Prehistoric Art: The Language of Images

Paleolithic sculptures found in caves are some of the earliest examples of representational art.


Hand Stencils from Argentina, c.11,000 – 7,500 BCE


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.14.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


1 – The Stone Age

Stone Age art illustrates early human creativity through small portable objects, cave paintings, and early sculpture and architecture.

1.1 – Overview

The Stone Age is the first of the three-age system of archaeology, which divides human technological prehistory into three periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. The Stone Age lasted roughly 3.4 million years, from 30,000 BCE to about 3,000 BCE, and ended with the advent of metalworking.

The Stone Age has been divided into three distinct periods:

  • Paleolithic Period or Old Stone Age (30,000 BCE–10,000 BCE)
  • Mesolithic Period or Middle Stone Age (10,000 BCE–8,000 BCE)
  • Neolithic Period or New Stone Age (8,000 BCE–3,000 BCE)

The art of the Stone Age represents the first accomplishments in human creativity, preceding the invention of writing. While numerous artifacts still exist today, the lack of writing systems from this era greatly limits our understanding of prehistoric art and culture

1.2 – The Art of the Stone Age: Paleolithic

The Paleolithic era is characterized by the emergence of basic stone tools and stone art in the archaeological record. For the first time, humans began to create durable products of self expression that served no function for survival. The diagnostic art of this period appears in two main forms: small sculptures and large paintings and engravings on cave walls. There are also various examples of carved bone and ivory flutes in the Paleolithic era, indicating another art form utilized by prehistoric humans.

Venus of Hohle Fels: Oldest known Venus figurine. Also the oldest known, undisputed depiction of a human being in prehistoric art. Made of mammoth tusk and found in Germany.

Paleolithic small sculptures are made of clay, bone, ivory, or stone and consist of simple figurines depicting animals and humans. In particular, Venus figurines are the most indicative of this era. They are highly stylized depictions of women with exaggerated female parts representing fertility and sexuality. They typically date to the Gravettian period (26,000–21,000 years ago), but the earliest known Venus figurine (Venus of Hohle Fels) dates to at least 35,000 years ago, and the most recent (Venus of Monruz) dates to roughly 11,000 years ago. They are most common in the Mediterranean region, but there are examples from as far as Siberia. Archaeologists can only speculate on their meaning, but their ubiquitous nature indicates a universal human attraction to art and possibly religion.

Venus of Laussel, an Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian) carving

The second main form of Paleolithic art consists of monumental cave paintings and engravings. This type of rock art is typically found in European cave shelters, dating to 40,000–14,000 years ago, when the earth was largely covered in glacial ice. The images are predominately depictions of animals, human hand prints, and geometric patterns. The most common animals in cave art are the more intimidating ones, like cave lions, woolly rhinoceroses, and mammoths . These paintings could be creative recordings of nature, factual recordings of events, or part of some spiritual ritual , but scholars generally agree there is a symbolic and/or religious function to cave art.

1.3 – The Art of the Stone Age: Mesolithic

Prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France

From the Paleolithic through the Mesolithic, cave paintings and portable art such as figurines, statuettes, and beads predominated, with decorative figured workings also seen on some utilitarian objects. Venus figurines—an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric female statuettes portrayed with similar physical attributes—were very popular at the time. These figurines were carved from soft stone (such as steatite , calcite, or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known. Also in this period, personal accessories and adornments were made from shell and bone. All the examples mentioned above fall under the category of portable art: small for easy transport.

Archaeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially southern France, like those at Lascaux; northern Spain; and Swabia, in Germany) include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculptures that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. Paintings and engravings along the caves’ walls and ceilings fall under the category of parietal art.

1.4 – The Art of the Stone Age: Neolithic

Female figure from Tumba Madžari, Republic of Macedonia

The Neolithic saw the transformation of nomad human settlements into agrarian societies in need of permanent shelter. From this period there is evidence of early pottery, as well as sculpture, architecture, and the construction of megaliths . Early rock art also first appeared in the Neolithic period.

1.5 – The End of the Stone Age

The advent of metalworking in the Bronze Age brought additional media available for use in making art, an increase in stylistic diversity, and the creation of objects that did not have any obvious function other than art. It also saw the development in some areas of artisans, a class of people specializing in the production of art, as well as in early writing systems.

By the Iron Age, civilizations with writing had arisen from Ancient Egypt to Ancient China.

2 – The Paleolithic Period

2.1 – Paleolithic Architecture

2.1.1 – Overview

The oldest examples of Paleolithic dwellings are shelters in caves, followed by houses of wood, straw, and rock.

The Paleolithic Age, or Old Stone Age, spanned from around 30,000 BCE until 10,000 BCE and produced the first accomplishments in human creativity. Due to a lack of written records from this time period, nearly all of our knowledge of Paleolithic human culture and way of life comes from archaeologic and ethnographic comparisons to modern hunter-gatherer cultures. The Paleolithic lasted until the retreat of the ice, when farming and use of metals were adopted.

