Shigir Idol (c.7,500 BCE)
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The Shigir Idol is the world's oldest known wood carving, dating to the era of Mesolithic art, about 7,500 BCE. A unique item of prehistoric sculpture, the Idol was unearthed in fragments from a peat bog near Kirovgrad in 1894. Reconstructed, it stands roughly 9 feet (2.8 metres) in height and is part of the collection of prehistoric art at the History Museum in Yekaterinburg. Since 2003, it has been displayed in a purpose-built glass sarcophagus filled with inert gas. According to Michael G. Zhilin, senior researcher at the Moscow Institute of Archeology, its survival was due to the anti-bacterial effects of the peat, which prevented it from rotting. It joins an impressive list of Russian mobiliary art dating back to the Stone Age, including such treasures as: the Venus of Kostenky (22,000 BCE) and the neighbouring Venus of Gagarino (20,000 BCE), both from the Voronezh region; the Avdeevo Venuses (20,000 BCE) from Kursk region; the Zaraysk Venuses (20,000 BCE) from southeast of Moscow; the Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE) from Briansk; the Kapova Cave Paintings (12,500 BCE) from Bashkortostan; and Amur River Pottery (14,300 BCE) from the Russian Far East. For more about the chronology of Paleolithic culture, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The idol was discovered in numerous fragments, in 1890, about 4 metres (13.5 feet) below the surface of a peat bog at Shigir, in the Sverdlovsk region of the Ural Mountains, roughly 100 kilometres from Yekaterinburg. There was no cave art in the vicinity, but the area had been under investigation since 1850 following the discovery of prehistoric artifacts in an open-air gold mine.
Professor Dmitry Lobanov used the main fragments to reconstruct a figure roughly 2.8 metres in height. Then, in 1914, the archeologist Vladimir Tolmachev suggested incorporating other unused fragments into the finished work - increasing its height to 5.3 metres - and drafted a number of scale drawings accordingly. Later, however, some of these pieces were accidentally destroyed, so only Tolmachev's drawings of them remain.
The Shigir Idol has been radiocarbon dated to 7,500 BCE by the Institute of the History for the Material Culture in St Petersburg, and by the 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.
Whatever its precise age, there is no doubt that the anthropomorphic Shigir Idol is one of the greatest sculptures of the late Stone Age. Carved by a stone tool from a piece of larch timber, found to be 159 years old, its body is flat and rectangular with a series of horizontal lines at the approximate level of the thorax, which appear to represent ribs. (In addition it appears to have 7 faces.) The rest of the wood surface is decorated with geometrical motifs such as chevrons, herring-bone and other abstract signs, none of which have been deciphered, although - according to Svetlana Savchenko, curator of the Idol at Yekaterinburg History Museum - these geometrical symbols definitely had some meaning for the sculptor. Clearly, further research is needed to examine the ethnography and symbolism involved, and to investigate whether the signs represented a set of pictorial instructions, like a map.
The Yekaterinburg History Museum, one of 50 museums of Russian art in the city, houses the Shigirskaya Kladovaya and Shigir Collection, as well as many sculptures, ivory carvings, elk antler carvings, and items of ancient pottery from the Urals region.
For more about Paleolithic plastic art from Russia and the rest of Europe, please see the following articles:
Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (c.38,000 BCE)
Carvings in the Swabian Jura (33,000 BCE)
Figurines (30,000-10,000 BCE)
of Laussel (23,000 BCE)
Venuses (20,000 BCE)
d'Audoubert Cave Bison Reliefs (13,500 BCE)
For more about prehistoric wood carving in Russia, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE