Ice age art

Perusing the latest stuff from the journal Nature, I found this lovely video of a new exhibit at the British Museum featuring some of the oldest artwork known—including pieces made 40,000 years ago. That’s not too long after the “out of Africa” event that spread modern Homo sapiens through the world! Take a look at the “lion man” in the first clip

Here are the movie notes. If you’re in England, go see this, though it costs ten pounds to enter (note, though, that the rest of the British Museum is free).

A new exhibition at the British Museum in London features sculptures made up to 40,000 years ago. Dr. Alice Roberts meets curator Jill Cook to discuss three artefacts in the collection; the Lion Man, a group of female figurines from Siberia, and the oldest known musical instrument. Despite being made thousands of years ago, the objects show that the minds of their creators – our ancestors – were incredibly similar to our own.

When the flute shown in the video was first discovered the finding was published in NatureNew flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany.
‘Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind’ runs at the British Museum until 26 May 2013. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on…

Here are some pieces from the BM’s website on the exhibit; they (and the video above) show that there were already accomplished artists tens of thousands of years ago.

The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolní Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. approximately 26,000 years old

The oldest known portrait of a woman; sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolní Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. approximately 26,000 years old

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other. Approximately 13,000 years old, from Montastruc, France

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other. Approximately 13,000 years old, from Montastruc, France

33 Comments

  1. kevinj
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    I went last saturday. There is some beautiful work there and it is stunning looking at the dates next to some of the items.

    with regards to the cost for people living near London its worth looking at joining the friends of the British museum. Free entry to the exhibitions plus 4-5 open evenings a year with lectures etc.

    • bric
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      I was there this morning and yes it’s very well worth seeing, although patience is needed as many of the items are small and there are a lot of people trying to get a peek at them. Entrance is by timed ticket so plan ahead – if you become a Friend however you get in immediately, and for one very modest annual fee; and remember there is Pompeii and Herculaneum coming up next month, not to mention a big Vikings exhibition when the new galleries open in October!

  2. Chris
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Stunning. As I live in London and love prehistoric art I will not miss this.

  3. Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    Gorgeous work. Damien Hirst & the rest of the YBA crew ~ you are all surplus to requirements!

    I read in an art magazine recently that the Lion Man wouldn’t be going on display at the BM because 1,000 more [mostly tiny, tiny] fragments of it have been found in the Stadel Cave.

    I wonder if this is a copy or they’ve decided to delay further reconstruction?

    • darrelle
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      “Damien Hirst & the rest of the YBA crew ~ you are all surplus to requirements!”

      I am slow this morning, and may also lack the relevant cultural referents, but can you unpack that for me? I know Damien Hirst but other than that I am drawing a blank!

      • Posted February 28, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        YBA = Young British Artists, Brit artists or Britart

        Loose group of artists exhibited together in London from ’88.

        Includes Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread [I like], Chris Ofilis, Chapman brothers, Anya Gallaccio & plenty of others.

        It was all Charles Saatchi’s fault

        • darrelle
          Posted February 28, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          Thanks!

          Some work I have seen of Hirst’s I like, but the polka dot series is just not art in my opinion. If it were the case that he created that series as a way of poking fun at the pretentiousness of the art scene, as in “hey look, these suckers will spend $250K on these silly pieces and I can’t make them fast enough,” then I would call that awesome. Otherwise, not so much.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

            Pickled shark doesn’t appeal to you? Outside of an Icelandic restaurant menu?

            • darrelle
              Posted February 28, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

              Pickled shark, maybe. Rotted shark, nope. Does not appeal to me. Maybe after enough beer I’d be willing to give it a try.

    • Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      Anyone going to the BM who likes architecture & drawing & weirdness should make an effort to visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields [central London]

      “the best house-museum in the world”

      ‘phone ahead as they only let 70 people in at a time

      https://www.soane.org/

    • Dominic
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      Didn’t Picasso say of Lascaux “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.”

      • Dominic
        Posted February 28, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

        Here is a beautiful horse from stone age Arabia approx 9,000 years ago

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21538969

      • Posted February 28, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        I think he’s essentially right with regard to the visual arts. The emotional force of Lascaux hasn’t been topped since, only equalled sometimes since.

        For me it’s mainly music that’s still climbing to some distant peak. There’s so much unexplored territory & potential for individual genius yet unborn. The 21st century Miles Davis or Bach.

        • Dominic
          Posted February 28, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

          How about Miles Bach or Johann Sebatian Davis?! Sorry!

        • TJR
          Posted February 28, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          Indeed, and even the best human art is still knocked into a cocked hat by the natural world.

          Whereas in music and sound we whup the natural’s world’s ass.

          • Wayne Tyson
            Posted February 28, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            Clearly, thou hast not stood on the cliffs of Mendocino during a big winter storm on the Pacific, heard a Blue Norther whistle through a barbed-wire fence, or hear the wingbeats and voices of, say, a thousand or more Canadian geese arising in the frosty pre-dawn. Not to mention perhaps hundreds of cranes calling.

            But I still confess a bit of chocking up when I heard of Van Cliburn’s passing. His Tchaikovsky’s Second was not for nothing heard ’round the world . . .

