Shigir Idol: Oldest Known Work of Ritual Art

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This Wooden Sculpture Is Twice as Old as Stonehenge and the Pyramids

by Nora MCGreevy/Smithsonianmag.com

Gold prospectors first discovered the so-called Shigir Idol at the bottom of a peat bog in Russia’s Ural mountain range in 1894. The unique object—a nine-foot-tall totem pole composed of ten wooden fragments carved with expressive faces, eyes and limbs and decorated with geometric patterns—represents the oldest known surviving work of wooden ritual art in the world.

More than a century after its discovery, archaeologists continue to uncover surprises about this astonishing artifact. As Thomas Terberger, a scholar of prehistory at Göttingen University in Germany, and his colleagues wrote in the journal Quaternary International in January, new research suggests the sculpture is 900 years older than previously thought.

Based on extensive analysis, Terberger’s team now estimates that the wood used to make the Shigir statue is about 12,250 years old. Carved from a single larch tree with 159 growth rings, the object itself was likely crafted around 12,100 years ago, at the end of the Last Ice Age, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert.

“The idol was carved during an era of great climate change, when early forests were spreading across a warmer late glacial to postglacial Eurasia,” Terberger tells Franz Lidz of the New York Times.

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