A 4,400-year-old life-size wooden snake found in Finland may have been a staff used in “magical” rituals by a Stone Age shaman, according to a study released Monday.
The realistic figure, which has been carved from a single piece of wood, is 21 inches long and about an inch thick at its widest point, with what appears to be a very serpentine head with its mouth open.
It was found perfectly preserved in a buried layer of peat near the town of Järvensuo, about 75 miles northwest of Helsinki, on a prehistoric wetland site that archaeologists say was occupied by Neolithic peoples. (end of the stone age) 4000-6000 years ago.
It is unlike anything else ever found in Finland, although a few stylized snake figurines have been found at Neolithic archaeological sites elsewhere in the Eastern Baltic region and in Russia.
“They don’t look like a real snake, like this one,” University of Turku archaeologist Satu Koivisto said in an email. “My colleague found it in one of our trenches last summer. … I thought she was joking, but when I saw the head of the snake, I got chills.
“Personally, I don’t like live snakes, but after this discovery I started to like them,” she added.
Koivisto and his colleague Antti Lahelma, archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, are the co-authors of the study on the wooden snake published in the journal Antiquity.
They believe it may have been a staff used in so-called magical rituals by a shaman – someone who communicated with spirits in the same way as “medicine people” in Native American traditions.
It is believed that the ancient peoples of this region practiced such shamanic beliefs, in which the natural world is inhabited by multitudes of usually invisible supernatural spirits or ghosts – a traditional belief that persists today in some of the remote areas of the north. from Scandinavia, Europe and Asia.
Ancient rock art from Finland and northern Russia shows human figures with what look like snakes in their hands, which are believed to be depictions of shamans wielding ritual sticks made of wood carved to look like snakes. Lahelma said snakes were considered particularly sacred in the region.
“There seems to be a certain connection between snakes and humans,” Lahelma told Antiquity. “It is reminiscent of Nordic shamanism from the historical period, where snakes had a special role as animal spiritual assistants of the shaman… Even if the time lag is immense, the possibility of some kind of continuity is enticing: have we? a stone Age Shaman’s staff? “
The Järvensuo figurine certainly looks like a real snake. Its slender body is formed by two curvy elbows that extend to a tapered tail. The flat, angular head with its open mouth is particularly realistic. Koivisto and Lahelma suggest that it looks like a grass snake or European viper sliding or swimming. The place where it was found was likely a lush water meadow at the time it was “lost, thrown or dropped on purpose,” the researchers wrote.
Wood typically rots when exposed to oxygen from air or water, but sediment at the bottom of swamps, rivers and lakes can coat some organic objects and preserve them for thousands of years. .
The site near Järvensuo is believed to have been on the shores of a shallow lake when it was inhabited by groups of people in the late Stone Age. Recent excavations have revealed a mine of organic remains that have allowed archaeologists to create a more complete record of the site, Koivisto said. Finds included a wooden tool with a bear-shaped handle, wooden paddles, and fishnet floats made from pine and birch bark.
“What a remarkable thing,” said Peter Rowley-Conwy, archaeologist and professor emeritus at Durham University in the UK, who was not involved in the research. “The ‘head’ definitely appears to have been sculpted into shape.”
But he was hesitant to give it greater meaning: “A skeptic might wonder if the curvy shape was deliberate or the accidental result of four millennia of waterlogging,” he said in an email. “I have worked on various bog sites with preserved wood, and the wood fragments can be significantly deformed.”
Koivisto warns that artifacts like the “stick snake” could be lost as many wetland archaeological sites dry up.
“Wetlands are more important than ever to us, due to their vulnerability and the degradation of fragile organic data sources [from] drainage, land use and climate change, ”she said. “We need to hurry, before these precious materials are gone for good. “