They lived by hunting and gathering nuts, berries and seeds, moving across the tundra south of the fluctuating ice cap for tens of thousands of years, following established seasonal cycles. Their lives were as closely intertwined with the animals they tracked as ours are with the things we buy. Animals filled their days, providing them with pelts for clothing, bones for tools – and nourishment. Animals haunted their consciousness, glimpsed in paintings in the brief, flickering light of a taper in the depths of a cave, or carried as tiny carved objects in a pocket or hung around the neck.
The people who lived in Europe during the last Ice Age – between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago – created the great cave paintings found in places such as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira. But those were not the only artworks of those times. Many small, portable sculptures, drawings, models and ornaments were made outside in the daylight of the cave entrances, or in camp-sites during the seasonal treks. These objects were largely made from animal materials – bone, antler, ivory – and a great many of them depicted the animals from which they were sourced.
I don’t have any doubt which was the most moving and significant exhibition that we saw when in London recently. Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum is the largest anthology of portable prehistoric European art that has ever been mounted, gathering artefacts from museums in Russia, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic – where the greatest of the archaeological sites that have yielded these objects are located.
This exhibition articulates a thesis underpinned by 21st century scientific understanding. It is that only humans possessing complex brains physiologically like ours today, able both to observe and conceptualise the world around them, could have created art like this. Possessing a modern brain capable of supporting the proactive, thinking, reasoning, creative mind, Ice Age artists were able to capture the look of living creatures and, by artistic exaggeration and stylisation, create an emotional impact. By demonstrating this fact, this exhibition also decisively indicates how central is art to human life.
As John Berger states – in a quote that greets you at the exhibition’s entrance – ‘Art is like a foal that can walk straight away’. Almost immediately you are confronted with that vindicates Berger’s statement – in spades. The foot-high Lion Man sculpture from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, carved from a mammoth tusk, is the product of a human mind imaginative enough to conceive a figure with a lion’s head and human body.
It’s a piece that clearly embodied some powerful symbolic meaning, but what that meaning was we can only guess. This exhibition poses unanswerable questions with every object: we will never know for certain what these objects meant, or how they were used; we can only speculate. The Lion Man may have been an avatar of strength and aggression, or – Jill Cook suggests in the superb book that accompanies the exhibition – have represented an ancestor, a god, an actor, a myth or a legend that symbolised the relationship between humans and animals, possibly a shaman who made contact with animal spirits in an ecstatic or trance experience.
Like other pieces in this exhibition, the Lion Man is instructive, too, in revealing the artistic skill that went into making these objects. The sculptor knew his material well too, splitting the mammoth tusk at its pulp cavity to create the gap between the Lion Man’s legs. A German craftsman found that it took 400 hours to complete a replica using stone tools. The amount of skilled, laborious work that went into creating artworks in this exhibition suggests that specialist artists may have been given time off other duties to create sculptures that must have been regarded of supreme value and significance to the tribe.
Carved from mammoth ivory, the Water Bird in Flight is from Hohle Fels Cave, also in south-west Germany, and is just one of several exquisitely beautiful renditions of animal forms. It is about 33,000 years old, and like other pieces it is tiny: just 4.7 cm long. Pieces like this demonstrate the truth in John Berger’s assertion in Why Look at Animals that
to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.
Or, as Jill Cook speculates in the British Museum book,
Was this a little thing of beauty made purely for pleasure? Was it a meal or does its lack of strength and aggression steer us towards a shamanic allusion to the routes between human and supernatural worlds via air and water?
We will never know. But the same questions arise when looking at the Flying Swan pendants found at Mal’ta in Siberia. Carved from mammoth ivory, the birds are depicted in flight with their wings and necks outstretched. The pendants are perforated for suspension at the end of the body.
Swans like these would have been migrants, returning to the skies and waters of Siberia with the spring melt-waters. For hunter-gatherers who had endured a hard winter, their return would have marked a time of joy and celebration as a season of ready meat and eggs gave rise to feasts and ceremonies. Interestingly, although the inhabitants of Mal’ta survived mainly on reindeer and fish, the only creature other than birds represented in their art is the mammoth. Could it be that water birds were imbued with special spiritual significance, able to move through three elements – earth, air and water? We will never know.
The Vogelherd Horse was carved from mammoth ivory in the Lone valley, north-west of Vienna, about the same time that horses were being painted in the Chauvet cave in France (top of post). It is at least 35,000 years old and exudes the same vivacity and simplicity – without being naturalistic – as one of the horses in a painting by Chagall.
