Ancient Art: The Shigir Idol (November 12 Night Thread)

Tonight’s ancient art artefact isn’t painted upon a wall. Obviously, the art of prehistory that has survived into the present day is usually found in isolated areas of the world, safe from harsh weather conditions and urbanisation; in dry caves and remote shelters. Carved artworks made from wood are much, much rarer, surviving only through unlikely chance.

The Shigir Idol

The Ural Mountains

Near the city of Yekaterinburg in Russia at the tail-end of the Nineteenth Century, gold prospectors discovered a carved wooden idol in a peat bog. Five meters long and made from a larch tree, recent radiocarbon techniques have dated the idol to being close to eleven thousand years old, making it the earliest known example of wooden sculpture in the world from an era where the glaciers of the last Ice Age were still slowly retreating.

Presumably created by a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers, the idol is covered on both sides with human faces and hands, along with zigzag lines and other markings, their meanings lost to time. It is topped with a human-like head, its mouth open.

Archaeologist Professor Thomas Terberger, of Göttingen University in Germany, described the statue as changing dramatically our views about the birth of ritual art. The precise purpose of the idol is lost to us, of course, being the product of a culture that left no writing or other physical hisotry. “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,” Terberger said. “What is certain is that its makers were saying a lot more than just an announcement that ‘I can build a big pole.’”

It’s an eerie, imposing statue that surely provoked unease in anyone who stumbled across it as they hunted a stray bison.

Enjoy your night, everyone!