2.1.2 – Paleolithic Societies

A typical Paleolithic society followed a hunter-gatherer economy. Humans hunted wild animals for meat and gathered food, firewood, and materials for their tools, clothes, or shelters. The adoption of both technologies—clothing and shelter—cannot be dated exactly, but they were key to humanity’s progress. As the Paleolithic era progressed, dwellings became more sophisticated, more elaborate, and more house-like. At the end of the Paleolithic era, humans began to produce works of art such as cave paintings, rock art, and jewelry, and began to engage in religious behavior such as burial and rituals.

2.1.3 – Dwellings and Shelters

Temporary wood hut: An artist’s rendering of a temporary wood house, based on evidence found at Terra Amata (in Nice, France) and dated to the Lower Paleolithic era.

Early men chose locations that could be defended against predators and rivals and that were shielded from inclement weather. Many such locations could be found near rivers, lakes, and streams, perhaps with low hilltops nearby that could serve as refuges. Since water can erode and change landscapes quite drastically, many of these campsites have been destroyed. Our understanding of Paleolithic dwellings is therefore limited.

As early as 380,000 BCE, humans were constructing temporary wood huts . Other types of houses existed; these were more frequently campsites in caves or in the open air with little in the way of formal structure. The oldest examples are shelters within caves, followed by houses of wood, straw, and rock. A few examples exist of houses built out of bones.

2.1.4 – Caves

Caves are the most famous example of Paleolithic shelters, though the number of caves used by Paleolithic people is drastically small relative to the number of hominids thought to have lived on Earth at the time. Most hominids probably never entered a cave, much less lived in one. Nonetheless, the remains of hominid settlements show interesting patterns. In one cave, a tribe of Neanderthals kept a hearth fire burning for a thousand years, leaving behind an accumulation of coals and ash. In another cave, post holes in the dirt floor reveal that the residents built some sort of shelter or enclosure with a roof to protect themselves from water dripping on them from the cave ceiling. They often used the rear portions of the cave as middens, depositing their garbage there.

In the Upper Paleolithic (the latest part of the Paleolithic), caves ceased to act as houses. Instead, they likely became places for early people to gather for ritual and religious purposes.

2.1.5 – Tents and Huts

Modern archaeologists know of few types of shelter used by ancient peoples other than caves. Some examples do exist, but they are quite rare. In Siberia, a group of Russian scientists uncovered a house or tent with a frame constructed of mammoth bones. The great tusks supported the roof, while the skulls and thighbones formed the walls of the tent. Several families could live inside, where three small hearths, little more than rings of stones, kept people warm during the winter. Around 50,000 years ago, a group of Paleolithic humans camped on a lakeshore in southern France. At Terra Amata, these hunter-gatherers built a long and narrow house. The foundation was a ring of stones, with a flat threshold stone for a door at either end. Vertical posts down the middle of the house supported roofs and walls of sticks and twigs, probably covered over with a layer of straw. A hearth outside served as the kitchen, while a smaller hearth inside kept people warm. Their residents could easily abandon both dwellings. This is why they are not considered true houses, which was a development of the Neolithic period rather than the Paleolithic period.

2.2 – Paleolithic Artifacts

2.2.1 – Overview

The Paleolithic era has a number of artifacts that range from stone, bone, and wood tools to stone sculptures.

The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age originated around 30,000 BCE, lasting until 10,000 BCE, and is separated into three periods: the Lower Paleolithic (the earliest subdivision), Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic. The Paleolithic era is characterized by the use of stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. Other organic commodities were adapted for use as tools, including leather and vegetable fibers; however, due to their nature, these have not been preserved to any great degree. Surviving artifacts of the Paleolithic era are known as paleoliths.

Acheulean hand-axes: Acheulean hand-axes from Kent. The types shown are (clockwise from top) cordate, ficron, and ovate. Evidence shows these early hominids intentionally selected raw materials with good flaking qualities and chose appropriate-sized stones for their needs to produce sharp-edged tools for cutting.

The earliest undisputed art originated in the Upper Paleolithic. However, there is some evidence that a preference for aesthetic emerged in the Middle Paleolithic due to the symmetry inherent in discovered artifacts and evidence of attention to detail in such things as tool shape, which has led some archaeologists to interpret these artifacts as early examples of artistic expression. There has been much dispute among scholars over the terming of early prehistoric artifacts as “art.” Generally speaking, artifacts dating from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic remain disputed as objects of artistic expression, while the Upper Paleolithic provides the first conclusive examples of art making.

2.2.2 – Disputed Art(ifacts): Early Venuses

The Venus of Tan-Tan is an alleged artifact found in Morocco that is believed by some to be the earliest representation of the human form . The Venus, a 2.3 inch long piece of quartzite rock dated between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago during the Middle Paleolithic, was discovered in 1999 in a river terrace deposit on the north bank of the Draa River, just south of the Moroccan village of Tan-Tan. There is controversy among archaeologists as to its nature and origin. Some archaeologists believe it was created by a combination of geological forces as well as tool-based carving. Visible smudge stains have been interpreted by some as remnants of red ochre pigments. For others, the rock’s shape is simply the result of natural weathering and erosion, and any human shape is a mere coincidence.

