Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

Astonishingly lifelike, the 21,000 year old mammoth-ivory bison sculpture (below) is unquestionably the work of a talented artist. Excavated at Zaraysk in Russia in 2002, it is one of 130 portable art objects from the European Upper Palaeolithic featured in Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind, which opens at the British Museum on 7 February. These have been set alongside a small selection of works by Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and other 20th Century artists. Exhibition curator Dr Jill Cook was unfortunately unable to include Genesis by Sir Jacob Epstein and works from the currently-closed Musée Picasso in Paris.

However, the modern art is not included for comparison but to emphasise that this exhibition is first and foremost about art rather than archaeology. Art is not merely a product of what we glibly term ‘civilisation’, it is a fundamental part of the modern human condition. We see the earliest evidence for its expression in South Africa over 70,000 years ago, but the earliest-known figurative art appears around 40,000 years ago in Europe. Modern humans entered Europe 46,000 years ago, and over the next 5000 years they dispersed across the continent. Although the last Ice Age had yet to reach its full extent, conditions were very different to those in the African homeland they had left tens of millennia earlier. Nevertheless, the richness of the art they produced over the next 35,000 years clearly demonstrates that there was far more to their lives than a grim battle for survival.
One of the earliest-known examples of what is unequivocally figurative art, the Löwenmensch (Lion-man) of Hohlenstein-Stadel (below) is a therianthropic (part human, part animal) figurine of a human figure with a lion’s head. It is 30 cm (11.8in) high and is carved from mammoth ivory. Hohlenstein-Stadel is an Aurignacian cave site in the Lone Valley of the Swabian Jura Mountains of south-western Germany. The Löwenmensch was discovered by archaeologists Otto Völzing and Robert Weitzel in 1939 in numerous fragments, but with the outbreak of World War II, it was forgotten for thirty years. Reconstruction of the figurine was begun in 1969 by Joachim Hahn, but was not completed until 1988. The Löwenmensch is over 36,000 years old. It may represent a shaman partially transformed into a lion, or a mythical being or a supernatural spirit. In 2003, a similar but much smaller figurine was discovered at Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley, only a short distance from Lone Valley. The implication is that the people of the Ach and Lone Valleys were members of the same cultural group, and shared beliefs and practices connected with therianthropic images of felines and humans.
Among the most iconic objects of Ice Age Europe are the so-called ‘Venus’ figurines that have found at many Upper Palaeolithic sites. Most date to the Gravettian period from 28,000 to 22,000 years ago, though some are from the preceding Aurignacian. Typically lozenge-shaped, these figurines are characterised by exaggerated sexual characteristics, with very large breasts, accentuated hips, thighs and buttocks, and large, explicit vulvas. Other anatomical details tend to be neglected; especially arms and feet, and the heads generally lack facial detail. The contrast with the classical portrayal of Venus could not be greater. The figurines are carved from materials including mammoth ivory, serpentine, steatite or limestone and are often coloured with ochre. The Black Venus of Dolni Věstonice (below) was made from fired clay, and is among the earliest known ceramics.
The ‘Venus’ figurines are often interpreted as fertility figures, mother goddesses etc, but their real function is unknown. One novel suggestion, by anthropologists Leroy McDermott and Catherine Hodge McCoid, is that they may be self-portrayals of pregnant women. They note likenesses between a photograph of a “Venus” figurine viewed from above and one of a pregnant woman standing with her feet together, viewed from her own perspective looking down on her breasts and abdomen.
After visiting the newly-discovered Lascaux Caves in 1940, Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked “We have invented nothing” in reference to the cave’s 17,000 year old polychrome rock art. The story may be apocryphal, but the British Museum has offered the public a unique opportunity to judge for themselves.
Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is at the British Museum from 7 Feb until 26 May, 2013

Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author