On a cold January 24 in 1894 in the Shigir area of the Ural Mountains in Russia was found the most amazing wood Stone Age sculpture ever unearthed—the Shigir Idol. It was buried or had found its way into a peat bog and there it was perfectly preserved for the last 11,000 years!
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The body of the Idol is flat with a series of horizontal lines and other geometrical markings (chevrons, herring-bone, etc.) that scientists believe had a meaning at one time but have not been deciphered. In addition, the Idol seems to have seven faces carved here and there on its surface. To those who have seen the sculpture and its old, enduring face, it is amazing, awe-inspiring and evokes feelings of wonder and sympathy.
The first mention of idols in one of the oldest books in the world, the Bible, is in Genesis 31:18,19 at the time of the Patriarch Jacob in c. 2000 BC:
“…and Jacob) drove away all his livestock and all his property which he had gathered, his acquired livestock which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. When Laban had gone to shear his flock, then Rachel (Laban’s daughter and wife of Jacob) stole the household idols that were her father’s.”
With proper care, wooden objects, like our hand carved hardwood puzzle boxes or pet portraits, can last for years and even for generations. But wooden carvings don’t last forever. But we’d say that 11,500 years is a pretty good run, and that’s the age of the oldest known wood carving!
The Shigir Sculpture, also often referred to as the Shighir Idol, is a nine foot tall wooden sculpture carved roughly in the shape of a man more than 11 millennia ago. This amazing sculpture is more than twice as old as the pyramids at Giza, for a bit of reference.
The Shigir Sculpture was found on a mountainside in the Middle Urals mountain range in Russia in the late 19th century, and scientists initially thought it was about 9,500 years of age. But better dating technology of the late 20th century revealed the true age of this amazing hand carved wooden statue. It was preserved for all those years thanks to being submerged in a peat bog.
While surely humans were making wood carvings for millennia before this idol was carved, it is nonetheless amazing to see such an ancient piece of wooden art. And it’s reassuring to know that even today in the era of autonomous electric cars and smartphones that people still love hand carved wooden art. Handmade wooden gifts are some of the best you can give, and in their way, they are part of a long lineage of handmade wooden carvings that dates back to the time before history.
The Shigir Idol was found in fragments while some fragments remained missing. After arranging the pieces, Russian professor Dmitry Lobanov discovered the Idol was around 2.8 meters tall. Approximately 2 meters of fragments were never found, possibly due to Russia’s political turmoil.
In 1914, with the use of sketches, Siberian archeologist Vladimir Tolmachev pieced together remaining unused fragments to boost the height of the idol to over 17 ft. tall! Later, the pieces were destroyed and all that was left were the drawings.
Professor D.I. Lobanov combined the wooden pieces into a sculpture that was 9’2” tall. 20 years later in 1914 archeologist Vladimir Tolmachev used the extra wooden fragments to construct what he considered the original height of 17’4”. Recent tests, using Accelerated Mass Spectrometry, on the Idol have concluded it is 11,000 years old. That would make the Idol about three times older than the pyramids and over twice as old as Stonehenge.
Stonehenge and the pyramids are mute memorials to the ingenuity and genius of man in whatever age he has lived. But the Shigir Idol is a special class of ancient craftsmanship, a single idol or totem made by a man or a group of men who wanted something that was enduring and precious to them to be built. They, of course, could never have imagined that 11,000 years later his/their work would be displayed and would be examined by the finest minds in the world as a work of art.
The Shigir Idol was carved by a stone tool from a large piece of larch wood that has been dated by its tree rings to be a 159 year-old tree at that time. The conifer Larix sukaczewii, also known as the Russian larch, is native to the Ural Mountains.
Some think these symbols represent the meaning of life, some think they speak of the creation of the world. The vertical arrangement of images suggests a timeline of historical events. The writing on the idol is also a sample of some of the first writings in the account of man.
If this is true, the Shigir Idol could represent the oldest known code in history.
Another theory suggests the symbols are markers on a giant map with symbols showing the time of the journey and present location/destination. This idea makes just as much sense.
An additional theory brings forth the idea that the idol is an ancient totem pole, much like what was used by the Native Americans – the wavy line used for water, the circle for the sun and maybe the angular lines representing mountains.
Among the symbols, there are various faces, each thought to be a visage of the sculpture’s creator. The top face, mistaken as an Aztec face because of its broken nose, could possibly be the main player in this piece of work.
As far as physical texture goes, the sculpture is made from Larch timber. The tree was 159 years old when cut for the Idol – the rings of the tree tell its secrets.
Mikhail Zhilin, professor and lead researcher of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archeology, says,
“This masterpiece carries gigantic emotional value and force. There is nothing else in the world like this unique statue. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the Idol.”
In 2014, a new series of tests were completed by German researchers from the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural history.
With the use of Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (AMS), the idol was dated within decades of its creation. The Shigir Idol can be viewed at the Yekaterinburg Russian History Museum.
The wooden surface of the Shigir Idol is decorated with Mesolithic symbols and geometrical motifs such as chevrons, herring-bone, straight lines, squiggly lines, and other abstract symbols, none of which have been deciphered to date. According to researchers, these symbols were not just decorative but had meaning for the creator(s). Some believe that the structure’s faces carry encoded information from ancient man in the Mesolithic era concerning their understanding of the creation of the world. If so, this would make the Shigir Idol the world’s oldest code on the planet, written around 9,500 years ago.