            PS: “In the heart of the city I have heard the wild geese crying on the pathways that lie over a vanished forest. Nature has not changed the force that drives them. Man, too, is a different expression of that natural force. He has fought his way from the sea’s depths to Palomar Mountain. He has mastered the plague. Now, in some final Armageddon, he confronts himself.” –Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid.

  4. Veroxitatis
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    How does God find the time to bury fossils, draw animals in caves and carve figurines: all to confuse and confound us?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      He’s an obsessive sadist. Isn’t it obvious?

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted February 28, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

        I was pretty amazed that all of the items in Jerry’s post were older than the universe! Kind of makes one wonder where they were stored before god(s) made the universe.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 1, 2013 at 2:39 am | Permalink

          In the belly of the turtles, obviously. ?

  5. Posted February 28, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    There’s something beautiful about seeing our primitive ancestors demonstrate creativity. We popularly imagine ancient man to have been a crude savage concerned strictly with the primal needs of survival. Yet no matter how difficult and simple their existence, it seems almost every human group developed some sort of art form.

    • Occam
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Fine sentiments, but a tad on the Whiggish side of (pre-)history.
      We really need to get off the “primitive savages” cliché here.
      Survival required huge skills, creativity and inventivity. The Palaeolithic lifestyle was “computationally intensive”, to use a modern term.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        BRAVO! I suspect that Homo sapiens sapiens may not have out-survived any of the so-called “primitive” species in that genus. Is that what one calls evidence?

  6. Matt Bowman
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Terrific video. What Jill Cook had to say about the Lion Man was fascinating. “It’s about psychological survival.” It took about 400 hours to produce it. And the flute! What a beautiful and delicate piece.

  7. Benjamin
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    The swimming reindeer featured in an episode of “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, a collaboration between the BBC and The British Museum presented by Neil MacGregor, the director of the Museum.

    The reindeer episode is number 4 – though I definitely recommend listening to all 100.

    Hopefully this link will work outside the of the UK:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ahow/all

  8. Occam
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the lovely pictures, Jerry; but the BM texts, and the curator’s comments, make me cringe.

    We can certainly admire the craftsmanship. Whether these pieces were art, though, or something completely else, is currently beyond our ken. A statement like:

    Despite being made thousands of years ago, the objects show that the minds of their creators – our ancestors – were incredibly similar to our own.

    is simply unwarranted. We don’t know, we just speculate! And what little we know, from comparative anthropology, should teach us a healthier dose of humility and prudence when assessing mindsets of other cultures, other contexts, and other times.

    As to the blatant Eurocentrism displayed by the curator towards the end of the video, I could only marvel. When I was a student, a visiting Polish prehistoric archaeologist kept telling us:
    “Le Bon Dieu is unlikely to have decided to hold the Palaeolithic in Western Europe exclusively, so bang your heads and think about special conditions of preservation.”

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      “Le Bon Dieu is unlikely to have decided to hold the Palaeolithic in Western Europe exclusively, so bang your heads and think about special conditions of preservation.”

      There is likely to be a real element of under-exploration there too. Large areas of Asia (specifically Russia, IME, but the comment probably applies across to the China Sea, outside a few oases) have had very little serious archaeological exploration.
      Several years ago, the wife and I were on a canoing trip in the South Urals, and at one camp site, while I was picking up drift wood for the cooking fire, I started picking broken “scrapers”, core flakes and fragments of (my guess) “Mesolithic” stone tools. The guide had heard nothing about this before.
      I used the stone tools to open the wrapping on a blank CD for backing-up the photos before coming home. I liked that : 20th century technology being opened by -40th century technology!

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      These are representations of natural objects constructed by humans out of materials. Isn’t that the definition of art?

      • Occam
        Posted February 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Not mine, but whatever our consensus definitions, the point is solipsistically moot anyway:
        Would prehistoric humans of 40 ky ago be able to comprehend our present notion of art? Would we be able to comprehend whatever they projected in their artefacts? We simply don’t know.

  9. eric
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Minor quibble about the title: according to that bastion of all earthly knowledge – wikipedia – we are still in the ice age in which this art was produced. We’re just in an interglacial period within that ice age. Ice ages are defined as times when there is year-round ice at sea level on some part of the Earth, which we have. Just not much of it. In true non-ice ages (like when the dinosaurs roamed), there is no ice at the poles.

  10. David
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The female head has an interesting story. It is from Dolni Vestonice (Czech Rep) and dated about 28,000 years ago. Note that the face shows some asymmetry in the eyes and cheeks. At the site, there is a female, with a distorted orbit and upper face, due likely to a trauma. The sculpted head was not found with her in the grave, but might be a depiction of her. A case of art imitating life.

    • Occam
      Posted February 28, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Or an incantation. Or a propitiatory offering. Or an apotropaeic votive. Or…
      The point is, as I was trying to explain in response to truthspeaker above: we don’t really know, and anthropological examples tell us to be very careful with our conjectures.

  11. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this! I was able to scratch off number one on my bucket list in 1998–Lascaux.

    There are some good photos and the replica is very good, but nothing beats being there. Still, as I look more deeply into this art as a try to render my own representations (always inferior to the “original”) in fired clay, the more I tend to agree with Picasso. In fact, I think he understated it–we haven’t come up to that standard yet.


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