The swimming reindeer
I’ve started listening to the new radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which is a partnership between the BBC and the British Museum. 100 programmes, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, will narrate the history of humanity in the last two million years by focusing on 100 objects from the British Museum’s collection.
It’s excellent – and I found the fourth programme on the Ice Age swimming reindeer carving electrifying. This summary, from the series website (where all the objects can be viewed in HR close-up), captures the essence of MacGregor’s talk:
This sculpture of two swimming reindeer is one of the oldest works of art in the British Museum. It was carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and made during an extraordinary period of artistic creativity during the last Ice Age. Such works of art could be carried around, bringing images found in the great painted caves of Europe into the daylight. These Ice Age artists were fully modern people with the same mental abilities as humans today. What was Ice Age art used for? The artist has depicted the reindeer as they look in autumn. At this time of year the meat, skin and antlers are at their best for use as food, clothing and materials for making equipment. Showing the reindeer swimming may suggest migration or a moment when the animals were easy prey for their human hunters. Was this sculpture a means of communicating with the supernatural world or a charm to guarantee a successful hunt at the start of a bitterly cold Ice Age winter?
The two reindeer found at Montastruc in 1867 form a figurative sculpture of remarkable naturalism carved with considerable skill and artistry. Examining the work closely, it is possible to see, gesture by gesture, just how the artist shaped, polished then engraved the animals using flint knives and engraving tools. Comparing the figures with living reindeer reveals how accurately they are depicted and we are reminded that human society at this time was part of nature. The artist could contour the bodies and shade the skins from knowledge acquired by hunting and butchering reindeer, their main source of food and materials. Evaluating the aesthetics and spirituality of unknown artists in an extinct culture is much more difficult. While it may make us examine the works closely to collect evidence, we have to recognize that we could not reconstruct Christianity from an image of the Crucifixion although we might be able to construct a view of the society which commissioned it. Nevertheless, when we see the reindeer in the Museum, we see it as a work of art which touches us deeply and provides a thread connecting us to a spark of human imagination across a 13,000 year time barrier.
There was an extraordinary attack on the series in The Guardian today, by Simon Jenkins, a columnist who is usually incisive and thoughtful. But, in A world of screens and plastic has fed a cultish craving for relics of the past, he goes off on one, arguing that museums are the new Catholicism, encouraging relic worship:
Relic worship is becoming the first cult of the 21st century. The BBC is immersed in it, courtesy of series this month by Neil MacGregor (radio) and David Dimbleby (television)…The BBC relic department (once called history) now incants hourly radio plugs for MacGregor’s 100 objects show. … MacGregor speaks of his museum objects in hushed and reverential tones, so as to enhance their aura of holiness. Since this is radio, we are not allowed to see the objects, thus enhancing the status of their custodian as interceding priest.
Actually, we are allowed to see the objects – the website enables the listener to study them closely, making them accessible to a all those who are unable to visit the British Museum itself. The project is brilliant and entirely praiseworthy.