Cracking The 11,000-Year-Old Code On The World’s Oldest Wooden Statue

By Heather Ramsey on Wednesday, September 23, 2015
302px-Большой_шигирский_идол
“But the most remarkable thing about prehistoric naturalism is not that it is older than the geometric style, which makes so much more of a primitive impression, but that it already reveals all the typical phases of development through which art has passed in modern times.” —Arnold Hauser

In A Nutshell

Excellently preserved for about 11,000 years in a peat bog in Siberia, the Shigir Idol is the oldest wooden statue discovered on Earth. Covered with pictograms and other symbols, this mysterious statue appears to harbor a secret code. Scientists believe these Stone Age markings were meant to communicate information and may completely change our understanding of that period in history.

The Whole Bushel

Excellently preserved for about 11,000 years in a peat bog in Siberia, the Shigir Idol is the oldest wooden statue discovered on Earth. Using accelerated mass spectrometry, German scientists recently dated the artifact and found that it was probably carved from a larch tree that was around 150 years old. So far, radiocarbon dating has shown that the Shigir Idol was created in the 90th century BC. That’s significantly older than the Pyramid of Djoser, the world’s oldest structure, which dates to the 27th century BC.

Originally found in 1890 around Kirovgrad, this unique statue has had a turbulent history. Taken from the bog in several pieces, the Shigir Idol was carved from 159-year-old larch planks and seems to have seven faces. The original height of the statue is believed to have been about 5.3 meters (17.4 ft). However, approximately 1.9 meters (6.2 ft) of the Shigir Idol was lost during the revolutions of the 20th century. Now we can only see those pieces on drawings made by Siberian archaeologist Vladimir Tolmachev in the early 1900s. Even after these losses, though, the idol still comes in at a respectable 2.8 meters (9.2 ft).

But that’s only part of what makes this artifact unique. Covered with pictograms and other symbols, this mysterious statue appears to harbor a secret code. Scientists believe these Stone Age markings were meant to communicate information and may completely change our understanding of that period in history.

Researchers are working to decipher the meaning of the geometrical markings on the statue. If it’s writing, it would be the oldest found on Earth. However, an exact interpretation is difficult because each symbol may have more than one meaning. For example, a straight line may represent land, the horizon, or even the dividing line between this world and the afterlife. Certain geometric figures like circles and squares might depict the Sun, fire, or something else. Zigzags may depict lizards, snakes, or danger, and so on.

It’s possible that the statue may have served as a map with lines providing directions and a representation of the length of the trip. Although they’re not sure yet, some archaeologists theorize that arrows represent hills, straight lines are ravines, and waves indicate water.

The seven faces of the statue suggest that the civilization to which it belonged had high cheekbones and straight noses. The uppermost face is three-dimensional while the others are one-dimensional. Arranged vertically, there are three figures with faces on the front of the statue and three on the back. The uppermost face connects the two sides.

“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,” author Petr Zolin told the Siberian Times. “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 Shigir Idol is currently displayed at the Yekaterinburg History Museum in a climate-controlled glass showcase.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Владислав Фальшивомонетчик
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