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.
The admirable British Museum, with its impeccable taste for scholarship and research, has done just that. It is absolutely fascinating. It is thrilling and, frankly, almost mind-blowing, to see work done by human beings – our ancestors – as far back as 40,000 years ago!
The exhibition brings together around 130 objects, lent by 15 museums across Europe, that are at least 10,000-40,000 years old (in this field, dating cannot be precise so dates are +/- 2,000 years!).
The objects are made of mammoth ivory, bone, terracotta, flint and stone. They all astonish and certainly raise hundreds of questions, only some of which the exhibition attempts to answer. The curator makes many conjectures about the objects on display and offers several hypotheses on their production, use, meaning and on the society and individuals which produced them.
The first work we see is actually the oldest. The ‘Lion Man’ of Hohlenstein-Stadel was carved from the ivory tusk of a young mammoth 40,000 years ago. It was discovered shattered in 200 fragments in south-west Germany by Nazi-sponsored excavators in 1939. But, it was only some 30 years later that archaeologists fitted the shards of tusk together and realized that what they were looking at was the oldest known sculpture in the world.
The unusually tall (30cm) lion man (a lion’s head on a man’s body) stands upright on its hind legs. It displays remarkable artistry and craftsmanship.
British Museum experts reckon it would have taken about 400 hours to make. It was almost certainly made by someone with both technical skill and knowledge of the physical properties of mammoth tusks. Puzzlingly, it seems to have been deposited underground, in the deepest recesses of a cave. After all the effort involved in making the Lion Man, why was it buried?
This work and other fantastical works lead the curators to pronounce that humans 40,000 years ago must have had a highly developed ‘prefrontal cortex’, i.e. capable of imagining something that did not exist in reality.
The 6-inch high, strange-looking, elongated ‘Haut Garonne Woman’ or ‘Venus de Lespugue’ (23,000 yrs old), made of mammoth ivory, with her vast buttocks and breasts drooping to her waist, fascinated Picasso, who did several drawings of it.
Another very obese female figure, from Moravia (Czech Republic), is about 30,000 years old and is the oldest known work of art in ceramic (or baked clay).
Most of the figures found right across Europe from France to Eastern Siberia, are female – some youthful, some old, many obese, many in varying stages of pregnancy – lead the curators to posit that they were made by women for women, a rather bold theory supported by another theory that many of the ‘hand-prints’ (paintings made by blowing pigment round a hand laid on the cave wall) found in the caves are female hands (as they are quite small).
Not all the figures are nude or obese: there is a tall, thin female figure, found in Siberia (24,000 years old). Like many of the objects, it has a little bored-out hole, which suggests that it was made either as a pendant or to be suspended in the cave (in the show they are lit to show how their shadows would have danced eerily over the fire-lit surfaces of caves or tents).
One of the objects that will most surprise visitors is a 27,000-year old articulated, male doll or puppet, made of mammoth tusk and found in Moravia. Another surprise is a 35,000-year old flute, made from the wing bone of a vulture – it is a fragment, but at least six holes are visible.
Practical objects were often decorated artistically: e.g. a 20,000-year old bone spatula or awl (used to make a hole in skins prior to stitching) is decorated with patterns.
One of the most beautiful sculptures is a 21,000-year old bison, found in Zaraysk, Russia. Sculpted in the round, polished with red ochre pigment, and with fine detailing of hair on the ridge of its neck, it is a beautiful and convincing depiction of a bison. Another exquisite object is a 20,000-year old, leaf-shaped flint point (a tool?), 23cm long, 10cm wide and only 6mm thick. Mysteriously, it seems to have been deliberately and carefully buried in an isolated place with about 15 other points. There is a bone with a very delicate engraved drawing of two deer, with fine hatching and shading of body contours to suggest facial features and variations on colour and texture of the animals’ coats. The drawing of three lions in motion, necks and tails extended as if closing in on their prey, on a rib found in La Vache (Ariege) is extremely simple, linear, but brilliantly composed and executed.
The curators make many bold conjectures: a bird shown in flight is, they assert, ‘a spiritual symbol connecting the upper and lower worlds of the cosmos’; baked clay figures that seem to have exploded in the fire or kiln, constitute a sort of ‘performance art’; by making miniatures, humans ‘made the world more intelligible and easier to control’; a mammoth ivory plaque with lots of concentric spirals of incised dots are akin to ‘spiral patterns that are sometimes experienced in dreams and trance states’ Even less convincing is the assertion that the meticulously inscribed linear patterns on ivory may have been geographical ‘maps’.
I was left in awe but with my head buzzing with questions. What purpose did these objects serve? Did they simply express man’s innate desire to use what was at hand – clay, flint, bones etc – to create objects? Or a need to describe his environment, often in an imaginary way? Or were they shamanistic, ritualistic, sacerdotal or funerary objects? How many human beings were there in 30,000 BC? Were there communities spread all over the world? ‘Germany’ seems to figure high in the charts as a centre of art production. (Britain, sadly, figures low – it seems to have been too cold and uninhabitable until circa 11,000BC, according to the curators.) How big were the communities – did they all produce art? What was the geographical spread? Can one distinguish different styles in different parts of the world? Were the makers considered ‘artists’ i.e. people with special skill or who practised or were trained? Were the artists set apart and let off hunting or cooking duties? Were they made by men or women or both? Did they work singly or together? There is evidence of a ‘workshop’ in Baden-Wurttemberg, as many pieces and tools have been found outside the entrance to a cave. Why so many obese women? Were there obese women around at the time? What did people speak then – how different were the ‘languages’ spoken by the artists in Moravia, Siberia, Spain etc? Why were the cave paintings and objects in such inaccessible places (which even today with all our modern equipment and lighting we find hard to reach)? Why were many obviously buried? We may well all enjoy coming up with our own theories, but the fact is no one knows.
The exhibition is thrilling, thought-provoking and astonishing. It leads one to marvel and gasp. It is also eerie, mysterious, perplexing and tantalizing. These works were produced by our ancestors as long as 10-40,000 years ago: that they were produced and survive is marvelous in itself – that some of them are subtle, elegant, exquisite and objects of timeless and rare beauty leaves one staggered and dazed.
N.B. Take a magnifying glass with you. And it’s probably best to book your tickets.
Terence Rodrigues, besides being an author and critic, is an international art consultant, advising private clients on art sales and acquisitions.
Tel: 07905 474 394 (m) & 0207 828 9255 (w)