Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ice age art at the British Museum


I visited the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum the other day. The show has been extended to 2 June because of interest, but I booked about a month ago to get the day I wanted.

The exhibition is definitely worth booking, and we discovered why tickets have been at such a premium - partly no doubt because of public interest in the subject material, but also because the museum was obviously limiting visitor numbers. Before entering our names were ticked off a printed list, and the exhibition space was mercifully void of crowds.

All the pieces on display were small, so it was a welcome relief not to have to peer over the shoulders of packs of people, as so often happens at blockbuster museum exhibitions. I would have only one suggestion to improve visibility - some of the pieces could really have used magnifying glasses, they were so tiny.

On display are over 100 objects created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. The objects include the famous corpulent 'goddess' figurines of highly stylised female forms, but also a range of other (mostly) female figures of different body types - not all mother-goddess fat.

20,000 year old steatite carving © RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzo

Of more interest to me were the carvings of animals, including the big game animals but also lions, birds and even fish. There were also a number of decorative non-representational carvings, including a fragment that the curators speculated was a map of a settlement. Other objects with intriguing uses were an articulated puppet in human form, a carved disc with holes which could have been spun on string to create a moving image, and carved spear throwers.

20,000 year old bison from the Zaraysk Kremlin Museum, Russia

I am fascinated by stone age art. One of the best places to see it is in the Dordogne in France. We visited the Lascaux caves several years ago, but I didn't find this to be the most interesting site in the area, since you are only able to see reproductions of the wall paintings (though the effect is still very impressive).

Of more interest were the carvings at L'Abri de Cap Blanc, a rock shelter with a bas relief frieze of bison and horse carvings.

image from www.europreart.net

Why is this period so fascinating? There are overwhelming differences between us and people from that period. They left behind no writing and very few material objects, so most of what we 'know' about them is extremely speculative.

But we do know they are us. Physiologically and genetically they are us. If you took an ice age baby and raised them today, they would be exactly like us. Take away our history, culture and technology, and we are the same.

In fact, it is their technology that I find so fascinating and impressive. I am impressed by their skill and dexterity, but even more so, I am impressed by their ingenuity. In order to create the beautifully carved objects in the exhibition they had to develop not only their carving skills, but also to create the very tools they used to make those objects.

It's as if in order to knit a garment I had to raise the sheep, make knives to sheer the wool, carve a spindle to spin the fibre, and finally carve knitting needles to knit with. And I'm leaving out all sorts of essential implements in between.

And on a less practical, more theoretical level, I love the way stone age people undermine modern national ideas of sovereignty and identity. During our tour of L'Abri de Cap Blanc, a French tourist tut-tutted with disgust when we were told that a skeleton from the cave had been sold to a museum in Chicago back in the 1920s. Quel horreur - the patrimoine of France being sold off to the highest bidder!

Of course, it is ridiculous to say that these people were 'French'. The idea of France, the very possibility of the idea of France, didn't arrive for many millennia. Indeed, without the influence of ideas from other diverse places like Babylon and Greece, France in its current form would never have arrived at all. Yet in our nationalism we call stone age people found in Europe 'us' but the Babylonians 'other'.

I was inspired by the exhibition to finally buy The Mind in the Cave, an archaeologist's theory of how we became human and began to make art. In the introduction the author argues that modern humans could not recognise the Neolithics for who they were until after Darwin, because we couldn't figure out how to fit them into the Christian time frame of 4000 years of history. Essentially, we couldn't recognise them as 'us' until we learned about evolution.

It rather makes me wonder what the Babylonians would have thought.