Thousands of years before the ancient Egyptians quarried even the first block of granite for the great pyramids, a massive wooden totem nearly 17.5 feet tall fell into a peat bog in the western fringes of Siberia, Russia. There it lay, preserved in a kind of natural time capsule, until it was discovered in 1894.
Called the Big Shigir Idol, the mysterious statue has baffled researchers for decades due to the coded hieroglyphics covering its surface. While some have surmised that it may contain stories about the creation of the world by ancient man, others believe it to be nothing more than decoration. One thing we do know for sure: This thing is old — really, really, old.
Back in 1997, an initial analysis using radiocarbon dating placed the Shigir Idol's age at roughly 9,500 years. A new analysis using accelerator mass spectrometry actually determined the age to be 11,600 years old. That's more than twice the age of the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge. The latest study also revealed an additional face carved into the wood — bringing the total number to eight, reports Phys.org.
"This is an extremely important data for the international scientific community. It is important for understanding the development of civilization and the art of Eurasia and humanity as a whole," Thomas Terberger, a professor at the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony, said in 2015 when it was revealed there were seven faces carved in the totem.
"We can say that in those times, 11,000 years ago, the hunters, fishermen and gatherers of the Urals were no less developed than the farmers of the Middle East," he added.
Showing just how powerful new dating technology has become, the researchers also revealed that the Idol was made from a freshly-cut larch tree which was itself at least 157 years old.
What does the code mean?
But back to that mysterious code. A theoretical linguist who was actually brought in to help possibly discover its meaning chimed in on Reddit just why the whole thing is so puzzling.
"You asked if there's anything that could lead to understanding it," user kjoeleskapet wrote in 2015. "Here's the not so fun part: No. At this point, our best bet is to have something else to compare it to. We figured out cuneiform and hieroglyphs because there were a lot of them. This guy survived as a freak coincidence during a time when apparently everything was made of wood. So unless there are a couple dozen more wooden idols in that peat bog, it'll have to remain a mystery."
The Big Shigir Idol can currently be viewed in its climate-controlled case at the Sverdlovsk Regional History Museum in Russian.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2015.