Tracks and Traces

Shigir Idol, photo by Constantin Voutsen

Have you ever heard of the Shigir Idol? It’s a 17 foot wooden statue that has been carbon dated to about 12,000 years old. Roughly at the end of the last ice age. Its named for the peat bog it was found in, on the eastern slope of the Middle Ural mountains near Yekaterinburg. It’s a striking sculpture, featuring several human faces and geometric lines and shapes. After being microscopically studied, it was discovered that the Shigir Idol’s features and designs were carved with half a beaver jaw with teeth still intact.

Since reading about the Shigir idol, I’ve been running my fingers over the grooves in my mind. Over and over again, tracing the carefully carved lines, feeling the smooth wood, stopping at every angle and turn. A prayer of sorts. A map leading backward. Veins. Beckoning mountain ranges and lakes and forests. An unimpeded night sky full of constellations. I wonder if it was meant for that. I wonder if, 12,000 years ago, the people responsible for creating it could fathom my doing so? I think they did. I think they meant for us to. It feels arrogant to make assumptions. Almost sacriledge.

The face at the “head” of the idol is placid, peaceful and seems to be singing. or breathing into the cold air. Or pleading. Or any number of things. But it is undeniably human.

I think about 12,000 years in the bog. The murky dark cast about with scattered sunlight only occasionally. The moss and the rock. The sediment. The sediment that drowned and preserved it. An ancient lake gasping. A toppled giant forever asleep. Why are tears so close when I do so? Why am I so moved? Why is it so easy to feel the weight of the clay and the water?

I feel a sort of kinship with both the Shigir Idol and the artists who created it. An eternal reaching forward. Toothed beaver jaw, warm wood, calloused hands. Shaped and molded, tracks and traces, whispered truths and prayers. Nightmares and daydreams. Falling. Sinking. Turning to stone unseen. 12,000 years undreaming. Hieroglyph after hieroglyph. Surfacing in pieces. Messages and lessons in the lesions.

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