The New York Times examines the Shigir Idol, a wooden statue from the Ural Mountains that defied decay to become the oldest known work of ritual art:
Dug out of a peat bog by gold miners in 1890, the relic, or what’s left of it, is carved from a great slab of freshly cut larch. Scattered among the geometric patterns (zigzags, chevrons, herringbones) are eight human faces, each with slashes for eyes that peer not so benignly from the front and back planes.
The topmost mouth, set in a head shaped like an inverted teardrop, is wide open and slightly unnerving. “The face at the very top is not a passive one,” said Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony, in Germany. “Whether it screams or shouts or sings, it projects authority, possibly malevolent authority. It’s not immediately a friend of yours, much less an ancient friend of yours.”
In 2014, Dr. Terberger and a team of German and Russian scientists tested samples from the idol’s core — uncontaminated by previous efforts to conserve the wood — using accelerator mass spectrometry. The more advanced technology yielded a remarkably early origin: roughly 11,600 years ago, a time when Eurasia was still transitioning out of the last ice age. The statue was more than twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, as well as, by many millenniums, the first known work of ritual art.
A new study that Dr. Terberger wrote with some of the same colleagues in Quaternary International, further skews our understanding of prehistory by pushing back the original date of the Shigir Idol by another 900 years, placing it in the context of the early art in Eurasia.
Written with an eye toward disentangling Western science from colonialism, Dr. Terberger’s latest paper challenges the ethnocentric notion that pretty much everything, including symbolic expression and philosophical perceptions of the world, came to Europe by way of the sedentary farming communities in the Fertile Crescent 8,000 years ago.
“Ever since the Victorian era, Western science has been a story of superior European knowledge and the cognitively and behaviorally inferior ‘other,’” Dr. Terberger said. “The hunter-gatherers are regarded as inferior to early agrarian communities emerging at that time in the Levant. At the same time, the archaeological evidence from the Urals and Siberia was underestimated and neglected. For many of my colleagues, the Urals were a very terra incognita.”
In Yekaterinburg, the count’s donation was displayed with bone arrowheads, slotted bone daggers, a polished elk antler and other ancient bog finds at the Urals Natural Sciences Society, today known as the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore.
The director of the museum allowed the railroad stationmaster, Dmitry Lobanov, an aspiring archaeologist, to assemble the main fragments into a nine-foot-tall figure with legs crossed tightly in a pose that potty-training parents of any epoch might recognize.
“It was not a scientific construction,” said the archaeologist Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a co-author of the new study. The idol stayed locked in that uncomfortable position until 1914, when the archaeologist Vladimir Tolmachev suggested incorporating the remnants into the finished work — increasing its height to almost 17 and a half feet. Much of the bottom half later went missing; Mr. Tolmachev’s sketches of the section are all that remain.
For more than a century, the Shigir Idol was considered a curiosity, assumed to be at most a few thousand years old. The radiocarbon analysis in 1997 was greeted with derision by some scientists who found the conclusions implausibly old. Some doubters even suggested that the statue was a forgery.
Dr. Terberger and his colleagues have settled that question in their new study, demonstrating conclusively that the larch was a literal tree of knowledge. The timber was at least 159 years old when the ancient carpenters began to shape it.
“The rings tell us that trees were growing very slowly, as the temperature was still quite cold,” Dr. Terberger said. Given the speed with which larch logs rot and warp, the researchers determined that the idol was fashioned from a tree that had just been cut. And from the widths and depths of the markings, Dr. Zhilin deduced that the cuts were made by at least three sharp chisels, two of which were probably polished stone adzes and the other possibly the lower jaw of a beaver, teeth intact. (On the subject of beaver mandibles, Dr. Terberger respectfully disagrees. “During the period of rapid cooling from about 10,700 B.C. to 9,600 B.C. that we call the Younger Dryas, no beavers should have been around in the Transurals,” he said.)
Photos at the link, and you can read more about the many faces of the Shigir Idol in the study in Quaternary International here.