German scientists 'took samples abroad for analysis' which were 'illegally obtained' from famous Shigir Idol.
The statue is twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, and contains arguably the most ancient coded message on the planet, but it is now embroiled in a very modern Russian criminal case.
The Investigative Committee in Sverdlovesk region has opened a criminal probe on causing damage to the famous Shigir Idol, estimate to be 9,500 years old. Since last year, the Culture Ministry in Moscow has been seeking legal redress over the way samples of the wooden statue were taken, and then exported by eminent German scientists for analysis.
The latest move overturns an earlier 'illegal and groundless' decision not to take action under a clause in the criminal code prohibiting the destruction or damage of historical and cultural monuments.
A source in the Culture Ministry in Yekaterinburg said: 'The examination of the idol was conducted without coordination with the relevant ministries and even the director of the Yekaterinburg History Museum Natalia Vetrova was not informed about the methods of the expertise.'
One senior official Tatiana Bondar said: 'We, like everyone else, saw the television programme [about taking the samples by German scientists]. We cannot say how many centimetres of the Idol were taken away. There are also questions about the fragments that were taken to Germany - they could not be sent abroad without a permission. Our management did not give any permit for export.'
The hunt is now on for offenders who face a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
In June 2014, German scientists Uwe Hoysner and Thomas Terberger arrived in Yekaterinburg and took the samples of Shigir idol to determine the statue's exact age.
It is unclear if they are under suspicion of unauthorised cutting of the statue, but meanwhile their expected announcement on dating the Idol is now some months behind schedule for unknown reasons. There is speculation that Natalia Vetrova could become one of the accused on the basis that her museum had no authority to allow samples to be cut from the Idol.
This ancient example of human creativity was recovered in January 1890 near Kirovgrad. It is made of 159 year old larch, and covered with Mesolithic era symbols, which are not yet decoded.
Originally some 2.8 metres in height, it appears to have seven faces. It was protected down the millennia by a four metre layer of peat bog - as if in a time capsule - on the site of an open air gold mine.
'There is no such ancient sculpture in the whole of Europe. Studying this Idol is a dream come true', said Professor Terberger, of the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony. Hoysner, from Berlin Archaeological Institute said: 'The Idol is carved from larch, which, as we see by the annual rings, was at least 159 years old.
'The samples we selected contain important information about the isotopes that correspond to the time when the tree grew.' They said they hoped to date the Idol to within five decades.
Mikhail Zhilin, professor of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: 'This is a unique sculpture, like nowhere else in the world. The Shigir Idol is both very lively, and very complex. The ornaments, which cover the Idol, are the encrypted information of the knowledge which people passed on'.
Expert Svetlana Savchenko, chief keeper of Shigir Idol, believes that the structure's faces carry encoded information from ancient man in the Mesolithic era of the Stone Age concerning their understanding of 'the creation of the world'. She said it was 'obvious' that the symbols on the Idol 'had some meaning', but experts have not managed to understand what this could be.
Author Petr Zolin, citing scientific work by Savchenko and Professor Mikhail Zhilin, stated: 'The characters of Idol cannot have an unambiguous interpretation. If these are images of spirits that inhabited the human world in ancient times, the vertical position of figures (one above the other) probably relate to their hierarchy.
'Placing images on the front and back planes of the Idol, possibly indicate that they belong to different worlds. If there are depicted myths about the origin of humans and the world, the vertical arrangement of the images may reflect the sequence of events. Ornaments can be special signs which mark something as significant.'
One theory is that the Idol could be an ancient 'navigator', a map. Straight lines, wave lines and arrows indicated ways of getting to the destination and the number of days for a journey, with waves meaning water path, straight lines meaning ravines, and arrows meaning hills, according to this version.