Art of Pre-History summary




Art of Pre-History summary


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Art of Pre-History summary


Art of Pre-History                                  


 40,000 BCE – 2300 BCE


Many different markers are used to discern when our primate ancestors began to engage in activities and exhibit traits that we consider “human”. The earliest bipedal primates emerged at around 4.4 million years B.P., and the first versions of Homo Sapiens distinguished themselves from more ancient hominids between 200,000 and 100,000 years B.P. These ancient people migrated from Africa between 100,000 and 20,000 B.P., establishing different ways of living across Asia, Europe, and eventually to Australia and the Americas. One important marker, language, has no archaeological record until the time of ancient Sumer. Humans left other traces of their mental lives, however, through stone tools found at living and eventually burial sites, and objects and stains on walls which serve no immediate practical purpose, which we call Art. The first major prehistorical period of Modern Humans, the Paleolithic period, stretches from about 42,000 BCE to about 8,000 BCE. During this time, humans made sculptural and painted images which defy any notions that these early people lacked imagination or sophistication.   What distinguishes all of these physical traces, whether practical or not, is that they betray a consciousness of time, and of an awareness of forces outside of themselves. Attention to the comfort and provisions for the dead had been evidenced early on by Neanderthal peoples, with more elaborate objects and ornaments provided by the Cromagnons, particularly by the culture known as the Gravettians, who ranged from central and eastern Europe, to Greece, Italy and Portugal, and to the Brittish region. The Gravettian culture began a tradition in carving and cave painting, which culminated in the great hunting culture of the Magdelanians.


From what we know from studies from the 20th century of contemporary Paleolithic peoples, art was made in ancient Paleolithic cultures for magical, or religious purposes. Visual art served the purpose of addressing the numinous, or essentially, the unseen source of power behind the phenomena of the universe. Two of the great mysteries of human life, that of the source of the life that gave them food, and the source of reproduction, were touched by paintings and sculpture. In paintings on the walls of deep subterranean “cathedrals”, images of game animals, the beings that gave their lives to humans so that they too could live, are gracefully evoked with lines and shadings of natural pigments. These paintings, which were likely carried out by the shaman, or holy man, attempted to cross over into the dream like world of origins, and give homage to or encourage the bounty that seemed to give itself to the Paleolithic peoples. Crawling deep into the earth by torchlight to view graceful, lifelike, and intimidating images of animal spirits surely must have been an overpowering experience, one only afforded to persons considered deserving of such an honored journey into the womb of the Great Mother herself. The intimately scaled “Venus” figurines called as well to the hidden forces of life, entreating the bounty of the spirit of life into the physical form of life.




Paleolithic period                                        42,000 – 8,000 BCE


Venus or Woman from Willendorf, 22,000-21,000 BCE. More goddess or life-force than a particular human woman, the Venus has physical features amenable to the succor of infant life, full hips, thighs and belly, open “dreaming” face, with corn-row hair and flipper hands and feet. She represents the idea of maternity as a state of being, and not doing, of communion with the earth, not the intellect. About 5 inches tall, she was probably a household deity, moving from camp to camp, perhaps placed in an altar or sacred place.


Venus of Laussel, Dordogne, 25,000BCE. One of a pair of limestone reliefs, this majestic image would seem to clearly fuse the fulsome image of a woman with the forces of the natural world. She presents herself with one hand holding a horn (symbolizing the crescent moon, marked with 13 grooves representing the days between the waxing and waning moon), and the other hand placed on her swollen, pregnant (?) belly. The artist here took advantage of a natural swelling in the rock wall, suggesting that art had its origins in humans trying to read symbolic significance into the chaos of the phenomenal universe.


Lion-Human, made from mammoth Ivory, 30,000-26,000BCE. Provocatively silent, this image nonetheless suggests that humans were looking beyond the surface of their environment, and imagining fantastical beings. Whether religious or not, this carving tells us that these people envisioned a greater, even mystical reality.


