Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind

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The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. c.26,000 years old. Moravian Museum, Anthropos InstituteWe may not know exactly how they looked, we certainly do not know how they sounded. But the art of our earliest ancestors speaks as eloquently to us today as it did to their contemporaries, transcending the tens of thousands of years between them and us. According to the new exhibition at the British Museum in London, such works bear witness to the emergence of the modern mind, when human imagination was expressed through artistic interpretation of the world around them, and that evidence of this began to appear in the archaeological record nearly 40,000 years ago.

Fragment of decorated reindeer metatarsal (bone) engraved on the obverse surface with two reindeer, one of which is now incomplete; decorated bone; Palaeolithic; Madeleine, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
And what breathtakingly sophisticated art it is. The delicately graceful rendition of two reindeer carved into a piece of bone (from La Chaffaud in France), for example, shows a thorough understanding of perspective.

Bison sculpted from mammoth ivory. About 20,000 years old, it was found at Zaraysk, Russia. Image: Zaraysk Kremlin Museum, Zaraysk, Russia

One of my favourites is the bison sculpted from mammoth ivory and wiped with red ochre to accentuate the fine details (from Zaraysk in Russia): the subtle detail of the bison’s head, nose, and mouth is incredibly naturalistic in detail – and incredibly moving. Whoever created this fine piece knew their subject well, and clearly cared about such beasts. While whoever that person was who spent long hours meticulously etching tiny fish scales onto a slice of mammoth ivory, displayed a level of patience, dexterity, and an eye for detail that any artist in any millennium would envy.
It seems our ancestors also enjoyed a playful side: it is easy to imagine the delight a of child 12,000 ago on seeing the ingenious ‘spinning discs’ found at Mas d’Azil, Ariège in France . One, for example, has a calf carved onto one side, and the mature animal on the other. Their heads are in exactly the same place on either side, and a small hole has been drilled through the middle of the disc. I don’t know what the intention may have been, but certainly if you thread a thin leather strip through the hole and spin the disc, it appears if the calf is transformed into the adult. Other discs show animals in motion so that when they are spun the animals appear to be moving. Clever stuff.

Bison sculpted from mammoth ivory. About 20,000 years old, it was found at Zaraysk, Russia. Image: Zaraysk Kremlin Museum, Zaraysk, Russia

And, just as we do today, these people were using art to make sense of their environment, to communicate, to provide enjoyment. Curator Jill Cook has included a few modern pieces by Matisse and Henry Moore to make this point: just as with simple brush-strokes, these masters convey the female form, so their much earlier predecessors created similar forms to the same effect. ‘Art, ‘ she explains: ‘crosses the time barrier. What we see as art today is what they saw as art 30,000 years ago.’

The Venus of Dolni Vestonice is a modelled figure of a mature woman, the oldest ceramic figure in the world. Image: Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.One section of the exhibition is devoted to the female form: the sheer variety of such artefacts – in ivory, stone, and baked clay – demonstrates that these were more than simply fertility symbols. We see women in all forms: young, old, lusciously fat, pregnant, and even giving birth; some are naturalistic forms, others stylised. Clearly, artistic interpretations were as varied in the prehistoric period as they are today.

The museum display is simply done: square glass cabinets allow the exhibits to be seen from all angles, and the absence of set-dressing lets them shine for themselves without distractions. There is, however, one exception: the ‘sound-and-light’ installation depicting the cave art found at Lascaux and Altimira as if deep underground, which was, I felt, rather disappointing and unnecessary. Other than this tiny blip, this is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to examine and admire some of the most extraordinary works of art the human race has produced. Usually, we have to be satisfied with photos, but nothing, really nothing, compares with actually seeing these extraordinary and wonderful objects ‘in the flesh’. They are truly awe-inspiring.

Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind

British Museum,

Great Russell Street, London

7 February-26 May 2013





1 Comment

  1. I am always amazed at the art that has come to us from so far in the past. These people of the past were much more aware of their surroundings than we of today are. I so enjoy learning about their lives and their art.
    Thank you.

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