Imagine for a moment, that you are a miner in Siberia at the end of the nineteenth century, slogging with your colleagues through the moss-laden, muck-infused waters of the mire in search of gold, only to stumble upon something far more rare. This is precisely what occurred in 1890, within the Sverdlovsk region of Russia’s Ural Mountains, when a team of laborers who were busy excavating a peat bog inadvertently discovered a strange and ornate wooden figure featuring an eerie human face. Resting at an approximate depth of four meters beneath the surface of the acidic, oxygen-low, and therefore anti-bacterial conditions of the bog that had preserved it, the mysterious object that would come to be known as the “Shigir Idol” (named after the Shigir bog it was found within) was discovered in a series of 10 fragments. The miners, who had been instructed by the landowner, Count Alexey Stenbok-Fermor, to save any other notable finds they made, promptly forwarded it to the Count’s attention. He then had it carted 60 miles south to the city of Yekaterinburg, as a donation to what is today known as the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore.
Over the course of the following years, the Shigir Idol was examined, documented, reconstructed, and illustrated through various iterations by Professor Dmitry Lobanov, and aspiring archeologist Vladimir Tolmachev. It appeared to be carved from the wood of a larch tree, which was itself now known to have already been roughly 159 years old when crafted, and featured an array of patterns and faces which remain poorly understood to this day. Lobanov’s early reconstruction had it measured at roughly 2.8 metres in height, which was then later revised by Tolmachev to 5.3 metres after previously unused fragments were taken into account. Unfortunately, almost two metres of the artifact were lost in the midst of Russia’s many political conflicts that took place throughout the twentieth century, though Tolmachevs illustrations survive.
Many years later, the Shigir Idol was carbon-dated for the first time in 1997 by Russian scientists. Until this point, the artifact’s age had been a subject of much speculation, though most had imagined it not to be more than just a few thousand years old. The scholars felt incredulous about the results because the Shigir Idol was assessed at approximately 9,500 years of age (7,500 BC), placing it firmly within the Neolithic era – the final period of the Stone Age. However, various attempts over the years to restore the artifact using modern materials, including wax, glue, preservatives, and wood finishing products, had caused the first carbon-dating to produce inaccurate results, making the Shigir Idol appear younger than it is. In 2018 the Shigir Idol was transported to one of the world’s most advanced laboratories in Mannheim, Germany, where scientists used Accelerated Mass Spectrometry on samples extracted from the innermost parts of the artifact. The results indicated that the Shigir Idol is approximately 11,600 years old. Although, the same team has since revised their conclusion and suggested a figure of 12,100 years (10,000 BC), placing it at the very end of the last ice age and the very beginning of the current Holocene geological epoch. The perspective is either figure makes the Shigir Idol the oldest wooden sculpture in the world, the only surviving wood carving from the Stone Age, and at least twice the age of Stone Henge, including the Great Pyramids of Giza.
As a rare example of hunter-gatherer artwork, the Shigir Idol introduced a new level of awareness about the creative abilities of paleo-Siberians. Such a notion had previously received little regard from Western anthropologists, if not having been completely overlooked out of favoritism for an interpretation of history and art anchored in the early agrarian communities of the Fertile Crescent, a region spanning the Middle East that was once considered the “cradle of civilization”. In reality, many ancient artifacts contemporary to that of the Shigir Idol have been discovered in the Urals and Siberia over the years, some of which are displayed alongside the Shigir Idol today. These include sculptures of birds, snake figurines, various weapons including a dagger carved from the antler of a now extinct species of deer, and even a Small Shigir Idol. One can be sure that many other wooden sculptures similar to that of the Shigir Idol were created in and around this time period, but were not as fortunate to survive the course of so many millennia, a feat much more likely to be accomplished by stone and other materials.
Archaeologists, Anthropologists, and other commentators over the years have speculated on what purpose the Shigir Idol served for the people who created it. Ideas have ranged from a recorded creation myth to a territorial warning totem (the expression of the main face can be considered somewhat hostile), to a prop used in rituals, and much more. The exact details of its creation, its mysterious engravings, and original intended function(s) are the subject of wildly varying theories and will probably never be understood. There is no doubt the Shigir Idol is a truly rare and exceptional artifact, both culturally and historically significant.
Editor’s note: The World Art News reached out to a world-renowned art appraiser, prof. Mikhail Tamoikin, Ph.D. to find out the potential value of the Shigir Idol. This is his answer:
“To professionally and above all scientifically appraise this rare historic artifact, which is without a doubt one of the greatest archeological world treasures, is not an easy task and would take my team approximately one month to do. Interestingly enough we just may undertake such an endeavor as I myself have long wanted to find out its potential market value. Appraisal of cultural rarities, in accordance with the International Valuation Standards (IVS), is a serious matter requiring a systematic and transparent approach. Until we start analyzing all available information about the Shigir Idol and putting that data through our mathematic TES Valuation Technology I really can’t give you a precise value of this rarity, and I like to give precise values, this is something we pride ourselves on. I can however, unofficially, make an educated prediction based on preliminary data that the likelihood of the Shigir Idol being worth more than $100 million is very high. I wouldn’t be surprised even at a half a billion valuation (or higher) once all the data is accounted for. We could be talking about one the most valuable artifacts in existence.”
If prof. Tamoikin chooses to undertake the valuation of this 12,000-year-old wooden carving. He agreed to disclose his official numbers here on WAN. For the first time, the world will know the value of the Shigir Idol, and it will be published exclusively on The World Art News.
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Prof. Mikhail Tamoikin is the vice-president The Tamoikin Art Fund, and has vested interests in WAN.