A remarkable Neolithic wooden carving of a serpent has been unearthed by archaeologists in the south-west of Finland, potentially shedding new light on the relationship between people and these animals, and ritual practices, in Neolithic northern Europe. Measuring 53cm in length and carved from a single piece of wood, the highly naturalistic and gently curving figure shows a snake – possibly a grass snake or a European adder – slithering or swimming away with its mouth open.
Direct radiocarbon dating of the artefact indicates that it was made between 2471 and 2291 BC, placing it in the Late Neolithic. Despite its age and the organic material it was crafted from, the delicately carved snake is exceptionally well preserved thanks to the wetland conditions of the site where it was found, Järvensuo 1. This prehistoric lakeshore site was first discovered by chance during the digging of a ditch in the 1950s, when a wooden paddle was found. The same ditch yielded further prehistoric finds in the 1980s, including a wooden scoop with a handle shaped like a bear’s head, pottery, and fishing implements.
The snake figurine was discovered in 2020 during the first season of new fieldwork at the site. Nothing like the figurine is known so far, but as Satu Koivisto of the University of Turku, principal investigator of the Järvensuo project, and Antti Lahelma, of the University of Helsinki, note in their report on the find, recently published in the journal Antiquity, other serpent-like figures are known from Neolithic rock art. One of these images shows a serpent with its mouth open like the Järvensuo snake, while some other examples show the animal seemingly held by a human figure. These humans are perhaps holding a carved figurine or a staff, just like the wooden object found in Järvensuo.
In Finno-Ugric and Sámi cosmology, snakes are associated with various symbolic meanings, and shamans had the ability to transform into these creatures. As such, the snake figurine could perhaps be early evidence of the link between shamanism and serpents. Lahelma said, ‘Even though the time gap is immense, the possibility of some kind of continuity is tantalising: do we have a Stone Age shaman’s staff?’ The once-watery location of the find may also hint at a religious connection, as in Finno-Ugric cosmology the Land of the Dead was believed to lie under the water.
In their paper, Koivisto and Lahelma urge caution in interpreting this intriguing and unusual find, particularly as the nature of the site is not yet fully understood. Other finds from the site, particularly the high number of fishing-related tools, suggest some everyday, economic activity going on at the ancient lakeshore, but it is possible that some sacred activity also took place here.