Drawing of the Venus of Tan-Tan: The Venus of Tan-Tan is an alleged artifact found in Morocco that is believed by some to be the earliest representation of the human form.

The Venus of Berekhat Ram is a contemporary of the Venus of Tan-Tan, found at Berekhat Ram on the Golan Heights in 1981. Some believe it to be a representation of a female human figure, dating from the early Middle Paleolithic; however, the claim is highly contested. The object is a red tufic pebble, about 1.4 inches long, which has at least three grooves, possibly incised with a sharp-edged stone tool. The grooves have been interpreted as marking the neck and arms of the figure by some, while others believe these to be purely naturally-occurring lines.

2.2.3 – Mask of la Roche-Cotard

Also known as the Mousterian Protofigurine, the Mask of la Roche-Cotard is an artifact from the Paleolithic period that was discovered in the entrance of the La Roche-Cotard cave, situated on the banks of the Loire River in France. Constructed using flint and bone, the stone is believed to represent the upper part of a face, while the bone has been interpreted as eyes. While some archaeologists question whether this artifact does indeed represent a rendered face, it has been occasionally regarded as an example of Paleolithic figurative artistic expression.

2.2.4 – Bilzingsleben

Bilzingsleben is a site of early Paleolithic human remains discovered in Thuringia, Germany. The area was also the site of discovery of many stone and bone tools such as hoes, scrapers, points, and gougers. One bone fragment, an elephant tibia, has two groups of incised parallel lines which some have interpreted as an early example of art making. The regular spacing of the incisions, their sub-equal lengths, and V-like cross-sections suggest that they were created at the same time, with a single stone; however, no conclusive agreement has been made.

2.2.5 – Blombos Cave

Engraved ochre from the Blombos Cave: Engraved ochre from the Blombos Cave has led some historians to believe that early Homo sapienswere capable of symbolic art.

Nassarius shell beads from the Blombos Cave: Discoveries of engraved stones and beads in the Blombos Cave of South Africa has led some archaeologists to believe that early Homo sapiens were capable of abstraction and the production of symbolic art.

Discoveries of engraved stones in the Blombos Caves of South Africa has led some archaeologists to believe that early Homo sapienswere capable of abstraction and the production of symbolic art. Made from ochre, the stones are engraved with abstract patterns, and while they are simpler than prehistoric cave paintings found in Europe, some scholars believe these engraved stones represent the earliest known artworks, dating from 75,000 years ago. Although, much like the other pieces, this belief remains contested.

2.3 – Paleolithic Cave Paintings

2.3.1 – Overview

Paleolithic cave paintings demonstrate early humans’ capacity to give meaning to their surroundings and communicate with others.

The Paleolithic , or Old Stone Age, ranges from 30,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE and produced the first accomplishments in human creativity, preceding the invention of writing. Archeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially southern France and northern Spain) include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculpture that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. Paintings and engravings along the caves’ walls and ceilings fall under the category of parietal art .

2.3.2 – Themes and Materials

The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs , and deer. The species found most often were suitable for hunting by humans, but were not necessarily the typical prey found in associated bone deposits. For example, the painters of Lascaux, France left mainly reindeer bones, but this species does not appear at all in the cave paintings; equine species are the most common.

Drawings of humans were rare and were usually schematic in nature as opposed to the detailed and naturalistic images of animals.
Tracings of human hands and hand stencils were very popular, however, as well as abstract patterns called finger flutings.

The pigments used appear to be red and yellow ochre , manganese or carbon for black, and china clay for white. Some of the color may have been mixed with fat. The paint was applied by finger, chewed sticks, or fur for brushes. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first, and in some caves many of the images were only engraved in this fashion, taking them out of a strict definition of “cave painting.”

2.3.3 – Main Examples of Cave Paintings: France and Spain

France

Lascaux (circa 15,000 BCE), in southwestern France, is an interconnected series of caves with one of the most impressive examples of artistic creations by Paleolithic humans.

Cave paintings in Lascaux, France: The most famous section of the cave is “The Great Hall of the Bulls,” where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted.

Discovered in 1940, the cave contains nearly two thousand figures, which can be grouped into three main categories—animals, human figures, and abstract signs. Over nine hundred images depict animals from the surrounding areas, such as horses, stags, aurochs, bison, lions, bears, and birds—species that would have been hunted and eaten, and those identified as predators. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time.

The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (circa 30,000 BCE) in the Ardèche department of southern France contains some of the earliest known paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large, and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls have been called spectacular. Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least thirteen different species—not only the familiar herbivores that predominate Paleolithic cave art, but also many predatory animals, such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.

Drawings of horses from the Chauvet Cave in France: The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche department of southern France is a cave that contains some of the earliest known cave paintings.

