Ancient Idol Is Older than They Thought

Head of the Shirgir idol
Head of the Shigir Idol, the world’s oldest wood sculpture, discovered in a Russian peat bog in 1890. Photo courtesy of the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum.

The Shirgir Idol, a wooden statue that you may see at the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore has now been re-dated, pushing its age back to 12,500 years before present.  In North American terms, that is about the time of the “Clovis culture,” when hunters with big spearpoints pursued big animals that no longer exist.

According to an article on the Artnet website, the statue was first dated as 9,500 years old.

In 2018, more advanced accelerator mass spectrometry technology testing the pristine core of the larch wood statue—rather than the surface, which had undergone numerous conservation treatments over the more than 100 years since its discovery—determined that it was actually even older: closer to 11,600 years old.

Now, a new study published in Quaternary International has pushed that date back by a further 900 years—making it more than twice as old as Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

The idol is nine feet tall, made of wood, with humanoid faces and geometric markings. It survived because it was in a peat bog, where gold miners found it in 1890s. There might be others still unfound.

In regions with large forests, wood would have been readily available to Paleolithic artists, but quick to deteriorate over the centuries. That means that our understanding of these ancient peoples is shaped by preservation biases, and might have been very different had more wooden artifacts like the Shigir Idol survived.

“Wood working was probably widespread during the Late Glacial to early Holocene,” the paper argues. “We see the Shigir sculpture as a document of a complex symbolic behavior and of the spiritual world of the Late Glacial to Early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the Urals.”

To be fair, as British historian Francis Young pointed out on Twitter, “And even if  [the Shengir idol and similar] did serve a religious purposes, are they gods or ancestors? Was there a distinction? I rather doubt it. We certainly can’t impose our Classically-derived assumptions about gods with distinct personalities and names, etc.”

4 thoughts on “Ancient Idol Is Older than They Thought

  1. Pitch313

    The Earth is littered with the remains and leavings and inadvertent survivals of peoples doing things and going places and sitting around with one another. And they–we–have done it for quite a while.

    What’s more, we find some of this stuff and wonder about it.

    I’m not surprised that artifacts like this Shirgir idol turn out to be older than once imagined. Dating technology seems to improve, and human curiosity (of the academic sort) seems relentless.

    I admire the artifact in the manner I admire all expressions of prehistoric art–early humans possessed insights into nature and the world that provide the foundations of what and how we these days still struggle to grasp and express. There’s a possible unity here.

    As a Pagan, I tend to categorize the Shirgir idol toward a deity/spirit. But I acknowledge cautions about this. It meant something to some folks. But I have come to accept that my own intuitions about ancient cultures tend to be unreliable about meanings and purposes. So I do what I can to sustain an open mind about them and about what and how we actually know about them. Archaeology sometimes gets very definite about worlds revealed by a few relics and plenty of certainty.

  2. Kalinysta

    You know, I often wonder about this “idols” that archeologists unearth periodically. Why can’t some of them simply be some little girl’s (or boy’s) toys that grandpa/grandma or whoever made for them so the kids would simply be distractedand stop pestering the adults when they’re busy doing something “adult”?

      1. Kalinysta

        Huh. So maybe it was simply a memorial to someone? You know, like we erect statues of men on horses? I suppose that in a few thousand years, extraterrestrials will decide that statute of Lincoln in the pseudo-temple was the depiction of a god.

        As far as “Grandpa was a busy man” ::smile:: what if he did that to get away from his wife while she’s yelling at him? Like, “stop fooling around with that piece of wood and go out and get us a deer or something for dinner!” Grandpa grumbles and continues his woodworking.

Comments are closed.