Horses were a source of food, as well as leather, hair and sinew for making clothing and other products. Was this horse carved as a means of showing thanks to or even apologising for killing a generous creature? We will never know. What’s certain is that this artwork involved insight, skill and effort: an experiment in replicating the piece showed that it took at least 35 hours to make.
The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.
This is John Berger, in one of the best insights into the people who produced this art – and the centrality of animals in their consciousness. It’s from ‘Past present‘ (Guardian 2002), an article written following a visit to Chauvet cave in France, home of the oldest cave paintings in the world:
During a relatively warm period in the last Ice Age the climate in Chauvet, in south-eastern France was between 3C and 5C colder than it is today. The trees were limited to birches, Scots pine and juniper. The fauna included many species that are now extinct: mammoths, megaceros deer, cave lions without manes, aurochs and bears that were three metres tall, as well as reindeer, ibex, bison, rhinoceros and wild horses. The human population of nomadic hunter-gatherers was sparse and lived in groups of 20-25. Paleontologists name this population Cro-Magnon, a term that distances at first, yet the distance may turn out to be far-fetched. Neither agriculture nor metallurgy existed. Music and jewellery did. The average life expectancy was 25.
The need for companionship while alive was the same. The Cro-Magnon reply, however, to the first and perennial human question, “Where are we?” was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals.
At the same time, they were distinct from animals. They could make fire and therefore had light in the darkness. They could kill at a distance. They fashioned many things with their hands. They made tents for themselves, held up by mammoth bones. They spoke. (So, perhaps, did animals.) They could count. They could carry water. They died differently. Their exemption from animals was possible because they were a minority, and, being a minority, the animals could pardon them for this exemption.
There are brilliant treasures here: the leaping lion from Pavlov in the Czech Republic, the Zaraysk bison, the deer drawing from Le Chaffaud Cave in France, three lions from La Vache in France, the Swimming Reindeer from Montastruc in France, the horse head from Duruthy Cave in the Pyrenees.
The artistic light that emanates from Greece is the light of broad day. This early light of artistic dawn is less certain …but early morning lighting is the most dazzling of all.
- George Bataille, about Lascaux
Throughout the 30,000 years covered by this exhibition, two concerns recur: women and animals Kathleen Jamie, writing in The Guardian noted the importance of the human relationship to wild animals, at a time when all animals were wild, and we depended on them:
Paleolithic people must have read animal signs and talked about animals obsessively. They hunted, killed, gralloched, skinned, cleaned, cooked, ate, scraped, cured, and sewed, and fashioned artworks and decorations from animal antlers and bones. But mostly they looked. The little images are of animals seen at close quarters or middle distance, with the right “gizz” and proportions. They have been made by skilful and confident makers who were possibly spared other tasks, because to make them took time and daylight. Some pieces show prey species, others portray animals to be feared and admired.
Jamie noted that, although today we surround ourselves with images of animals and teach children their names and shapes, the daily immediacy of wild animals is lost. But, she says, ‘In this exhibition one feels again their pungency and company, and our dependency on them’.
Up to now, when we have thought of Paleolithic art, it has probably been the cave paintings of Lascaux or Chauvet, that have come to mind. After this exhibition these small pieces recovered from graves and cave floors will take their place alongside those great artworks. They came from the same source, the same culture, but unlike the cave paintings, as Kathleen Jamie observed in her review of the exhibition for The Guardian, this was art for everyone: viewing of the cave paintings probably being limited to a social elite during shamanic rituals.
By contrast, the tiny pieces displayed here, though precious, were small enough to be carried as the group travelled. On show, too, are works that suggest communal activities. There are flutes made from bird bone and ivory and a ‘magic’ disc of bone etched with a cow on one side and a calf on the other: spun on a string it would have appeared that the baby was growing into an adult. There’s an articulated figure made from mammoth ivory, believed to be the earliest example of a puppet. Evenutilitarian objects were styled and decorated: there are spear throwers made from reindeer antlers that have been carved with designs, sometimes – as in the case of a spear thrower made from reindeer antler carved to depict a mammoth – representing the hunted animal.
There are tiny figures of dancers and celebrants such as ‘The Worshipper’ from a German cave near Ulm. A mere 1.5 inches high and possibly 42,000 years old, this piece depicts a human figure, arms raised, perhaps in ecstatic adoration, or maybe dancing.
