The dawn of the modern mind

IssueApril 2013
Feature by Gabrielle Lewry

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; approximately 13,000 years old. Montastruc, France. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

This exhibition, ‘Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind’, brings together for the first time in this country the earliest evidence of art in Europe ranging in age from 10,000 to 40,000 years old.

As a shamanic healer and sometime artist with a degree in archaeology, I haven’t been as excited in anticipation of an exhibition for a long time, and I was certainly not disappointed! Here in the British Museum we have the earliest known portrait, the oldest clay sculpture, carvings in mammoth ivory and reindeer antler.

These sophisticated representations by makers as talented as any artist today, will certainly challenge perceptions of these people as primitive cave-dwellers. I found it interesting to see these pieces presented as an art show rather than just an archaeological collection, as I have felt that often interpretations of objects such as these seem to forget that a creative process has taken place.

As you enter you are presented with the symmetrical elegance of the beautiful female figurine from Lespugue, France which apparently intrigued and influenced Picasso. Spot-lit and commanding attention, she sets the scene for what is to come: case after case of intricate detailed objects thoughtfully grouped. The lighting is perfect, designed to show every detail of these tiny masterpieces, which cannot have been an easy task.

However, I would recommend going at a quiet time if you can for as soon as it got crowded it was difficult to get close enough for my liking! The modern art chosen for comparison works well and is subtly placed, not intruding on but complementing this ancient artwork.

I was struck by the astonishing detail of the carvings of animals – some anatomically correct, others more abstract – evoking the spirit of that animal simply and effectively with just a few lines, often incorporating the markings and shape of the stone or ivory they were carved from. There are dynamic hunting scenes and depictions of animals that would have been essential to survival, giving not only meat but also hides and bone, for clothing and the means to make tools. As my friend pointed out, there is no sense of brutality in any of these pictures.

They seem to indicate a people deeply connected to their surroundings, honouring their relationship with the animals that provided for them in so many ways. We see also an element of fun in the spinning disc toy, a classic optical illusion we would recognise from our childhood, giving a lovely sense of continuity. Even functional items such as spear-throwers are decorated.

Another highlighted piece is the ‘lion man’ from Germany, believed to be 40,000 years old. This figurine carved in mammoth tusk has the body of a human and head of a lion bringing comparisons to indigenous cultures today where the shaman may take on characteristics of an animal ally during healing ceremonies.

This is something I have personally experienced in trance states induced purely by drumming during healing work and shamanic ceremonies so I felt a particular resonance with this.

Experiments have shown that the lion man would have taken more than 400 hours to carve, which gives some idea of the investment of time and energy that would have been given to the creation of these objects and the significance they must have had.

Another example is the incredible flint blade. It is so skilfully worked: 28cm high and only 6mm thick, too thin for practical use. It was found carefully buried in a pit with other objects suggesting that it was made purely for a ritual purpose.

I was particularly interested in the large collection of female figurines from all over Europe, many of which have very exaggerated breasts and buttocks and appear to be in various stages of pregnancy. It’s impossible to know whether the artists who made these figurines were male or female, but we can be sure that their perceptions of nudity and sexuality were significantly different from ours. It was very apparent to me how much we project our own values and sensibilities when we view them. One woman I overheard said she found it ‘creepy’ that many of the female figures didn’t have faces, as if they were diminished by the lack of personification, women objectified for male pleasure.

I, however, found them the more powerful for it, seeing them as the essence of femininity and abundance distilled into a form full of potency. There is a reverence to the making of them, understandable I think at a time when pregnancy and childbirth must have been seen as full of magic and mystery, with woman as the vessel through which spirit was made manifest.

Another interesting aspect to these objects is that many appear to have been deliberately destroyed indicating some form of ceremonial use. In fact, the clay sculptures of Dolni Vestonice often seemed to be intentionally fired when wet, inducing thermal shock and the potential for explosion.

Although the purpose is unknown, it has been suggested that there was some kind of divination involved, they certainly had a reason for doing it. In sacred art, the process of creation is as important as the end product. It brought to my mind the Tibetan Buddhist ‘sand mandala’ ceremonies. Beautiful and detailed mandalas are created with coloured sand, taking as long as a week. When the piece is completed, they brush it away and distribute the sand, now invested with the energy of that ceremony.

We see destruction as a negative force motivated by anger or fear but that is a mindset induced by our attachment to material objects making it hard for us to understand why you would not keep something that took so long to make. An offering to spirit is all the more valuable if you give up something precious.

Although we will never know exactly why these objects were created, we can still appreciate the breath-taking beauty and skill of them. Our external surroundings may have changed massively in the last 40,000 years, but our internal landscape remains much the same with many similar needs, desires and motivations. The urge to make our mark, to say ‘I was here, I was in this world’. We share the same capacity and desire to create beauty. We may however have something to learn from these ancient artists.

What we have lost in our society is the element of ritual and ceremony that appears to have accompanied this creative force. Perhaps it is time to re-discover a sense of the sacred in our everyday existence and to acknowledge our place in it. This exhibition provides a chance not only to connect with our ancestors but also to reconnect with the world around us and begin to honour it again.

Topics: Culture