As is typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures in Chauvet. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave.

The artists who produced these unique paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many of the paintings appear to have been made after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement are achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures. The art also includes scenes that were complex for its time—animals interacting with each other. For instance, a pair of wooly rhinoceroses are seen butting horns in an apparent contest for territory or mating rights.

Spain

Altamira (circa 18,000 BCE) is a cave in northern Spain famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands. The cave has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Painting of a bison in the Great Hall of Policromes, Altamira, Spain: Altamira’s famous Upper Paleolithic cave paintings feature drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands.

The long cave consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used polychromy—charcoal and ochre or haematite—to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity , creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect.

2.3.4 – Interpretations

Like all prehistoric art, the purpose of these paintings remains obscure. In recent years, new research has suggested that the Lascaux paintings may incorporate prehistoric star charts. Some anthropologists and art historians also theorize that the paintings could be an account of past hunting success, or they could represent a mystical ritual to improve future hunting endeavors. An alternative theory, broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings pertained to shamanism.

2.4 – Paleolithic Sculpture

2.4.1 – Overview

Paleolithic sculptures found in caves are some of the earliest examples of representational art.

The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age existed from approximately 30,000 BCE until 10,000 BCE, and produced the first accomplishments in human creativity. Archeological discoveries across Europe and Asia include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculptures that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational art-making. Sculptural work from the Paleolithic consists mainly of figurines, beads, and some decorative utilitarian objects constructed with stone, bone, ivory, clay, and wood. During prehistoric times, caves were places of dwelling as well as possible spaces for ritual and communal gathering. Unsurprisingly, caves were the locations of many archeological discoveries owing to their secluded locations and protection from the elements.

2.4.2 – Venus Figurines

“Venus figurines” is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women that have been found mostly in Europe, but also in Asia and Siberia, dating from the Upper Paleolithic. These figures are all quite small, between 4 and 25 cm tall, and carved mainly in steatite , limestone , bone, or ivory. These sculptures are collectively described as “Venus” figurines in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty, as early historians assumed they represented an ideal of beauty from the time.

The Venus figurines have sometimes been interpreted as representing a mother goddess; the abundance of such female imagery has led some to believe that Upper Paleolithic (and later Neolithic) societies had a female-centered religion and a female-dominated society. Various other explanations for the purpose of the figurines have been proposed, such as the hypothesis that the figurines were created as self-portraits of actual women.

2.4.3 – Stylistic Features

The Venus of Hohle Fels: The Venus of Hohle Fels, a 6 cm figure of a woman carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave in 2008 and represents one of the earliest found sculptures of this type.

Venus figures are characterized by shared stylistic features, such as an oval shape, large belly, wide-set thighs, large breasts, and the typical absence of arms and feet. Hundreds of these sculptures have been found both in open-air settlements and caves. The Venus of Hohle Fels, a 6 cm figure of a woman carved from a mammoth ‘s tusk, was discovered in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave in 2008 and represents one of the earliest found sculptures of this type.

The Venus of Willendorf: The Venus of Willendorf is a particularly famous example of the Venus figure.

Additionally, the Venus of Willendorf is a particularly famous example of the Venus figure. While initially thought to be symbols of fertility, or of a fertility goddess, the true significance of the Venus figure remains obscure, as does much of prehistoric art.

3 – The Mesolithic Period

3.1 – Overview

During the Mesolithic period, humans developed cave paintings, engravings, and ceramics to reflect their daily lives.

The Mesolithic Period, or Middle Stone Age, is an archaeological term describing specific cultures that fall between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic Periods. While the start and end dates of the Mesolithic Period vary by geographical region, it dated approximately from 10,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE.

The Paleolithic was an age of purely hunting and gathering, but toward the Mesolithic period the development of agriculture contributed to the rise of permanent settlements. The later Neolithic period is distinguished by the domestication of plants and animals. Some Mesolithic people continued with intensive hunting, while others practiced the initial stages of domestication. Some Mesolithic settlements were villages of huts , others walled cities.

The type of tool used is a distinguishing factor among these cultures. Mesolithic tools were generally composite devices manufactured with small chipped stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets. The Paleolithic utilized more primitive stone treatments, and the Neolithic mainly used polished rather than chipped stone tools.

Backed edge bladelet: Mesolithic tools were generally composite devices manufactured with small chipped small stone tools called microliths and retouched bladelets.

Art from this period reflects the change to a warmer climate and adaptation to a relatively sedentary lifestyle, population size, and consumption of plants—all evidence of the transition to agriculture and eventually the Neolithic period. Still, food was not always available everywhere, and Mesolithic populations were often forced to become migrating hunters and settle in rock shelters. It is difficult to find a unique type of artistic production during the Mesolithic Period, and art forms developed during the Upper Paleolithic (the latest period of the Paleolithic) were likely continued. These included cave paintings and engravings, small sculptural artifacts, and early architecture.

