Discovery of Snake Staff Leaves Archaeologist “Utterly Speechless”
While excavating a site in southwest Finland, archaeologists came across something extraordinary. Hidden in the muddy soil in the wetland site of Järvensuo-I they unearthed a delicately carved snake staff dating back 4,400 years. This discovery is the subject of an article published in Antiquity which explains the possible meaning and significance of this unique find.
This image of an archaeologist photographing the snake staff discovered in Finland gives an idea of the scale. (Satu Koivisto / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Shaman’s Snake Staff Unearthed in Finnish Wetland Site
“I have seen many extraordinary things in my work as a wetland archaeologist, but the discovery of this figurine made me utterly speechless and gave me the shivers,” explained Dr. Satu Koivisto, the lead author of the study as well as the main investigator from the University of Turku in Finland. It’s well-known that bog conditions, such as those at Järvensuo I, are ideal for the preservation of a wide range of finds, including organic bog artifacts such as this snake staff, or even human remains.
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Discovering a carved wooden snake staff is a unique find when you take into account that it was created more than 4,000 years ago. The artifact itself measures half a meter long (21 inches) and it has been carved into a very realistic representation of the slithering reptile with its mouth open. The article concludes that it represents either a European adder or a grass snake. It is the first of its kind to have been found in northern Europe, making it, in the words of Dr. Koivisto, a “thought-provoking glimpse from far back in time.”
The new study includes a selection of contemporary rock art from different sites which appear to depict humans holding snake-shaped objects. The current hypothesis is that the snake figurine could be an ancient shaman’s snake staff. (A. Lahelma/ / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Contemporary Rock Art Depicting Snake Staffs
What makes the discovery even more exciting is the fact that contemporary North European rock art depicts human-like figures, possibly shamans, holding similar snake staffs. Discoveries of these kinds of imagery have been discovered near Lake Onega and the White Sea, in Karelia, an area along Finland’s border with Russia. Rock carvings discovered in the Kola Peninsula also feature snakes, one of which appears to be strikingly similar to the snake staff discovered at the Järvensuo I site.
This has led the team of archaeologists to hypothesize that the snake figurine was possibly used as a shaman’s staff during rituals in the Stone Age, conjuring gloriously evocative images of Scandinavian ancient history. Nevertheless, the article published in Antiquity warns that “great caution must be exercised in interpreting a practically unique find such as the Järvensuo figurine, particularly as the character of the site is not yet fully understood.”
One of the co-authors, Dr. Antti Lahelma from the University of Helsinki, nevertheless stressed that “there seems to be a certain connection between snakes and people.” For her, the discovery of the snake staff in Scandinavia “brings to mind northern shamanism of the historical period, where snakes had a special role as spirit-helper animals of the shaman.”
The snake staff was unearthed at the the Järvensuo I wetland site in south-west Finland. (Satu Koivisto/ / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Returning to Järvensuo… Before It’s Too Late
The Järvensuo I site was first discovered accidentally back in the 1950s, when workers were building a drainage ditch and discovered a Neolithic wooden paddle. The 1980s brought to light more artifacts, including fishing tools, pottery and even a wooden scoop with a handle carved into the shape of a bear’s head. However, the archaeological site, which is hidden within peat and eutrophic mud, was not fully excavated at the time. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded by the Academy of Finland, archaeologists have renewed their work at the site since 2020.
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The discovery of everyday objects, as well as this possibly ritualistic snake carving, begs the question as to the original character of the site and what more is hidden in the mud. The archaeologists warn that the wetland site is now under threat. “The signs of destruction caused by extensive drainage are already clearly evident at the site and its organic treasures are no longer safe,” cautioned Dr. Koivisto. If the Finnish want to uncover this potential wetland goldmine of information about their historic past, they had better act swiftly to ensure the necessary resources are provided for archaeologists to continue their work in what National Geographic dubbed “a race against time.”
Top image: The wooden snake staff was discovered in south-west Finland. Source: Satu Koivisto/ Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Cecilia Bogaard
I had a toy snake when I was a kid but I don’t believe I ever used it for any shamanic rituals. The most usual reason for carving wood into the likeness of an animal is purely decorative to make a commodity. Kids also draw pictures of animals like snakes, just for a bit of fun. Those rock artworks are probably there to tell a funny story. It looks a bit funny to see the man with his back turned to or with his arms raised in the air at the squiggly snake. This sort of entertainment could have been the nearest thing to cinema back then.
It should be noted that magic staffs which can turn into a snake are featured in the Bible – for example Moses turned his staff into a snake.
As I have written here before, the snake was a symbol of healing in ancient times, still used today as the symbol of medics and doctors (a snake around a staff).