New Finds of Art Objects from the Upper Palaeolithic Site of Zaraysk, Russia

By Amirkhanov, Hizri; Lev, Sergey | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview

New Finds of Art Objects from the Upper Palaeolithic Site of Zaraysk, Russia


Amirkhanov, Hizri, Lev, Sergey, Antiquity


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 site

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.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

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).

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

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. …

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