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8,300-year-old stone snake heads reveal Stone Age ritual ceremonies

The “younger” snape image has triangular eyes.
(Kotova, N., et al., The antiquity 2018; figure by N. Kotova)

What can be passed as two oddly-shaped boulders are the work of Stone Age craftsmen who carved stone in the beady-eyed snake heads, archaeologists have found.

It is a mystery why these ancient people, who lived in what is now the Ukraine, made of the stoney snakes, but the researchers have a good guess.

“These images could ritual purpose,” said study principal investigator Nadiia Kotova, an archaeologist in the Department of the Eneolithic and the bronze age at the Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of the Ukraine. “They were probably used during ceremonies.” [Photos: Intricately Carved Stone Balls Puzzle Archaeologists]

Kotova and her team found the snakey stones in 2016, during an excavation at the Kamyana Mohyla I, an archaeological site near the city of Terpinnya. Both stones, though the different ages, were found in the vicinity of old bones and stones from the same period: the Mesolithic, the middle stone age, between the earlier Paleolithic and later Neolithic. There were a lot of sandstone on the site, but “these two had quite a strange shape, so we decided to look closer,” Kotova told Science in an e-mail.

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The “older” figurine was found near a fireplace, in the near mountains of shells, and flint tools. With the help of organic matter out of the fireplace, the researchers were able to radiocarbon-date the yellow sandstone snakehead between 8300 B. C. and B. C. 7500

This snakehead is small, measuring just 5 cm by 3 cm (13 in to 6.8 inches) and weighs about 3 kg. (1,215 grams). It has a triangular shape with a flat bottom. “Two diamond-shaped eyes were carved on the upper surface beside two buttons” on the rocks, the researchers wrote in the study. “A broad, long line represents a mouth.”

Unfortunately, the snake was “damaged on the ‘nose’ during the excavation,” the researchers wrote in the study.

The “younger” stone snake was also found by a fireplace and was dated to about 7400 B. C. It measures about 3 inches by 2 inches (8.5 x 5.8 cm) and weighs only 1 kg. (428 grams), which means that it can easily fit in a person’s hand, Kotova said.

“The smaller stone has a flat, round shape and the so-called “neck,” Kotova said. “There are two deep scars, probably for the eyes of the creature. There is also a kind of a nose.”

The two findings represent the only snakehead stones known at Kamyana Mohyla I. However, the scientists did discover a fish-like stone sculpture in the nearby Kamyana Mohyla, a giant stone pile just a few steps away from the snakeheads ” spot.

Archaeologists do not know much about the people who made these sculptures, except that these prehistoric inhabitants lived on the steppes of the northwestern region of the Sea of Azov. “They made tools from stone, stones 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.”

The study today is published online (Dec. 12) in the journal Antiquity.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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