Archaeologists in southwest Finland have discovered a wooden carving resembling a snake, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity. The 4,400-year-old artifact was discovered in a wetland, and is believed to be an ancient shaman’s staff.
The site where the staff was found would have been occupied from 4,000 B.C.E. to 2,000 B.C.E. It was accidentally discovered by ditch diggers in the 1950s, but had never been properly excavated. According to Satu Koivisto, the lead researcher on the project and an archaeologist at the University of Turku, the wetland has revealed dozens of well-preserved artifacts made of wood, bark, and bone, all dating back more than 4,000 years.
In an email to ARTnews, Koivisto called the staff an “astonishingly well-preserved piece of zoomorphic art from the Neolithic [era that] is hitherto unique in character and style.” It had either been “lost, discarded, or intentionally deposited amidst the thick lakeshore vegetation,” she added.
The life-sized wooden snake has an open mouth and simple features. It was carved from a single piece of wood and made to look like it’s slithering away. The figurine most likely represents a grass snake or a European adder.
There are examples of Neolithic rock art in northern Europe which feature a snake motif at a number of sites. Some discovered in Finland appear to show a human figure holding a snake in their hand, perhaps as part of a ritual. “Snakes had a special role as spirit-helper animals of the shaman,” Antti Lahelma, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki who co-authored the Antiquity paper, said.
The shaman’s staff would have been used in a religious or spiritual ceremony. Perhaps it was even used to communicate with the dead, given that ancient people inhabiting what is now Finland believed in a “Land of the Dead” that was associated with wetlands. Shamans were also believed to be able to transform themselves into snakes, the researchers report, emphasizing the connection between the snake staff and the mystical realm. Other artifacts uncovered by the excavations include a wooden scoop with a bear’s head handle, wooden containers and paddles, fishing tools, pottery, and structural remains.
Organic materials such as wood typically degrade after a long period of time. But the staff was well-preserved because of the environmental conditions at the site where the object was discovered, known as Järvensuo 1. Because it is a wetland, Järvensuo has low oxygen and high humidity, allowing water-logged items to survive.
There may be more finds like this one in the future. Koivisto said that the discovery of the staff “highlights how little is still known about the archaeological heritage of vast wetland areas of the northern Boreal zone.”
Järvensuo, like many other invaluable archaeological sites, is currently under threat from the global climate crisis. “Organic treasures are no longer safe,” Koivisto said, adding that wetlands are particularly vulnerable, since they are adversely affected by both drainage and climate change. “This heritage is in urgent peril,” Koivisto said. She called for prompt action “before this perishable cultural asset is completely and irreplaceably lost.”