Sunday, December 03, 2006

How I Found The World's Oldest Statue

And here it is. By the fire extinguisher.

Is This the World's Oldest Statue?

I can't quite work out what I'm seeing. This thing before me looks like a fossilised snowman. Or maybe a mock-up of a Doctor Who monster. Yet, if scholars are right, this is the oldest statue in the world.

The cream-coloured effigy was found in the ancient Kurdish city of Sanliurfa, in the hot plains of central southern Turkey. This is not far from the extraordinary archaelogical dig of Gobekli Tepe [see below].

The statue's modern story begins a few years ago, when foundations were being laid for a local bank. The excavations took place right next to an historic city attraction - the Bolikli Gol. This is a beautiful fishpond surrounded by mosques and gardens.

As the workmen dug away in the Turkish sunshine, they realised that they were exhuming history. Odd chunks of limestone were emerging from the earth.

Archaeologists were summoned. The chunks were taken to the local museum, and pieced together. They turned out to form a peculiar and hefty sculpture: of a man, or a manlike God. The head of the statue had piercing coal-black eyes. The hands were placed in front of the genitals, like a soccer player protecting himself.

This was interesting enough, but things got more amazing. Back at the dig, scientists were examining more debris. The statue turned out to be part of a larger discovery: of a Neolithic temple. This temple, and therefore the statue, has now been dated to 10,000 BC. This makes the Snowman possibly the "oldest statue in the world".

Of course the veracity of this claim depends on semantics. i.e. What's a "statue"? The famous Venus of Willendorf dates back to 20,000BC. But the Venus is just 11cm long: surely not a statue. The same problem applies to the diminutive Neanderthal "Lion Man" from Germany.

Seen in one sense, the Bolikli Gol Snowman is therefore the first sizeable sculpture of a man: the world's first statue. It is also, arguably, the oldest sculptural representation of humanity, the oldest self-portrait in stone.

Given these remarkable claims, you'd think the Bolikli Gol statue would be famous. Yet it isn't. The statue is scarcely known. It stands in the tiny local museum, forlorn and forgotten, next to the fire extinguisher. Why?

One reason is the venom of local politics: the ongoing tussle between the Turks and Kurds prevents good publicity of archaeological treasures, in which the area of Sanliurfa abounds.

But maybe the ancient Snowman lacks friends for another reason: because he is such an unsettling presence. His lonely obsidian eyes dominate the gallery where he stands, his wistful gaze speaks of a weird and agonising regret. After a few minutes with the statue I make quickly for the exit; and when I reach the sunny street outside, I find I am sighing with relief.

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