3.2 – Mesolithic Rock Art

A number of notable Mesolithic rock art sites exist on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The art consists of small painted figures of humans and animals, which are the most advanced and widespread surviving from this period in Europe and possibly worldwide. Notably, this collection is the largest concentration of such art in Europe. The human figure is frequently the main theme in painted scenes. When in the same scene as animals, the human runs towards them. Hunting scenes are the most common, but there are also scenes of battle and dancing, and possibly agricultural tasks and managing domesticated animals. In some scenes gathering honey is shown, most famously at Cuevas de la Araña en Bicorp.

The Man of Bicorp: The Man of Bicorp holding onto lianas to gather honey from a beehive as depicted on an 8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia, Spain.

The painting known as The Dancers of Cogul is a good example of the depiction of movement in static art. In this scene, nine women are depicted, something new in art of this region, some painted in black and others in red. They are shown dancing around a male figure with abnormally large phallus, a figure that was rare if not absent in Paleolithic art. Along with humans, several animals, including a dead deer or buck impaled by an arrow or atlatl, are depicted.

Dance of the Cogul: El Cogul, Catalonia, Spain.

The native Mesolithic populations were slow in assimilating the agricultural way of life, starting solely with the use of ceramics . It took a thousand years into the Neolithic period before they adopted animal husbandry (which became especially important to them) and plant cultivation. When they eventually developed interest in the more fertile areas utilized by the late Danubian cultures, they compelled the Danubian farmers to fortify their settlements.

3.3 – Findings from Archaeological Excavations

Excavation of some megalithic monuments in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and France has revealed evidence of ritual activity, sometimes involving architecture, during the Mesolithic Period. One megalith (circa 9350 BCE), found submerged in the Strait of Sicily, was over 39 feet long and weighing nearly 530,000 pounds. Its purpose remains unknown. In some cases, however, megalith monuments are so far removed in time from their successors that continuity is unlikely. In other cases, the early dates or the exact character of activity are controversial.

An engraved shale pendant unearthed in Star Carr, England in 2015 is believed to be the oldest Mesolithic art form on the island of Great Britain. Engraved jewelry from this period outside of Scandinavia is extremely rare. Although the hole in the upper angle of the rock suggests that it was worn, archaeologists are currently analyzing the object to determine whether this was the case. The incised patterns are similar to those on pendants found in Denmark, which suggests contact with cultures on the continent or migration from the continent to Britain. However, these possibilities remain under investigation.

Star Carr pendant: The incised lines bear striking similarities to similar objects found in Denmark.

In northeastern Europe, Siberia, and certain southern European and North African sites, a “Ceramic Mesolithic” can be distinguished between 7,000-3,850 BCE. Russian archaeologists prefer to describe such pottery-making cultures as Neolithic, even though farming is absent. These pottery-making Mesolithic cultures were peripheral to the sedentary Neolithic cultures. They created a distinctive type of pottery with point or knob base and flared rims, manufactured by methods not used by the Neolithic farmers. Though each area of Mesolithic ceramics developed an individual style , common features suggest a single point of origin. The earliest manifestation of this type of pottery may have been around Lake Baikal in Siberia.

4 – The Neolithic Period

4.1 – Neolithic Art

4.1.2 – Overview

Art in the Neolithic Near East owes its existence to developments in agriculture, architecture, and other areas.

The Neolithic or New Stone Age was a period in human development from around 10,000 BCE until 3,000 BCE. Considered the last part of the Stone Age, the Neolithic period is signified by a progression in behavioral and cultural characteristics including the cultivation of wild and domestic crops and the use of domesticated animals.

The ancient Near East was home to the earliest civilizations within a region roughly corresponding to the modern Middle East, including Mesopotamia , ancient Egypt, ancient Iran, the Levant, and the Arabian peninsula. Sites in these locations dating to approximately 9500 BCE are considered the beginning of the Neolithic period.

Neolithic culture in the Near East is separated into three phases: Neolithic 1 (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A), Neolithic 2 (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), and Neolithic 3 (Pottery Neolithic).

4.1.3 – Neolithic 1 (PPNA)

View of Gobekli Tepe: Situated in the southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, this is recognized as the oldest known human-made religious structure.

The Neolithic 1 phase likely began with a temple in southeastern Turkey at Gobekli Tepe circa 10,000 BCE. The structure is as the oldest known human-made place of worship. It features seven stone circles covering 25 acres that contain limestone pillars carved with animals, insects, and birds, believed to serve as roof supports. The complexity of the temple and the effort involved in its construction imply it was built by long-term settlers. The major advances of the Neolithic 1 phase revolve around developments in farming practices, such as harvesting, seed selection, and the domestication of plants and animals.

At the oldest layer of Gobekli Tepe, T-shaped mud brick pillars are decorated with abstract , enigmatic pictograms and carved animal reliefs. The pictograms may represent commonly understood sacred symbols known from Neolithic cave paintings elsewhere. The reliefs depict mammals such as lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, and donkeys; snakes and other reptiles; arthropods, such as insects and arachnids; and birds, particularly vultures. The deceased were likely exposed for consumption by vultures and other carrion birds.

