The Stone Age Era is sometimes generally referred to as “Prehistoric,” but that term is problematic. It was first used in mid-nineteenth-century Britain when scholars ranked cultures on a single Eurocentric continuum from “savage” to “civilized.” This continuum is part of a European worldview that held the ideology—and justification—that so-called “savages” needed to be pacified and ruled. “Prehistory” referred to societies that had not developed writing, and the Eurocentrism of this ranking becomes clear when we realize that British archaeologists deemed China’s highly-developed culture as uncivilized because their written language used characters that can represent concepts or sounds, and not an alphabetic script. Additionally, highly advanced societies that prize oral literacy and oral history over writing would not have been considered civilized either. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians have since recognized that to understand a culture, they have to consider it on its own terms, rather than measuring it by a yardstick from their own culture.
Given this complicated introduction to art history in the Stone Age, we must tread carefully. Indeed, we may find ourselves victim to similar biases or misrepresentations if we are not careful to first consider the abundance of artworks from this period on their own terms. Unfortunately, much of the detail surrounding the context of these works has been lost to history; we simply do not have records to illuminate how these works were used or produced. Instead, we must strengthen our capacity for keen observation as we pose questions, and, if we are successful, the artworks themselves will answer.
First, let's get a sense of the period, its various divisions, and cultures.
For our purposes, the main distinction between these two divisions consists in the mobility of the various civilizations. Paleolithic civilizations tended to regularly travel, rarely pausing long enough to make permanent structures or works. Thus, artworks from this period tend to be small and portable. Neolithic civilizations did just the opposite. Due to their development in agriculture, they constructed more permanent structures and artworks. Let's look at a few.
The, now famous, Lion Man is a wonderful example of artwork in the Paleolithic period. Small and portable, it shows signs of regular use and careful attention to detail. As you explore this work, consider what features of the work suggest how it might have been used or what place it held in this early society.
Although not within the timespan of the Neolithic period (it is squarely within the typical date ranges of the Paleolithic period), the Hall of the Bulls demonstrates some of the concerns that would come to characterize artwork from that time. It is a site that includes wonderful pictorial displays that, although do not transmit information in the same way that text does, communicate information to the cave inhabitants. Let's explore this site in a little more detail.
The cave of Lascaux, France is one of almost 350 similar sites that are known to exist—most are isolated to a region of southern France and northern Spain. Both Neanderthals (named after the site in which their bones were first discovered—the Neander Valley in Germany) and Modern Humans (early Homo Sapiens Sapiens) coexisted in this region 30,000 years ago. Life was short and very difficult; resources were scarce and the climate was very cold.
Like all artwork, the content of this work contains elements worth exploring. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 1: Content.
The artist's use of line and color is a prominent element. The animals are rendered in what has come to be called “twisted perspective,” in which their bodies are depicted in profile while we see the horns from a more frontal viewpoint. The images are sometimes entirely linear—line drawn to define the animal’s contour. In many other cases, the animals are described in solid and blended colors blown by mouth onto the wall. In other portions of the Lascaux cave, artists carved lines into the soft calcite surface. Some of these are infilled with color—others are not.
The work's scale is also significant. The cave spaces range widely in size and ease of access. The famous Hall of Bulls is large enough to hold some fifty people. Other “rooms” and “halls” are extraordinarily narrow and tall. Archaeologists have found hundreds of stone tools. They have also identified holes in some walls that may have supported tree-limb scaffolding that would have elevated an artist high enough to reach the upper surfaces.
In addition to these, you should consider the other elements at play (or absent) in the work as well, such as composition, form, and pattern.
Many scholars have speculated about why prehistoric people painted and engraved the walls at Lascaux and other caves like it. Perhaps the most famous theory was put forth by a priest named Henri Breuil. Breuil spent considerable time in many of the caves, meticulously recording the images in drawings when the paintings were too challenging to photograph. Relying primarily on a field of study known as ethnography, Breuil believed that the images played a role in “hunting magic.” The theory suggests that the prehistoric people who used the cave may have believed that a way to overpower their prey involved creating images of it during rituals designed to ensure a successful hunt. This seems plausible when we remember that survival was entirely dependent on successful foraging and hunting, though it is also important to remember how little we actually know about these people.
A bison, drawn in strong, black lines, bristles with energy, as the fur on the back of its neck stands up and the head is radically turned to face us. A form drawn under the bison’s abdomen is interpreted as internal organs, spilling out from a wound. A more crudely drawn form positioned below and to the left of the bison may represent a humanoid figure with the head of a bird. Nearby, a thin line is topped with another bird and there is also an arrow with barbs. Further below and to the far left the partial outline of a rhinoceros can be identified.
Interpreters of this image tend to agree that some sort of interaction has taken place among these animals and the bird-headed human figure—in which the bison has sustained injury either from a weapon or from the horn of the rhinoceros. Why the person in the image has the rudimentary head of a bird, and why a bird form sits atop a stick very close to him is a mystery. Some suggest that the person is a shaman—a kind of priest or healer with powers involving the ability to communicate with spirits of other worlds. Regardless, this riveting image appears to depict action and reaction, although many aspects of it are difficult to piece together.
What can we really know about the creators of these paintings and what the images originally meant? These are questions that are difficult enough when we study art made only 500 years ago. It is much more perilous to assert meaning for the art of people who shared our anatomy but had not yet developed the cultures or linguistic structures that shaped who we have become. Do the tools of art history even apply? Here is evidence of a visual language that collapses the more than 1,000 generations that separate us, but we must be cautious. This is especially so if we want to understand the people that made this art as a way to understand ourselves. The desire to speculate based on what we see and the physical evidence of the caves is wildly seductive.
The cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc is over 1,000 feet in length with two large chambers. Carbon samples date the charcoal used to depict the two head-to-head Rhinoceroses (see the image above, bottom right) to between 30,340 and 32,410 years before 1995 when the samples were taken. The cave’s drawings depict other large animals including horses, mammoths, musk ox, ibex, reindeer, aurochs, megaceros deer, panther, and owl (scholars note that these animals were not then a normal part of people’s diet). Photographs show that the drawing at the top of this essay is very carefully rendered but may be misleading. We see a group of horses, rhinos, and bison and we see them as a group, overlapping and skewed in scale. But the photograph distorts the way these animal figures would have been originally seen. The bright electric lights used by the photographer create a broad flat scope of vision; how different to see each animal emerge from the dark under the flickering light cast by a flame.
In contrast to the Paleolithic and Neolithic Periods, the Ancient Near East offers a few more clues about the myriad of civilizations that occupied this historical and geographical region. In part this is due to the development of early forms of written language. Here, we explore just two of these civilizations, Sumerian and Babylonian, through the artworks that remain.
Tucked between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq, the city of Sumer formed around an agricultural theocracy (a civilization in which political and religious roles overlapped). In this environment, archeologists have found the first traces of written language, called Cuneiform. Though much is still unknown about Ancient Sumerian culture, the culture produced artworks that continue to enchant us today.
Not far from the city of Sumer but hundreds of years after its peak, the kings of Babylonia unified the cultures along the Euphrates River, establishing a kingdom that would influence the development of civilizations for thousands of years. In addition to hosting developments in scholarly and technological pursuits, the kingdom employed many artisans that used their skills to communicate Babylonian grandeur and identity. One of these is the Law Code Stele (a stone slab) of the great King Hammurabi, an artifact that combines art and written language to codify a kingdom-wide legal code. Another is the famous Ishtar Gate, an imposing demonstration of the power and superiority of Babylonia to all that enter.
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