Why Did 2,400-Year-Old Stone Idol in Siberia Undergo Racial Realignment to Look Less European?
By Tamara Zubchuk / Siberian Times
The 2,400-year-old Ust-Taseyevsky idol 'underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages', losing his European looks. But why this medieval plastic surgery? And the next puzzle: how come he had Caucasian features almost two millennia before the Russian conquest of Siberia?
An inscrutable face stares at us from the deep past. This idol - in fact a cluster of idols - has been gazing precisely east-southeast from a crest on a sandstone hill since several centuries before the birth of Christ, even if modern man only chanced upon him in 1975.
The main stone sculpture visible today shows a man with widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and ocher-coloured pupils.
He has a massive nose with flared nostrils, wide open mouth, a bushy moustache and a beard. And yet all is not quite as it seems, for this sculpture, the most northerly of this genre in Asia, underwent an historic version of plastic surgery perhaps 1,500 years ago to give him a less Caucasian and more Asian appearance, according to experts.
An inscrutable face stares at us from the deep past. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov
Archeologist Yuri Grevtsov said: 'Analysis of the sculpture's micro-relief showed that the original image went through some improvements. The first 'edition' was made by knocking, charring and the polishing the lines. Most likely it was all made by one person who seemed to have a very strong hand and a good taste.'
'Finds of ancient tools, weapons and bronze mirrors in grottos surrounding the sculpture suggest this and other more weathered and fallen idols were hewn out of the sandstone as a place of worship between the second and fourth century BC.
'But in the early Middle Ages a 'less experienced sculptor' got to work on the idol and 'sharply delineated and narrowed the sculpture's asymmetric eyes. The nose bridge was flattered with several strikes. The nose contour was altered to form 'two deep diagonally converging grooves.
'The moustache and the beard were partially 'shaved'.'
Ust-Taseyevsky ritual site, and the idol. Pictures: Yuri Grevtsov, Anna Kravtsova
So the original European look of the idol was changed to a more Asian countenance. Why would this happen?
'Judging by archeological finds found inside the grottos, this anthropomorphic idol was made during the Scythian time,' Yuri Grevtsov said. 'The first change came when the more European looking face was transformed to make it appear more Mongoloid was likely to have happened in the early Middle Ages with a shift of the population in the Angara River area,' he said.
In other words, incoming ethnic groups preferred the idol to be more akin to their own looks.
The third transformation must have happened with the arrival of Russian people and them introducing the locals to tobacco and pipes.
Another change in the idol came later: a conical hole 1.5 cm in diameter was drilled in the sculpture's mouth.
Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Anna Kravtsova
This transformation 'must have happened with the arrival of Russian people, introducing the locals to tobacco and pipes'.
The Russian conquest of Siberia reached this region - in modern day Krasnoyarsk - in the 17th century.
Senior researcher Grevtsov said the stone idol is the only one of its kind in the taiga so far north: the closest analogues would be 500 kilometres to the south in Khakassia.
Why, though, would the original face have distinctly European features - seen by some as Slavic - when modern-day native Siberian groups have a more Asian appearance?
The answer may be that the Scythian peoples - a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads who held sway in many Siberian regions at this time - did indeed have this more European visage.
Reconstructions of faces from permafrost burials, for example in the Altai Mountains, shows this to be the case.
Comparing Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol to other stone statues in Asia. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov
'The rich archeological material found at the site can be divided into five main groups,' Grevtsov said. 'Weaponry - stone, bone and metal arrowheads, knives and axes; bronze mirrors; harnesses and their decorations; fragments of bear and elk skulls with traces of rituals, for example when their lower jaws were cut off; and ritual elements like a shaman crown made of deer antlers,' he said.
'All the finds bear traces of fire. Given the type, the concentration and the locations of the finds we conclude that they were used for ritual purposes.
'The grottos were sacrificial places where all offerings were buried.'
The so-called Ust-Taseyevsky Idol (or Taseyevsky) is on the left bank of the Taseyeva River, some 4 km from its confluence with the Angara, and 10 km from the village of Pervomaisk, some 300 km north from regional capital Krasnoyarsk.
In all there are four sculptures, along with a 'carving table' and a spot where sacrifices of bears and elks were made. It lies 480 metres from the river bank, and 104 metres above the water level, a crest on a 300 metre hill.
The local calcareous sandstone led to rocks weathering into a quaint and somewhat anthropomorphic shapes, said the archeologist.
Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Anna Kravtsova
'Some of the rocks collapsed, forming natural constructions with grottos and corridors, and making for a scenic site. In the centre of a 22 metre long sandstone ridge there is a four metre high rock, which looks a bit a like a human profile.'
It was to the left of this that archeologists found two grottos 'both full of archeological finds'.
To the right is the idol with the human face and in front, covered with moss, there was a roughly-made petroglyph depicting another human face.
'To the right of the human face statue there is another large rock with no traces of human influence, yet looking quite like a woman's head covered with a hood.'
The area is so rich in iron ore that springs are visible with rusty-coloured water.
Explorer Maksim Fomenko who visited the site this year with a Yenisei TV film crew said: 'A compass dances frivolously with its needle going as much as 20 degrees off course. Locals also say that the hills act like a magnet to lightning bolts during storms. I wonder if this was the same in earlier times and if people that lived here saw it as a good sign to choose the site for their rituals.'
Grevtsov spoke about the moment in the early 1990s when he realised the site contained more than the idol.
'I got between the rocks to measure them. At some point to get the height I had to lie down on my back,' he said. 'I felt as if my coat had caught a tree branch and wouldn't let me move freely, (and) I reached out behind my back and felt the handle of a bronze knife.
'It wasn't immediately under the big idol, but to the left of it. The soil was so soft and loose that I started to dig deeper with my hands, and within minutes found an arrowhead and a bear's fang.
'My colleagues joined me and during the first few days we found a bronze axe, pendants, badges shapes like griffons and ram's heads.
'I couldn't sleep for two nights, so strong was the feeling of excitement.
'There was a path leading up the hill. One of the rocks that looks like a table was used to carve carcasses of bears and elks. Judging by the bones we found, they cut off bear paws and heads, then separated jaws from the rest of the skull and performed some procedure in between the rocks.
'Then they had a meal and burned the skulls and paws inside a different pit.'
'I couldn't sleep for two nights, so strong was the feeling of excitement', archeologist Yuri Grevtsov
In fact, the idol that is so visible and striking today was not the main figure in the complex. The central character worshipped by the people of the past is in the middle of the composition, above all other stones. It has one eye, a nose and something looking like a beard.
There is disagreement about what it shows: some see the face of a man, others an animal, perhaps even a bird, most likely a raven. It is surmised that the idol that is prominent today was a 'helper' and probably not the recipient of ancient offerings.
Next to the helper there is a round-shaped rock which researchers refer to as the 'helper's wife'.
The carving table is to the left of the helper and his wife.
Behind the main sculpture there is a 'guard' - the biggest rock of all on the site - whose role was seen to be to overlook the ritual site.
Stone and bronze finds discovered at the Ust-Taseyevsky ritual site. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov
After each of the rituals, the offerings were hidden in niches between the rocks and piled on top of the remnants of the previous offerings.
The 'guard' stone stood by the richest of the niches that had the most intriguing finds.
Interestingly, the hierarchy of how the idols were set on the site is similar to the ways of the Khanty and Mansi peoples, whose geographical location is some 2,000 kilometres to the north east.
Their idols were made of wood but the order they were arranged was similar - the main idol was in the middle, a helper and his wife were to the left, a guard was to the right.
Top image: Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov