Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Rods with Elk Heads: Symbol in Ritual context/Podrapeakujulised Sauad: Sumbol Ritualli Kontekstis

Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Rods with Elk Heads: Symbol in Ritual context/Podrapeakujulised Sauad: Sumbol Ritualli Kontekstis

Article excerpt


Rods with sculptural elk/reindeer heads and their analogues in rock art are important elements for reconstructing the North Eurasian prehistoric inhabitants' social structure and mythology in the period from the Mesolithic to Early Metal Age. The extremely long period of their existence - from the VII millennium to the second half of the II millennium cal BC for rods and from the VI millennium to the III millennium cal BC for rock art images - and the huge territory of their spread (northern Europe and beyond the Urals) obviously provide some evidence of the common world outlook of many archaeological cultures in the Eurasian forest zone (Stolyar 1983; Studzitskaya 1997).

Both categories were studied earlier, but require a more careful examination. Carved items are markedly different in shape and size, and this is why a more detailed morphological analysis should be carried out. Also all fragmented items, not mentioned in the earlier studies should be examined. The morphology and finding context having been studied, some conclusions can be made about the functional and symbolic role of these rods. As for the rock art images, the most informative are those scenes with the rods, where they are used in certain actions. Their multiple symbolic meaning is confirmed by rod images with not only elk heads but also those of reindeer. Such scenes should be carefully examined in order to reveal the functions of the carved rods, which existed in reality.

Carved rods with elk/reindeer heads

Most items are made of antler, though some are of elk bone. Most rods from the Oleniy Ostrov burial ground (the Barents seashore) and the one from the Mayak II site are made of reindeer antler and portray reindeers (Gurina 1997; Murashkin & Shumkin 2008). Several wooden and stone items with elk heads are known, but they are not rods.

Stone elk heads (4 items) have holes for putting them on rods and their only spread in south Finland and Karelia seems to be a local tradition (Nordman 1937, 40 ff.; Studzitskaya 1966, 30; Carpelan 1977; Huure 2003, 241) (Fig. 1). Three of them are made in a very stylized manner and only one item has highly detailed features of an elk. Judging by the hole-making technology, they are dated back to the Late Mesolithic or Neolithic. All of them are stray finds and will not be discussed here.


Carved items have the angle between the head and the rod from 90 to 120 (rarely to 150) degrees. All items are made extremely carefully--all of them are burnished and polished. Their lengths range from 10 to 47 cm. A total of 48 pieces can be divided into two groups according to their size (Fig. 1).

Group I--small rods: from 10 to 25.3 cm--consists of 12 pieces from Mayak II, Oleniy Ostrov burial ground (7 pieces), Southern Oleniy Ostrov burial ground on Onega Lake, Zvejnieki burial ground, Sventoji IV, Modlona (Gurina 1953; 1956; 1997; Oshibkina 1978; Zagorskis 1987; Rimantiene 1996; Murashkin & Shumkin 2008).

Group II--big rods: from 40 to 49 cm - includes 16 pieces from the Southern Oleniy Ostrov burial ground (2 pieces), Riigikula III, Villa (Fig. 2: 1-2), the Malmuta river estuary, Sventoji III (2 pieces), Kretuonas I, Sakhtysh I, Zamostye II, Chornaya Gora, the Tok river burial, Shigir peat bog (2 pieces), Kalmatskiy Brod, Annin Ostrov (Eding 1940; Gurina 1956; Tsvetkova 1969; Loze 1970; Bogdanov 1992; Oshibkina et al. 1992; Rimantiene 2005; Lozovskij 2009).


The minimum and maximum lengths of the items were measured using unbroken rods, but there were also numerous fragments. All the fragments were compared with the whole rods, and their lengths were estimated approximately. According to these lengths, they are included in group II--big rods. The piece from the Volodary site could not be thus classified, because it had no handle, with a deep hole located at the bottom of the elk head probably for fastening it to a handle (Tsvetkova 1973) (Fig. …

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