G. I. Zajtseva of the Institute of History for the Material Culture in Saint Petersburg, who carried out the initial radiocarbon dating, it was determined to be 9,500 years old by the Geological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. According to these researchers, because 9,500-year-old hunter-gatherers would have been unable to create and decorate such a huge object, the dating was incorrect in the 1990s.

According to an analysis by the Germans in 2018 , the Shigir Idol is 11,600 years old. It is the world’s oldest wooden sculpture of its kind. Wood deteriorates in most situations and does not last as long as other materials such as stone and metal when subjected to archaeological excavation. A decorated antler was discovered near the Shigir Idol and dated to around 11,600 years ago, providing additional evidence.

In 2021, researchers at the University of Göttingen and the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences published the results of a number of recent AMS findings, which placed the Idol around 12,500 years. According to Thomas Terberger and his colleagues at Göttingen University in Germany, new study suggests it’s 900 years old than previously thought.

On a interview to New York Times, Terberger said that “The idol was carved during an era of great climate change, when early forests were spreading across a warmer late glacial to postglacial Eurasia.” And continued, “the landscape changed, and the art—figurative designs and naturalistic animals painted in caves and carved in rock—did, too, perhaps as a way to help people come to grips with the challenging environments they encountered.”

Shigir Idol: Twice as Old as the Pyramids and Stonehenge

 

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