Pillar with low reliefs of what are believed to be a bull, fox, and crane.: Although pillars with animal reliefs are abundant in Gobleki Tepe, very few depictions of human and humanoid figures have been found.

When the edifice was constructed, the surrounding country was likely forested and capable of sustaining this variety of wildlife, before millennia of settlement and cultivation led to the near-Dust Bowl conditions prevalent today.

4.1.4 – Neolithic 2 (PPNB)

The Neolithic 2 began around 8800 BCE and is characterized by settlements built with rectangular mud-brick houses with single or multiple rooms, the greater use of domesticated animals, and advancements in tools. These developments in architecture point to settlement in permanent locations. While mud brick is perishable, the investment of time and effort in the construction of houses indicates the desire to remain in a single location for the long term. Burial findings and the preservation of skulls of the dead, often plastered with mud to create facial features, suggest an ancestor cult.

A settlement of 3,000 inhabitants was found in the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Considered to be one of the largest prehistoric settlements in the Near East, ‘Ain Ghazal was continuously inhabited from approximately 7,250 – 5,000 BCE. This settlement produced what are believed to be the earliest large-scale human figures. Modeled from plaster, these consist of full statues and busts, some of which are two-headed. Great effort was put into modeling the heads, with wide-open eyes and bitumen-outlined irises. The statues represent men, women, and children. Women are recognizable by features resembling breasts and slightly enlarged bellies, but neither male nor female sexual characteristics are emphasized, and none of the statues have genitals. Only the faces have detail.

Figures from ‘Ain Ghazal (c. 7,500-5,000 BCE): Plaster and bitumen. Amman, Jordan.

Although they were produced to be free-standing, they were likely intended to be viewed only from the front, hence their disproportionate flatness. The manufacture of the statues would not have permitted them to last long. Since they were buried in pristine condition, they may have been produced for the purpose of intentional burial and never been displayed.

4.1.5 – Neolithic 3 (PN)

Beginning around 6400 BCE, this period is characterized by the emergence of distinctive cultures throughout the Fertile Crescent , such as the Halafian (Turkey, Syria, Northern Mesopotamia) and Ubaid (Southern Mesopotamia).

Pottery was first produced and used in this era, a direct effect of agriculture and the permanent settlements that arose as a result. No longer nomadic , individuals used ceramic vessels to store the food they grew or raised and water collected from local sources. Additionally, the need arose for plates, cups, and additional objects used in the consumption of food and beverages.

4.1.6 – Halafian Period

Tell Halaf is an archaeological site in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, that flourished from about 6100 to 5400 BCE. It was the first site of Neolithic culture, subsequently dubbed Halafian culture, characterized by glazed pottery painted with geometric and animal designs.

View of the excavated ruins at Tell Halaf, Syria: It was the first find of the Neolithic culture, subsequently dubbed the Halaf culture.

The best known, most characteristic pottery of Tell Halaf, called Halaf ware, was produced by specialist potters. It was sometimes painted with one or two colors (the latter called polychrome) with geometric and animal motifs . Other types of Halaf pottery include unpainted cookware and ware with burnished surfaces.

Example of Halafian pottery: These were produced by specialist potters. Some were painted with geometric and animal motifs.

There are many theories about the development of this distinctive pottery style . The polychromatic painted Halaf pottery has been proposed to be a “trade pottery”—pottery produced for export—however, the predominance of locally produced painted pottery in all areas of Halaf sites calls that theory into question. That said, Halaf pottery has been found in other parts of northern Mesopotamia and at many sites in Anatolia (Turkey) suggesting that it was widely used in the region.

Tell Halaf fertility figure (c. 5,000 BCE): This statuette is seated with legs extended, her arms cradling her protruding breasts. Bands of pigment emphasize the full, rounded forms of her limbs and suggest facial features, a necklace, and loincloth.

In addition to ceramics, the Halafian culture produced female figurines of partially baked clay and stone. Because of the prominence of their breasts and abdomens and subordination of their facial features, they are likely fertility figures. As the bands on the figure below suggest, these figurines were painted to some extent.

4.1.7 – Ubaid Period

Pottery from the Late Ubaid period: Ubaid-style pottery has been found at various sites along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf.

The Ubaid culture flourished from about 6500 to 3800 BCE in Mesopotamia and is characterized by large village settlements that employed multi-room rectangular mud-brick houses. The appearance of the first temples in Mesopotamia, as well as greenish pottery decorated with geometric designs in brown or black paint, are important developments of this period. Tell-al-Ubaid is a low, relatively small mound site that extends about two meters above ground level. The lower level was a site where large amounts of Ubaid pottery, kilns , and a cemetery were discovered.

4.2 – Neolithic Monuments

4.2.1 – Overview

Neolithic art in Western Europe is best represented by its megalithic (large stone) monuments.

