Vladimir Tolmachev's drawings reconfiguring the idol (via Wikipedia)

Vladimir Tolmachev’s drawings reconfiguring the Shigir Idol (via Wikipedia)

The world’s oldest wood carving just got older. Until last week, the Shigir Idol, a totemic sculpture that stands 2.8 meters (~9.2 feet) tall, was thought to be roughly 9,500 years old. New testing by German researchers now reveals it to have been made 11,000 years ago, making it twice as old as the ancient Egyptian pyramids at Giza, the Siberian Times reports.

The scientists in Germany used accelerated mass spectrometry to analyze seven small samples drawn from the wooden sculpture. The results date the idol to the very beginning of the Holocene epoch, or the geologic period that marks the development of human civilization. Researchers also determined that the sculpture was made from a larch tree that was, at the time, at least 157 years old.

The Shigir Idol (click to enlarge)

The Shigir Idol

“We can say the results are sensational,” said a source at Sverdlovsk Regional History Museum, where the Shigir Idol is currently on display (it’s owned by the Museum of the History of Yekaterinburg). “This confirms that hunters and fishermen from Urals created works of art as developed and as monumental as ancient farmers of the Middle East.”

The idol was discovered in a peat bog in the Ural Mountains in 1890. Although the sculpture was in pieces, the fragments themselves were well preserved, thanks to “a combination of antiseptics,” in the words of Mikhail Zhilin, leading researcher of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archeology. According to the online Encyclopedia of Art, a professor named Dmitry Lobanov reconstructed the figure as we know it today from the main fragments, although in 1914, an archaeologist named Vladimir Tolmachev suggested a different configuration using additional pieces that hadn’t been incorporated into Lobanov’s arrangement. Those extra pieces were later accidentally destroyed.

The sculpture, though anthropomorphic, remains a modern mystery. The face on top is clearly meant as such, and scholars speculate that a set of horizontal lines around the figure’s thorax represent ribs. But the idol also has another six faces (all of them flat), along with geometric patterns carved all over its body. The markings have been called “encrypted codes” and “an early map, or navigator,” but there’s no consensus on what they represent.

“We study the Idol with a feeling of awe,” Zhilin said. “The ornament is covered with nothing but encrypted information. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the Idol.”

Despite the excitement of the new dating of the idol, Russian authorities are less than pleased with the German scientists who carried it out. They claim that the samples used for testing were taken illegally, and that the sculpture was damaged in the process. The culture ministry in Moscow has reportedly opened a criminal case.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

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