Paintings at Chauvet of Hippos, Rhinos, and Aurochs, France, 30,000-28,000BCE

Paintings of Spotted Horsesat Peche-Merle, Dordogne, France, 25,000-24,000 BCE

Paintings from Altamira, Spain, and Lascaux, France, 15,000 – 12,000 BCE. Painted caves in Northern Spain and Southern France all share common characteristics; they exhibit a wonderful sensitivity to the sense of movement of the animals, with fluid and evocative line and delicate gradations of color, they often merge the animal forms with sculptural features of the caves, they lie in remote, hard to access areas of the caverns, and they depict both common game animals and more symbolic animals, such as the bull. Occasionally simplified human forms are found, usually as a shaman dressed in an animal disguise, taking part in some sort of ritual.


Neolithic Period                                        11,000 – 2300 BCE


As a result of the retreating northern glaciers at the end of the ice age, herds of game animals moved further and further north as the grasslands enlarged in the shadow of the glaciers, drawing hunting and gathering people with them. Although Paleolithic hunters had followed animals over the land bridge from northern Asia and Europe between 24,000 and 18,000 BCE, and 10,000-9000 BCE,  the early Neolithic was the first time major populations had resided in northern Europe, and when grasses were first domesticated around the northern Mediterranean. For many cultures, the development of agriculture encouraged long term settlement, and megalithic cultures, who erected massive stone monuments and tombs, were born, although this is not always the case.


Gobekli Tepe. 9,000 BCE. This long neglected sites in Turkey, in a temperate northen area of the Fertile Crescent, has turned out to be a bit of a game changer in the story of human history. This may in fact be the earliest surviving temple; since no significant evidence of human habitation in the area has been found, archeologists reasonably assume that this served as a ceremonial center. Although we can’t be certain of the significance of imagery of the design nor symbolism of the rich carvings, the site clearly had ritual use and importance. Perhaps most remarkably, Gobekli Tepe was created before the advent of agriculture, built and used by humans reliant on hunting and gathering. The long held theory, that people began creating fixed, permanent ritual structures only after they had created permanent agricultural settlements, is now being reconsidered in the light of this elaborate creation.


Skara Brae, 3100-2600 BCE, In the Ornkey Islands off the northern coast of Ireland, the long buried fishing village of Skara Brae reveals the excellent regional use of dry stone construction, creating all the structures of the house with various techniques of stone fitting. The houses used a sort of quasi-corbelled vaulting, such as was used in the various passage graves of the area. The structure also makes extensive use of post and lintel construction, common in many megalithic sites.


Newgrange, Ireland 3000-2500 BCE, This elaborate passage grave is embellished with a motif common in Neolithic graves, that of the spiral, which represents the magic, terrifying eye of the goddess of death, meant to keep away the unworthy. The female guardian figure is common on megaliths throughout Neolithic Europe, as both a sentinel at the door of the house and that of the grave.


Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, England, 2750-1500BCE. This massive post and lintel monument, built in the sacred shape of the spiral, was built, in the typical manner of English megaliths, near the sea, which differed from the Irish examples, which tend to be inland. The outer ring, and the inner sections of Sarsens are the oldest portions of the structure, with the circle of stones just inside the outer Sarsen, blue dolerite, were taken evidently from an older henge from Wales. Between circles of stones trenches were found with offering artifacts, including human bones, mostly of children, which indicates that Stonehenge certainly had religious significance. Due to the alignment of the heel stone with the altar stone and the sun at summer solstice, we know that seasonal rituals, perhaps dealing with agriculture, occurred here as well.


Figures of a Man and Woman from Cernavoda, Romania, 4,000-3500 BCE. From a major pottery making center on the Danube river, these pensive clay figures seem to suggest different sorts of states of meditation, perhaps on the mystery of death, since they were found in graves. In spite of the fact that they seem to possess, to modern eyes, powerful psychology, we may never know exactly what their makers intended, either in meaning or function. We respond to the architectonic clarity of the geometry of their bodies, which seem to encompass their space, rather than simply occupy it.


Horse and Sun Chariot, Denmark, 1800-1600 BCE. A bronze horse pulls the Sun Deity across the sky, both embellished with the spiral motif found throughout the cultures of Neolithic Europe, continuing into this powerful Bronze Age image. Technologically complex, the piece necessarily was cast and worked in several steps, indicating great care and expense having been lavished on the simple but elegant and decorative form.


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