Also known as the New Stone Age, the Neolithic period in human development lasted from around 10,000 BCE until 3,000 BCE. Considered the last part of the Stone Age, the Neolithic is signified by a progression in behavioral and cultural characteristics including the cultivation of wild and domestic crops and the use of domesticated animals.

Agrarian societies first appeared in southeast Europe in the seventh millennium BCE. Through migration and cultural diffusion, Neolithic traditions spread to northwestern Europe by around 4500 BCE. The development of agriculture allowed groups of people to form larger permanent settlements in single locations, as opposed to living as nomadic hunter gatherers. Permanent settlements resulted in the construction of megalithic monuments requiring considerable time and effort that was unavailable to nomads.

4.2.2 – Megalithic Henges

Neolithic societies produced female and animal statues, engravings , and elaborate pottery decoration. In Western Europe, though, this period is best represented by the megalithic (large stone) monuments and passage tomb structures found from Malta to Portugal, through France and Germany, and across southern England to most of Wales and Ireland.

Stonehenge

Perhaps the best known megalithic henge is Stonehenge, located on Salisbury Plain in the county of Wiltshire in south central England. Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BCE. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones in the innermost ring of Stonehenge were raised between 2400 and 2200 BCE, although they may have been at the site as early as 3000 BCE.

Plan of Stonehenge: Key to plan: (1) The Altar Stone, (2) barrow without a burial, (3) “barrows” without burials, (4) the fallen Slaughter Stone, (5) the Heel Stone, (6) two of originally four Station Stones, (7) ditch, (8) inner bank, (9) outer bank, (10) the Avenue, (11) ring of 30 pits called the Y Holes, (12) ring of 29 pits called the Z Holes, (13) circle of 56 pits, known as the Aubrey holes, (14) smaller southern entrance.

Although human remains have been found at the site, archaeologists are uncertain whether the site served funerary purposes, ritual purposes, or both. Its alignments with the sunrise of the summer solstice and sunset of the winter solstice present the possibility that the site served as a rudimentary astronomical calendar to help early agrarian societies acclimate to the approaching growing season and harvest.

Stonehenge: Salisbury Plain, England.

Even the smallest bluestones weigh several tons each. These stones, so-called because they appear blue when wet, were quarried approximately 150 miles away in the Prescelli Mountains in southwest Wales. Even more impressive, the quarrying and transport of the stones took place without the aid of the wheel, requiring a sophisticated method of transport and construction involving felled trees and earthen mounds. The larger Sarcen stones that form the post-and-lintel ring and he free-standing trilithons were quarried approximately 25 miles to the north of Salisbury Plain, requiring the same transport system of felled trees and earthen mounds.

Avebury

One of the best known prehistoric sites in the United Kingdom, Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe. Located in the same county as Stonehenge, Avebury lies north of the better-known site. Constructed over several hundred years in the third millennium BCE, the monument comprises a large henge with a large outer stone circle and two separate smaller stone circles situated inside the center of the monument. Its original purpose is unknown, although archaeologists believe that it was likely used for ritual or ceremony . The Avebury monument was part of a larger prehistoric landscape containing several older monuments.

Avebury: Part of the south inner circle.

The chronology of Avebury’s construction is unclear. It was not designed as a single monument but was the result of various projects undertaken at different times during late prehistory . Experts date the construction of the central cove to 3,000 BCE, the inner stone circle to 2,900 BCE, the outer circle and henge to 2,600 BCE, and the avenues to 2,400 BCE. The construction of Avebury and Stonehenge indicate that a stable agrarian economy had developed in this region of England by 4000 to 3500 BCE.

4.2.5 – Passage Tombs

Passage tombs or graves consist of narrow passages made of large stones and one or multiple burial chambers covered in earth or stone. Megaliths were commonly used in the construction of passage tombs and typically date to the Neolithic. A common layout is the cruciform passage grave, characterized by a cross-shaped structure.

Newgrange, Ireland

Newgrange is part of the Neolithic Bru na Boinne complex, a collection of passage tomb mounds built around 3200 BCE and located in County Meath, Ireland.

View of Newgrange, Ireland: Newgrange is more than five hundred years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and predates Stonehenge by about a thousand years.

The Newgrange monument is comprised of a large mound built of alternating layers of earth and stones, covered with growing grass and with flat white quartz stones studded around the circumference. The mound covers 4500 square meters of ground . Within, a passage stretches through the structure ending at three small chambers.

Newgrange contains various examples of abstract Neolithic art carved onto its rocks. These are separated into 10 categories consisting of curvilinear forms like circles, spirals, arcs, serpentiforms, and dot-in-circles, as well as rectilinear examples such as chevrons, lozenges, radials, parallel lines , and offsets.

There is no agreement as to what the site was used for, but it has been speculated that it had some form of religious significance due to its alignment with the rising sun which floods the stone room with light on the winter solstice.

