Sculptured Serpents Provide a Peek at Mysterious Ukrainian Rock Art and a Forgotten Stone Age Snake Culture
Two curiously shaped ‘ophidian sculptured stones’ discovered in what is now Ukraine were crafted by Stone Age sculptors. The artifacts resemble ‘beady-eyed’ serpent heads, according to the team of archaeologists who studied the rare ancient serpentine rock art.
The scientists’ study was published online this week in the journal Antiquity. Lead researcher Nadiia Kotova, an archaeologist in the Department of the Eneolithic and Bronze Age at the Institute of Archaeology National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Ukraine, claimed the sculptured serpents “Could have ritual purpose” and she believes they were “Probably used during ceremonies.”
The two serpent stones have been dated to the ‘Mesolithic’, ‘the middle Stone Age’, which occurred between the Paleolithic and later Neolithic. They were originally discovered in 2016 near the famous ‘Kamyana Mohyla’ stone mound, at an archaeological site of the same name, near the city of Terpinnya in Ukraine on the steppe of the northwestern region of the Sea of Azov.
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Kamyana Mohyla I (arrow) and the Kamyana Mohyla stone mound, viewed from the south. (S. Radchenko)
Studying the Serpent Heads of Ukrainian Rock Art
The two rare stones were found among “ancient bones and flints from the same period” but “these two had quite a strange shape, so we decided to look closer,” Kotova told Live Science in an email. The older of the two figurines was recovered from a “open fireplace, near piles of shells and flint tools” and by testing “organic matter from the fireplace,” the researchers were able to “radiocarbon date the yellow sandstone snakehead to between 8300 B.C. and 7500 B.C.”
According to the research paper, the oldest snakehead is described as measuring “5 inches by 3 inches” (13 by 6.8 centimeters) and weighing almost 3 lbs. (1,215 grams). It is a “triangular shape with a flat bottom”, with “two rhombic eyes” carved on the upper surface alongside “two knobs” and “a wide, long line represents a mouth.”
The ‘Older’ figurine. (N. Kotova)
Dating to about 7400 BC, the paper describes the younger of the two stones as measuring “3 inches by 2 inches (8.5 by 5.8 cm) weighing just under 1 lb. (428 grams)” with a ”flattened, round shape” and a so-called “neck” and “Two deep traces, probably the eyes of the creature” and “There is also kind of a nose,” according to Kotova.
Archaeologists don't know much about the people who made these sculptures, but it is known “They made tools from stones, flints and bones and hunted with bows and flint arrows,” Kotova said. “It was the society of hunters and gatherers. Unfortunately, we don't know much about their cultural traditions yet.”
The ‘Younger’ figurine. (N. Kotova)
Legacy of the Ancient Ukrainian Snake People
Cursory research into the surrounding landscapes in which the two serpent stones were discovered reveals a long linage of people who held the snake, and the dragon, in high esteem.
The snake stones were discovered near the ‘Kamyana Mohyla’ mound, which literally means “stone tomb.” This stone tomb was once situated on an island in the Molochna River (Milk river) valley and is a monument of the religious beliefs of the ancient hunters and cattle-breeders of this steppe zone of southeast Europe, used for burials since the 20th century BC. According to National Geographic, up to 12 meter (39.37 ft.) high sandstone blocks cover area of around 3 square kilometers (1.16 sq. miles). In 1889, Russian archaeologist Nikolay Veselovsky explored the site, but as soon as he determined it was a burial mound the excavations came to a close.
Kamyana Mohyla is an archaeological site in the Molochna River valley, about a mile from the village of Terpinnya, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine. (Denis Vitchenko/CC BY SA 3.0)
In the 1930s, a team of scholars from Melitopol under Valentin Danylenko discovered 30 caves with petroglyph inscriptions which were dated from the 20th century BC to the 17th century AD, and he discovered 13 additional caves with petroglyphs in the 1940’s. The site was designated an archaeological preserve in 1954.
And returning to snakes, built between the 2nd century BC and 7th century, ‘Serpent or Dragon Walls’ are an ancient system of earth fortifications that stretch across Ukraine from the eastern town of Zmiiv to Podolia in the west for about 1,000 km (621.37 miles).
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Serpent's Wall near the village of Denisi, Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi Raion. (Maxim Bielushkin/CC BY SA 3.0)
According to an article on Global Security, although their “date of construction is much debated” in Slavic culture, warlike nomads were often associated with the winged dragon (Zmey), hence the name of the walls. According to local legends, the walls were connected with the folk hero Nikita Kožemjaka, the tanner, hide-preparer. But archaeologists hold three main theories as to who built them: “either the Sarmatians against the Scythians, or the Goths of Oium against the Huns, or the Early East Slavs against the nomads of the southern steppes.”
The sculptured serpent stones presented in the new paper, therefore, are among the first depictions of snakes in a culture, that over time, would come to worship them in vast architectural structures stretching across their entire landscape.
Top Image: The ‘Older’ serpent head figurine. This artifact provides new insight on Ukraine rock art and snakes in ancient Ukrainian culture. Source: N. Kotova
By Ashley Cowie