Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

Venus of Willendorf, 27 000 BP

Venus of Willendorf, 27 000 BP

The exhibition “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” opened at the British Museum in London on 7 February this year (2013) and runs till 26 May. It has received outstanding reviews, and has proved to be so popular that you need to book your entrance ticket in advance in order to see it.

For archaeologists, it presents a thrilling opportunity to view, in one place, some of the oldest and most famous prehistoric works of art drawn from across Europe. Artists are awed to recognize that 40 000 years ago, members of the human race were exercising skills of perspective, perception and abstract representation. As a reviewer in The Guardian (Jonathan Jones, 5 February 2013) states: “The Ice Age masterpieces show that the urge to make art, to delight, entrance or inspire reverence or awe is as old as the frontal cortex itself.” Part of the excitement of the exhibition is the presentation, alongside the Upper Palaeolithic art, of modern works by Picasso, Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse. The connection is in the artistic ability of seeing and capturing the essence of a subject in abstract representation. While the same reviewer found modern abstract art sexy, and the “bulges and blanknesses” of the prehistoric nudes not, an artist who paints pregnant women expressed her view that the statues possibly had been created by women themselves, as they were not meant to be sexy, but to portray fecundity in their intimate details of flesh (see The Venus of Willendorf, for instance, with her drooping breasts, muffin-top stomach and knees clamped together seems to illustrate the beauty of humility, ripeness, fertility and womanhood rather than provocative sensuality. While the human figures are overwhelmingly abstract, the animal subjects are astonishing in their accuracy.

Venus of Lespugue, France, 23 000 BP

Crouching nude, Picasso, 1956









The lion-headed man, 32 000 years old, carved from a mammoth tusk from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany is of particular interest as there is nothing like it in the natural world. Artists today see this sculpture as evidence for Upper Palaeolithic human imagination and ability to plan and execute a symbolic representation from a fantasy or spirit world. David Lewis-Williams, the doyen of rock art studies in South Africa, in his ground-breaking book The Mind in the Cave (2002) discusses this particular statuette along with some of the others from the point of view of his theory painstakingly built up through the course of this book, but also based on a formidable publication record. He presents Upper Palaeolithic art as the work of a second wave of Homo sapiens with fully evolved consciousness moving from Africa into Europe, where the Neanderthal population with pre-human consciousness would have been incapable of long-term planning, memory, categorization or even speaking of past and future. Homo sapiens used their fully modern consciousness to set up stratifications in society, to make and guard social distinctions and to exploit others. When the last Neanderthal had died out, these social distinctions were used among themselves and continue to be used today. The lion-headed statuette represents an elite group, a transformed shaman who takes on the strength and power of a lion to perform his work, accessing spirit realms to help him resolve conflicts or difficulties in the world. The statuettes and the cave art draw on a limited pool of animal imagery: lion, horses, aurochs, mammoths – all having metaphorical qualities of strength and power.

We have our own famous example of a Lion Man, but more about that in the next post!

Lion-headed Man, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, 32 000 BP at the British Museum




About Jill

Jill is a historical archaeologist interested in contact studies. She has worked with John in Namibia for more than thirty years, sharing an interest in the history of nomadic desert communities and delighting in raising their son Tim. She assists with running the Namibia Archaeological Trust and Quaternary Research Services. After being the copy-editor for the South African Archaeological Bulletin, she now works for UNAM Press as Editorial and Production Manager. Through this web site they hope to share research results and ideas.
This entry was posted in Site News. Bookmark the permalink.