4,400-year-old shaman's 'snake staff' discovered in Finland

A 4,400-year-old life-size wooden snake unearthed in Finland may have been a staff used by a Stone Age shaman in “magical” rituals, according to a study published Monday.

Carved from a single piece of wood, the lifelike figure is 21 inches long and about an inch thick at its widest, with a very snake-like head with an open mouth.

It was found in a buried layer of peat near the town of Järvensuo, about 120 km northwest of Helsinki, in a prehistoric wetland area that archaeologists believe was inhabited by Neolithic (late Stone Age) peoples 4,000 to 6,000 years ago.

It is unlike anything else ever found in Finland, although some stylized snake figures have been found at Neolithic archaeological sites elsewhere in the eastern Baltic region and in Russia.

“You don’t look like a real snake like this one,” said archaeologist Satu Koivisto of Turku University in an email. “My colleague found it in one of our trenches last summer. … I thought she was joking, but when I saw the snake’s head, I shuddered. “

“Personally, I don’t like live snakes, but after this discovery I started to like them,” she added.

The wood carving of a snake is unlike anything else ever found in Finland.Satu Koivisto

Koivisto and her colleague Antti Lahelma, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, are the co-authors of the study on the wooden snake released in the magazine Antike.

They believe it may have been a staff that was used in supposedly magical rituals by a shaman – someone who communicated with spirits in a manner similar to that of the “mediciners” of traditional Native American lore.

It is believed that the ancient peoples of this region practiced such shamanic beliefs, in which the natural world is inhabited by a variety of normally invisible supernatural spirits or spirits – a traditional belief that continues to this day in some of the remote northern regions of Scandinavia, Europe and Asia exists.

Ancient rock paintings from Finland and Northern Russia show human figures with snakes in their hands, which are considered to be depictions of shamans wielding ritual wooden sticks carved like snakes. According to Lahelma, snakes were considered particularly sacred in the region.

“There seems to be some connection between snakes and humans,” Lahelma told Antiquity. “This is reminiscent of the northern shamanism of historical times, where snakes played a special role as spirit-helper animals of the shaman … Even if the time interval is immense, the possibility of continuity is tempting: Do we have a stone? The senior shaman’s staff? “

Archaeologists are working on an excavation site in Finland.Satu Koivisto

The figure from Järvensuo definitely looks like a real snake. Its slender body is formed by two curvaceous carved bends that continue into a tapered tail. The flat, angular head with an open mouth is particularly realistic. Koivisto and Lahelma suggest that it resembles a grass snake or European adder sliding or swimming away. The place where it was found was probably a lush meadow when it was “lost, thrown away or deliberately dumped,” the researchers write.

Wood usually rots when exposed to oxygen in the air or water, but sediment at the bottom of swamps, rivers, and lakes can cover some organic objects and preserve them for thousands of years.

The site near Järvensuo is said to have been on the bank of a shallow lake when it was inhabited by groups of people in the Neolithic Age. Recent excavations have revealed a treasure trove of organic remains that have enabled archaeologists to create a more complete record of the site, Koivisto said. The finds include a wooden tool with a bear-shaped handle, a wooden paddle and a net float made from pine and birch bark.

“What a remarkable thing,” said Peter Rowley-Conwy, an archaeologist and professor emeritus from Durham University in the UK who was not involved in the research. “The ‘head’ definitely seems to have been cut into shape.”

But he was careful about ascribing a greater meaning to it: “A skeptic might wonder if the curved shape was intentional or a fortuitous result of four millennia of waterlogging,” he said in an email. “I have worked with preserved wood at various bog locations and wood fragments can be severely distorted.”

Koivisto warns that artifacts such as the “snake staff” could be lost if many archaeological sites in wetlands dry up.

“Because of their vulnerability and degradation of fragile organic data sources, wetlands are more important to us than ever.” [from] Drainage, land use and climate change, ”she said. “We have to hurry before these valuable materials are gone for good.”

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