Page last updated at 11:40 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Dig unearths Stone Age sculptures

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Palaeolithic figurine (Antiquity)
The carving has a feminine form, reminiscent of "Venus" figurines found from Siberia to the Pyrenees

Rare artefacts from the late Stone Age have been uncovered in Russia.

The site at Zaraysk, 150km south-east of Moscow, has yielded figurines and carvings on mammoth tusks.

The finds also included a cone-shaped object whose function, the authors report in the journal Antiquity, "remains a puzzle".

Such artistic artefacts have been found in the nearby regions of Kostenki and Avdeevo, but this is the first such discovery at Zaraysk.

The Upper Palaeolithic (roughly 10,000-40,000 years ago) is the period during which humans made the transition from functional tool-making to art and adornment.

Bison carving (Antiquity)
This bison carved from mammoth ivory was found at Zaraysk in 2002

The new artefacts, discovered by Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev of the Russian Academy of Sciences, include a mammoth rib inscribed with what appear to be three mammoths, a small bone engraved with a cross-hatch pattern, and two human figurines presumed to be female.

"The finds enrich the inventory of Upper Palaeolithic [portable] art and broaden the known distribution of specific types of art objects in the East European Upper Palaeolithic," Dr Lev told BBC News.

"In terms of the splendour and variety of its art pieces, Zaraysk is on a par with such famous sites as Kostenki and Avdeevo."

'Unique picture'

The figurines are a type of "Venus" statuette, examples of which have been found in locations ranging from the mountains of Spain as far east as Siberia. However, their cultural significance remains a point of debate among anthropologists.

At Zaraysk, the two figurines were found carefully buried in storage pits. Underneath each was a round deposit of fine sand toward the south; toward the north, there was a deposit of red ochre - an iron-based pigment.

Each of the figurines had been covered with the shoulder-blade of a mammoth.

One is presumed to be finished and stands at a height of nearly 17cm (6.7in); the other is clearly unfinished and about half as big.

Inscribed bone (Antiquity)
A bone fragment shows an "oblique cross" pattern of ornamentation

However, both resemble examples of such statuettes found at the Avdeevo site to the south-west, suggesting cultural links between the two.

"This collection of artefacts is spectacular in a number of ways, not only for the range of representations of both humanistic and animal but also for the range of materials that is used," says Jeffrey Brantingham, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

"These finds are really incredibly rare, and they offer a unique picture into human Upper Palaeolithic life."

Also among the finds was an object carved from mammoth ivory, shaped like a cone with its top removed. The cone is densely ornamented and has a hole running through its centre.

The authors note that the object is unique among Palaeolithic artefacts. "The function of this decorated object remains a puzzle," they say.

Cone-shaped artefact (Antiquity)
Three views of the mysterious cone-shaped object found at Zaraysk



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