If there is indeed coded information about the origin of humans and the world, the vertical arrangement of the images may reflect the sequence of events and relate to some kind of hierarchy. Some have even claimed the Idol includes primitive writing, which, if true, would be amongst the first on Earth. A leading researcher and professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, Mikhail Zhilin, explained his experiences and gave his thoughts on the Shigir Idol:
“This is a masterpiece, carrying gigantic emotional value and force. It is a unique sculpture, there is nothing else in the world like this … The ornament is covered with nothing but encrypted information. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the Idol. ”
An ancient map?
Others have postulated that the Shigir Idol may have been an early map, and that the straight lines, wavy lines, and arrows, indicate ways of getting to a destination and the number of days for a journey. According to one theory, which has yet to be fully researched, waves on the statue mean water, straight lines mean ravines, and arrows indicate hills.
Another theory is the possibility that it may be an early prototype of the totem pole, popularized by North American Indians who may also have originated in Siberia. However, the problem of these various interpretations lies in the multiple meanings behind the symbols. According to ethnography, a straight line could denote land, or horizon; the boundary between earth and sky, water and sky, or the borderline between worlds. A wavy or zigzag line might symbolize the watery element, a snake or lizard, or determine a certain border. In addition, a zigzag can signal danger, like a pike. Cross, rhombus, square, circle can depict the fire or sun, and so on.
A 10,000 year old statue believed to be twice as old as the Pyramids of Egypt has been sent to Germany for research.
Oldest wooden art in the world
The Shigir Idol has been radiocarbon dated to 7,500 B.C. by the Institute of the History for the Material Culture in St Petersburg, and Institute of Geology in Moscow, making it the oldest art of its type in the world.
In 2014, German researchers from the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage began a new series of tests using accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS), to pinpoint the exact date of the statue to within a matter of decades.
There is no doubt that the anthropomorphic Shigir Idol is one of the greatest sculptures of ancient times and stands as a testament to ancient man’s creativity and ingenuity. At present, the Shigir Idol is on display at the Yekaterinburg History Museum in Russia in a special glass sarcophagus filled with inert gas.
The men – or man – who created the Idol lived in total harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development, and a complicated spiritual world. Pictures: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
The impression of the main three-dimensional face, with a gaping mouth, is of an Aztec look, but it is only because the part of the nose of the main face was broken. In all there are seven faces, six of which are one dimensional.
‘It is clear that the faces together with the ornament form separate figures,’ said Savchenko and Zhilin. ‘On both the front and back of the Idol there are three figures. Here they are located one above the other, and the upper seventh figure…connects both sides and crowns the composition.’
Some have claimed the Idol includes primitive writing, which, if true, would be amongst the first on Earth, but there is no consensus among experts who have studied the Urals statue.
The Idol was preserved due to a stroke of luck concerning its resting place in the Urals.
It happened ‘thanks to a combination of antiseptics,’ said Professor Zhilin. ‘The idol was made from the Phytoncidic larch, then ‘canned’ in turf which is an acid anaerobic environment that kills microorganism-destroyers and also has a tanning effect.’
This is a masterpiece, carrying gigantic emotional value and force. Pictures: Ekaterina Osintseva, The Siberian Times
Asked if they lived in permanent fear of mighty forces of mysterious nature, nervously casting around, petrified by danger, he replied: ‘Forget it. The men – or man – who created the Idol lived in total harmony with the world, had advanced intellectual development, and a complicated spiritual world.’
‘It is obvious that the elements of geometrical ornament had some meaning,’ stated Savchenko and Zhilin in explaining the Idol’s ancient markings.
‘The difficulty of interpretation is the polysemy symbolism of these symbols’ – in other words, the possible multiple related meanings. According to ethnography, a straight line could denote land, or horizon – the boundary between earth and sky, water and sky, or the borderline between the worlds.
‘A wavy line or zigzag symbolised the watery element, snake, lizard, or determined a certain border. In addition, the zigzag signaled danger, like a pike. Cross, rhombus, square, circle depicted the fire or the sun, and so on.’
Savchenko and other museum staff have postulated that among its purposes was that of an early map, or navigator. Straight lines, wave lines and arrows indicated ways of getting to the destination and the number of days for a journey, with waves meaning water path, straight lines meaning ravines, and arrows meaning hills, according to this theory which has yet to be fully researched.
Author Petr Zolin, citing scientific work by Savchenko and Zhilin, stated: ‘The characters of Idol cannot have an unambiguous interpretation. If these are images of spirits that inhabited the human world in ancient times, the vertical position of figures (one above the other) probably relate to their hierarchy.
‘Placing images on the front and back planes of the Idol, possibly indicate that they belong to different worlds. If there are depicted myths about the origin of humans and the world, the vertical arrangement of the images may reflect the sequence of events. Ornaments can be special signs which mark something as significant.’
The Idol reflects what these people looked like, with straight noses and high cheekbones.
Peat bogs are composed of bitumen, humic acid, lignin-like matter, water-soluble matter and spaghnum moss, all elements which combine to preserve indefinitely anything that finds its way into a bog. The Shingir Idol was found in a bog about 62 miles from the nearest city of Yekaterinburg, Russia.