The new art objects from Zaraysk show an extraordinary repertoire of incised carving on mammoth ivory plaques and carving in the round, including representations of women and large mammals, and geometric decoration on bone utensils. The authors show that while belonging to the broad family of Upper Palaeolithic artists, the Zaraysk carvers produced forms particular to their region, some with magical associations.
Keywords: Russia, Zaraysk, Upper Palaeolithic, art, portable art
The open-air Upper Palaeolithic site of Zaraysk was discovered in 1980. It is located in the centre of the small, old Russian town of the same name, about 155km south-east of Moscow (Figure 1; Amirkhanov 2000). Since 1995, continuous and intensive research has been carried out at the site by the Zaraysk archaeological expedition of the Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences. So far an area of 390m2 has been fully investigated, but this constitutes only a small part of the site's known area of cultural deposits.
The characteristic cultural features of the occupation layers are pits and hearths, apparently forming settlement units (Figure 2), and the assemblage closely resembles that of sites belonging to the Kostenki culture. Similarities can be seen in the types of adornment, which include a necklace made of arctic fox teeth, and in the method of decoration, such as incised grids and 'oblique crosses'. However, until recently, there was no carving in the round, although this is an important component of comparable sites such as Avdeevo and Kostenki itself (site 1, layer 1). The first figurine from Zaraysk, discovered during excavations in 2001, was a carving of a bison made from mammoth ivory (Amirkhanov & Lev 2002a; 2002b) (not illustrated here). In comparison with known examples of Palaeolithic sculpture from Central and Eastern Europe, this object was notable for its high level of expertise, its size and the fact that it came from a stratified context. Another carving took the form of a metapodium (foot) of a hare or arctic fox made of mammoth tusk (Figure 3).
The new finds described here came from the 2005 season and consist of two anthropoid figurines, both probably female, and a number of other decorated objects.
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Figurines and ornamental schemes
Figurine No. 1 was found in a storage pit (pit 116), situated in the central part of a large habitation structure of 'Kostenki' type and relating to the second phase of occupation (Figure 4). The pit was located in a space between the central line of hearths and the internal edge of an arc formed by some of the deep hollows, termed 'earth-dwellings'. The figurine was lying horizontally on its back, with legs adjoining the rim of the pit and its head towards the centre of the pit. Beneath the figurine and extending southwards there was a lens of light, fine-grained sand, and some 3-4 cm to the north of the figurine's head there was a lens of red ochre, 11 cm in length and up to 4 cm in width. The object had been carefully placed in the pit when it was about a third full of soil, and a mammoth scapula had apparently been placed over the pit at the same time. The figurine's overall preservation is poor. Its head and legs are the best preserved parts; they even show traces of polish. The figurine's head is particularly accurate in shape; it was made by short regular vertical cuts, imitating a sort of coiffure or a cap (Soffer et al. 2000). The figurine is related to the 'Avdeevo' style (Gvozdover 1995).
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Figurine No. 2 is also presumed female, but incomplete (Figure 5). It was found near the first figurine, in another storage pit (pit 117), also covered by a mammoth scapula. The figurine was lying horizontally on its back in the southern part of the pit, parallel and adjacent to the rim of the pit. As before, there was a thin lens of light, fine-grained sand below the figurine and extending southwards, and some 3-4cm to the north of the figurine's head there was a horizontal layer of red ochre of 11 x 4cm. The preservation of the figurine's external surface was better than that of Figurine No. 1, but the structure of the material turned out to be damaged. It is not easy to give a definite stylistic-typological attribution to an unfinished object of this kind. However, the profile and proportions of the figurine lead one to consider it morphologically and artistically close to figurines of the 'Avdeevo' style (Figure 6).
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Also in pit 117 was a small incised fragment of a thin tubular bone (probably of a bird). The ornamentation in 'oblique cross' was applied by deliberate movements of what was probably a sharp angular flint tool (Figure 7). In the 'Kostenki' culture, ornamentation of this kind is found in the decoration of handles and the upper parts of spatulas, needle-cases, bracelets, zoomorphic pins and sometimes large bone points.
Another object of a hitherto unknown category is illustrated in Figure 8. Made of mammoth ivory, it has the shape of a truncated cone with a narrow, vertical perforation through the centre. 'Oblique cross' ornamentation is applied on the edge of the round platform that forms the top of the item. The ornamentation is fine and dense, with crosses mostly touching each other. The function of this decorated object remains a puzzle. There are no direct analogies in other Palaeolithic materials.
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Lastly, the only example of figurative engraving at the Zaraysk site was unearthed in the middle part of the infill of storage pit 117 near Figurine No. 2 (Figure 9). The carving is thin and shallow, and not immediately noticeable. Nevertheless, the main lines of the image are clear, not ragged; they were made by confident, unbroken movements. There is a certain hierarchy in the intensity of the lines. The lines that form the contours of the image are wider and deeper, while those relating to the details have less emphasis. It is possible to discern the images of three overlapping mammoths, moving from right to left, with the trunk and head, the back and presumably the tusks outlined in each case. Two groups of lines form 'tufts' directed towards the heads of two mammoths. Stylistically and artistically this image relates to the second style of Palaeolithic art (Leroi-Gourhan 1995).
The area of the images has been damaged with a series of holes with ragged edges, which could be the result of impact of a sharp tool. This action is confined to the engraved area: there are no traces of piercing on the rest of the object, although it is six times as large as the engraved area. Thus, the engraved image from the Zaraysk site, along with the bison figurine, provides an example of the use of art pieces for magical purposes.
The Zaraysk artistic repertoire now includes two female figurines, a bison figurine, a ritually damaged engraving of three mammoths, a bone handle and a truncated cone decorated with 'oblique cross' ornament, a carved image of a hare or arctic fox metapodium made of mammoth tusk, a necklace comprising 41 arctic fox teeth and several separate arctic fox teeth with holes cut through the root. These finds enrich the general collection of Palaeolithic mobiliary art and broaden the distribution of specific types of art objects in the Eastern European Palaeolithic. In terms of the splendour and variety of its art pieces, the Zaraysk site is on a par with such famous sites as Kostenki I, Avdeevo, Gagarino and Khotylevo.
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The art of the Mid- Upper Palaeolithic relates to different genres: realistic, stylised or schematic. For this stage of the Upper Palaeolithic in Western (Leroi-Gourhan 1995) and Eastern Europe (the Russian plain in particular) we find a dominance of realism (Kozlowski 1992) with some elements of stylisation and schematism. However, the new finds at Zaraysk display features from all three categories.
Only one of three types of female statuette known from Central and Eastern Europe (Gvozdover 1995), the 'Avdeevo' style, has so far been found at Zaraysk. Objects made of mammoth ivory which imitate animal metapodia (paws) have few parallels on Eastern Gravettian sites, except at Avdeevo and Khotylevo; this may indicate cultural links between these sites or reflect some special religious or magical notions, specific to a site or groups of sites.
Received: 10 December 2007; Revised: 2 January 2008; Accepted: 13 May 2008
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KOZLOWSKI, J.K. 1992. L'art de la prehistoire en Europe orientale. Paris: CNRS.
LEROI-GOURHAN, A. 1995. Prehistoire de l'art occidental. Revised and updated edition of original 1965 edition. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenod.
SOFFER, O., J.M. ADOVASIO & D.C. HYLAND. 2000. The Venus figurines: textiles, basketry, gender, and status in the Upper Palaeolithic. Current Anthropology 41(4): 511-25.
Hizri Amirkhanov & Sergey Lev *
* Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com)…