The exhibition on Pompeii and Herculanum currently at the British Museum gives us an amazing view of how human beings lived 2000 years ago. The murals, sculptures, pyramids and temples in Egypt give us an astonishing view of how people lived 4,500 years ago. Most of us find it hard to imagine life further back than that: indeed we rarely get an opportunity to even think about it, unless we have taken the trouble to look at the dustier sections of museums, usually just called “Prehistoric Man’.
What was the world like 10,000 years ago – or, an even more mind-numbing thought, 40,000 years ago? If asked, we could probably venture that there were human beings around, who hunted mammoths, bison and deer, who lived in caves, wore fur clothing and procreated, but that would be about it.
I personally have always been fascinated by prehistory – particularly cave paintings and the earliest sculptures made by man, which I have spotted in various museums. I was gripped the moment as a boy I saw photographs of the spectacular 18,000-year old Paleolithic cave paintings in Altamira in north-west Spain (discovered in 1879) and the coeval ones at Lascaux in the Dordogne (discovered in 1940). I remember in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, gazing at the so-called ‘Venus de Willendorf’, a 11cm limestone statuette of a very fat, naked woman with huge sagging breasts, found in Austria. Venus was not very sexy, but I was thunderstruck that she was 25,000 years old.
I have followed with breathless fascination the recent discoveries at Gobekli Tepe (in Turkey, just north of its border with Syria): archaeologists have discovered what must be the oldest buildings (possibly a temple or funerary complex) in the world, dry-stone walls and about 40 T-shaped stone columns, some 16-ton, 18-feet high, with beautiful, very finished bas-reliefs of snakes, scorpions, lions, boars, foxes and other animals. The stupendous thing about them is they are about 11,500 years old! They were constructed 5,500 years before the first cities of Mesopotamia and 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza or Stonehenge. Archaeologists think that back then humans hadn’t even discovered pottery or domesticated wheat. They lived in mud huts, had no agriculture and only relied on hunting to survive. Prior to the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, the most ancient megalithic complex was thought to be in Malta, dated around 3,500BC.
Not boasting buildings or real art works, but more thrilling, in terms of age, is the recent discovery at Sibudu Cave, near Durban, South Africa, of sophisticated stone and bone tools, large mattresses (the earliest bedding in the world!) made of sedges and grasses, and sparkling ornamental beads made from the shells of sea snails. Hard to believe but this site dates back to at least 77,000 years!! Scientists have found thousands of artifacts left behind by our homo sapiens ancestors during our species’ formative years. The excavations have pushed back the first signposts for complex cognition, producing evidence for the earliest known spears and arrows as well as the precocious use of snares and traps to catch small animals.
Archaeological theories are currently being re-written.
I have longed to see an exhibition which brings together some of the earliest sculptures, artefacts and what might be called works of art ever found.
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