In 1939 archaeologists discovered fragments that may be parts of one of the world's oldest sculptures, a lion-faced figurine estimated at 32,000 years old, from a cave in southern Germany. The ivory figure, along with a tiny figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels, marks the foundation of human artistry, even if its significance wasn't recognized until 30 years after the discovery.
Both figurines were created by a Stone Age European culture that historians call Aurignacian. The Aurignacian culture is an archaeological culture of the Upper Palaeolithic, located in Europe and southwest Asia, that lasted broadly within the period from ca. 47,000 and 41,000 years ago in terms of the most recent calibration of the radiocarbon timescale. The Aurignacians appear to have been the first modern humans, with handicrafts, social customs and beliefs, and the culture name comes from the first site to be studied, at Aurignac in the Haute Garonne area of France.
The Lion-Man sculpture, gradually re-assembled in workshops over decades after the discovery, is a kind of reverse sphinx: a human body, standing erect, but with the head of a now extinct European cave lion. The head is finely cut, but there is not enough detail left in the body to judge whether this chimera was meant to be male or female.
Claus-Joachim Kind, the chief archaeologist at the palaeolithic site near the city of Ulm, said the figure, was probably used by a shamanistic religion. "But we are walking on thin ice with any interpretation," he warned. The fact that the figure was found without any tools close to it in the sediment does suggest that the site, the Stadel Cave, had a religious significance for its owners at the time. Several flutes found in the same sediment show that the Aurignacians also made music.
Over the past two years, German archaeologists have carefully excavated more of the sediment near the spot where the Lion-Man showed up. Thousands of bone fragments and some ivory pieces were found. Some of them matched the Lion-Man perfectly, a delighted Kind reported. Some of the figure's missing right side and parts of the back have already been restored as a result. "It needs a huge amount of patience," said Kind. "It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle in 3D." The work is continuing with the help of computer tomograph images of the pieces and simulation software. By next year, the Lion-Man may be complete.
The restorers have also concluded that Lion-Man was somewhat taller than the 30 centimetres of him that currently exist. He was carved from one tusk, with the artist forming the legs from two sides of tusk's hollow root. The archaeologists assume that the Lion-Man is several thousand of years younger than the Venus, the Aurignacian female figure with an enormous bosom and hips which was found in a nearby cave, Hohle Fels, in 2008.
The different caves are closed to the public and provincial authorities are considering applying to have them declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. "We assume they still contain a large quantity of culturally important and unique artefacts," Kind said.
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