This is the period in human history when figurative art appeared for the first time, and the second section of the exhibition is dedicated to some of the oldest figurative paintings and sculptures. One of the most beautiful pieces is a 23,000 year old mammoth ivory sculpture of an abstract figure unearthed in 1922 in a cave at Lespugue in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Picasso was so fascinated with this piece that he kept two copies of it. The exhibition curators suggest that works like this reveals a visual brain capable of abstraction, and foreshadow the abstract art of the 20th century, reinforcing their case by displaying examples of work by Matisse, Moore, Mondrian and Picasso alongside. For a sceptical response to this approach, see Brian Sewell’s review in the Standard.
It is remarkable that the figurative art here almost exclusively portrays women. The oldest known portrait is the head of a woman, carved in ivory some 26,000 years ago. It was discovered in the 1920s in Dolní Věstonice, a valley in present-day Moravia that was teeming with mammoth and reindeer in the last ice age. It astonishing piece of art, smaller than a thumb, created using stone tools. Experts consider it to be a portrait because the woman is portrayed with distinctive individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes just over and there’s just a slit, suggesting that she may have had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. So this may well be an image of a real living woman.
Perhaps the most famous female image of Ice Age art is the figure known as the Woman from Willendorf. It shows an overweight woman with a faceless, bowed head, whose body has probably borne several children. It was found at a site in Moravia by the fireside of an open campsite. Most Ice Age representations of women look like this. So did this represent a male ideal of beauty, motherhood, fertility or kindness? These depictions of women are the subject of vehement debate.
The Willendorf woman was carved from sandstone; the equally famous and remarkable woman from Dolni Vestonice is the oldest ceramic figure in the world, made from baked clay. Its black colour is the result of the firing process.
The nude woman from Barma Grande Cave, Balzi Rossi (on the border between France and Italy) was carved from yellow steatite, a soft stone easy to scrape and carve into shape. It is probably about 20,000 years old and has an oval head, bowed forward and without facial features. Her hair hangs down behind in a kind of ponytail. Her barely suggested arms curve in below the breasts – again, the heavy breasts of a woman who has nurtured children.
There are no images of men. Whoever crafted these objects – male or female – they were, as Brian Sewell observes in his review, ‘intrigued by women, their form, their breasts and buttocks, their genitals, pregnancy and fat’. This exhibition has no penis, no testicles – yet they are inherently sculptural, and might seem an obvious thing for men to carve or engrave (if, indeed objects were made by men), especially if they wished to celebrate sexuality and virility. Could it be that the connection between the part played by the man in sex and the birth of a child was unknown, and that pregnancy and childbirth therefore came as a mysterious, mystical and magical event to be celebrated or worshipped in these small figurines?
In her exhibition review, Kathleen Jamie wrote:
The artworks in Ice Age Art have been exhumed from archaeological sites over the last 150 years. The question arises: why did we have to wait until now for such an exhibition? Avant-garde 20th-century artists embraced the Paleolithic – some of their works are shown here – but perhaps the rest of society wasn’t quite ready. We had to overcome certain 19th- and 20th-century attitudes, to women, to sex, “savages” and “cavemen”, and start reversing out of our monotheistic cul-de-sac, before we could rediscover ourselves, and win this rich reward.
This is a stunning exhibition, one of those once in a lifetime experiences, since it is unlikely that such a large collection of these precious and delicate objects will be assembled again for a long time. Curator Jill Cook concludes the book accompanying the exhibition with these words:
Although we cannot read the thoughts transcribed in these extraordinary works we can at least appreciate them as produced by artists with specialist skills and creative, flexible modern brains. They allow our imaginations to race and our intellects to wrestle with facts and theories that are part of our own negotiation with our past and our place in the world.
These works stimulate thoughts about many things, not least the sense of the deep history of human beings on this planet. We are looking at objects created over a time span of twenty to thirty thousand years during which the climate and the physical environment changed back and forth in ways that would have been hugely challenging to the humans who made them. We look back at them across a gulf of unimaginable time. As John Berger wrote:
The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.
- Past present: John Berger (The Guardian, 2002)
- Ice age carvings: strange yet familiar: Kathleen Jamie reviewing Ice Age art (The Guardian)
- Ice Age art: Observer review
- Ice Age art: Guardian review
- Ice Age art: a sceptical review by Brian Sewell
- Ice Age art: Spectator review
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams: across the abyss of time
- Art of the Ice Age: Bradshaw Foundation
- Excavation Sites for Prehistoric and Ancient Female Figurines: Alberti’s Window, An Art History Blog