Wooden snake figurine

Snakes are known to have had symbolic significance in the later world views of the Finno-Ugric and Sámi peoples

What is it?

This wooden figurine, delicately carved in the shape of a snake, was recently discovered in Finland. Researchers suggest that it resembles a grass snake (Natrix natrix) or a European adder (Vipera berus) in the act of slithering or swimming away. The figurine is 535mm long and 25-30mm thick, with a flat, angular head that is slightly raised with an open mouth, a narrow neck, and slightly curved slender body with a tapering tail at the end. The figurine was carved from a single piece of wood, and analysis to determine the species of tree used is currently ongoing. Radiocarbon dating of the object has revealed that it was created in the Late Neolithic, c.3908 BP.

Where was it found and when?

The figurine was found in 2020 during excavations of Järvensuo 1, a Neolithic wetland site by the shore of the drained Rautajärvi Lake in south-west Finland. The site was first discovered in the 1950s, but renewed research commenced there last year. The snake figurine was found in a horizontal position, lying on its right side, in a layer of peat overlying mud at a depth of c.0.6m. This peat is responsible for the preservation of the figurine and other objects of wood, bark, and bone that have been found at the site. It is uncertain whether it was lost, discarded, or deliberately deposited here in the Neolithic period.

Why does it matter?

The figurine is unique. While snakes are occasionally portrayed in Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Early Bronze Age portable art from the eastern Baltic, the Urals, and European Russia, other animals such as waterfowl, elks, and sometimes humans are more typical motifs. Snakes are also, rarely, depicted in rock art in northern Europe, and are known to have had symbolic significance in the later world views of the Finno-Ugric and Sámi peoples. Perhaps such beliefs extended back in time as far as the Neolithic.

Even so, the function of the figurine is currently uncertain, as the exact character of the Järvensuo 1 site is not yet fully understood. Fishing-related artefacts indicate that economic activities were taking place here, but the site may also have had a ritual element connected to the lakeshore, as water was key to many early religions in the region. Researchers are unsure whether the figurine was intended to act as a freestanding sculpture or a staff, or both, but a variety of interpretations could be applied either way. However, it does seem likely that the figurine had some kind of religious connection due to the wetland location in which it was found, in addition to the symbolic significance of snakes in art and spiritual beliefs in the area.

A paper about the figurine has recently been published in Antiquity.
The artefact will be put on display in the National Museum of Finland once the extensive conservation process has been completed.

Images: Satu Koivisto.
Text: Amy Brunskill.