A Unique Palaeolithic Sculpture from the Site of Zaraysk (Russia). (News & Notes)

By Amirkhanov, Hizri; Lev, Sergey | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

A Unique Palaeolithic Sculpture from the Site of Zaraysk (Russia). (News & Notes)


Amirkhanov, Hizri, Lev, Sergey, Antiquity


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 that name, about 155 km from Moscow. 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 (the director of the expedition is Prof. H. Amirkhanov). So far, after all these years of excavation, an area of 265 sq. m has been fully investigated in the centre and circumference of the site. About 100 sq. m of this area are included in excavation no. 4, the principal zone of investigation. The area which has been investigated so far constitutes only a small part of the site's total area of cultural deposits.

In terms of its stone tool inventory and typology, the characteristic cultural features in its occupation layers (a variety of pits, hearths, etc), and also the structure and design of the settlement-units in the complex (at least in the part already known to us), Zaraysk shows maximum similarity to sites of the Kostenki culture. Further analogies can be seen in the Zaraysk inventory of bone artefacts and adornments (a necklace and separate teeth of the arctic fox and wolf, cut through the root), and also in the methods of ornamental decoration (the types of engraving, such as grids and `oblique crosses'). Until recently, nothing definite could be observed about the character of the art of the ancient inhabitants of Zaraysk, although this part of their culture is a rather important and specific component of the archaeological remains on sites such as Kostenki 1 (layer 1) and Avdeevo which share the same culture as Zaraysk.

The first art object from Zaraysk, discovered during the excavations of 2001, is a figurine of a bison made from mammoth ivory. In comparison with known examples of Palaeolithic sculpture from Eastern and Central Europe this creation not only represents the artistic expressiveness of the created object, a high level of expertise, and stylistic features, but is also very notable for its size and, no less important, the fact that it has a stratified context. This note presents only our preliminary information about the find.

The figurine was found on a specially built podium at the bottom of a typical (for the Kostenki culture) storage-pit--the pit was 60 cm deep, the diameter of its upper edge was 55-70 cm, and that of its base was 87-90 cm. From a spatial and stratigraphic point of view this part of the site is joined to the central line of fireplaces belonging to the complex of the first (the earliest) level of habitation, dating to about 22,000 years BP. The bison figurine seemed to be reasonably well preserved at the moment of its exposure in the cultural layer. No holes or obvious deformations could be seen. The only obvious defect was that both left legs were broken off. The nature of the surface of the fractures, and also the absence of the broken leg fragments in the pit, indicate that this damage occurred before the figurine was placed in the pit.

A different kind of damage is quite specific: it consists of multiple hollows with irregular edges grouped in the area of the chest on the left-hand side. Their character makes it possible to identify them as the result of strong blows made by a sharp, solid subject. Also of great significance are the traces of paint on different parts of the figurine's surface. First and foremost, red-ochre paint can clearly be seen in the chest area of the right side. In addition, irregular areas of black pigment are widespread in the form of small dabs on the whole surface of the figure. …

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