Knowth, Ireland

Knowth is a Neolithic passage grave and monument located in the valley of the River Boyne in Ireland. Located in close proximity to similar sites such as Newgrange, Knowth consists of one large cruciform passage tomb and 17 smaller satellite tombs, estimated to date between 2500 and 2000 BCE.

View of the eastern passage, Knowth, Ireland: The east-west orientation of the passages at Knowth suggests astronomical alignment with the equinoxes.

Additionally, the monument contains three recesses and basin stones into which the cremated remains of the dead were placed. The right recess is larger and more elaborately decorated than the others, a typical trait of Irish passage graves. The reason, however, remains unknown. Many monuments at Knowth were megalithic tombs, and archaeologists speculate that most have religious significance.

Knowth is reputed to have approximately one-third of all megalithic art in Western Europe carved into its rock faces. Typical motifs include spirals, lozenges, and serpentiform markings. Much of the art was carved on the backs of stones, a phenomenon known as hidden art. There are many theories about the function of hidden art, including a desire to hide images or the recycling of stones in order to use both sides.

Ggantija, Malta

The megalithic temple complexes of Ggantija on the Mediterranean islands of Gozo and Malta are notable for their gigantic Neolithic structures dating to 3,600 BCE.

Entrance to megalithic temple at Ggantija, Malta: The Ġgantija temples are older than the pyramids of Egypt and have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Situated at the end of the Xanghra plateau and facing the southeast, the temples are built in a clover-leaf shape, with inner facing blocks marking the outline which was then filled with rubble. They lead to a series of semi-circular apses connected by a central passage.

The temples have been theorized as the possible site of a fertility cult due to numerous figurines found on site. The Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, located in Pola, Malta, is a subterranean structure excavated circa 2500 BCE, the only prehistoric underground temple in the world, showing a degree of stone artistry unique to the Maltese islands.

5 – The Bronze Age

5.1 – Art of the Bronze Age

5.1.1 – Overview

The Bronze Age saw the birth of civilization and the development of advanced cultures in Europe, the Near East, and East Asia.

Bronze castings: Assorted bronze Celtic castings dating from the Bronze Age, found as part of a cache, probably intended for recycling. Somerset County Museum, Taunton, UK.

The Bronze Age is part of the three-age system of archaeology that divides human technological prehistory into three periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age . The Bronze Age spanned from 3,300 to 1,200 BCE and is characterized by the use of copper and its alloy bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacturing of implements and weapons. This period ended with further advancements in metallurgy , such as the ability to smelt iron ore.

Linear B inscription: This fragment from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig, and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. Linear B was the earliest Greek writing, dating from 1450 BCE, an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A script. The script is made up of 90 syllabic signs, ideograms, and numbers. This and other tablets were fortuitously preserved when they were baked in the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BCE. It is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

The Bronze Age is the earliest period for which we have direct written accounts, since the invention of writing coincides with its early beginnings. Bronze Age cultures differed in development of the first writing. According to archaeological evidence, cultures in Egypt (hieroglyphs), the Near East (cuneiform), and the Mediterranean, with the Mycenaean culture (Linear B), had viable writing systems.

5.1.2 – The Art of the Ancient Near East

Cultures in the ancient Near East (often called the Cradle of Civilization ) practiced intensive year-round agriculture, developed a writing system, invented the potter’s wheel, created a centralized government, law codes , and empires, and introduced social stratification, slavery, and organized warfare. Societies in the region laid the foundations for astronomy and mathematics.

From Mesopotamia came the empires of Sumeria, Babylon, and Assyria. From the fertile floodplains of the Nile emerged the Egyptians, with their great monuments and sophisticated society. From the Iranian Plateau came the Medes and then the Persians, who nearly succeeded in uniting the entire civilized world under one empire.

Statue of Gudea: Neo-Sumerian period, circa 2,090 BCE.

In Mesopotamian Babylonia, an abundance of clay and lack of stone led to greater use of mud brick. Babylonian temples were massive structures of crude brick supported by buttresses , with drains to remove rain. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster , column , frescoes , and enameled tiles. Walls were brilliantly colored and sometimes plated with zinc or gold, as well as with tiles. Painted terra cotta cones for torches were also embedded in the plaster. In Babylonia, three-dimensional figures often replaced bas-relief—the earliest examples being the Statues of Gudea, which are realistic if somewhat clumsy. The paucity of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to perfection in the art of gem cutting.

Reverse and obverse sides of Narmer Palette, this facsimile on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada: The Narmer Palette, named after Egyptian King Narmer, is a significant Egyptian archeological relic dating from about the 3,100 BCE, containing some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found.

In Ancient Egypt , the Bronze Age began in the Protodynastic period circa 3,150 BCE. The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as art, architecture, and many aspects of religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic period and lasted until about 2,686 BCE. During this period, the pantheon of the gods was established and the illustrations and proportions of their human figures developed; and Egyptian imagery , symbolism , and basic hieroglyphic writing were created. During the Old Kingdom, from 2686-2181 BCE, the Egyptian pyramids and other more natural sculptures were built. The first-known portraits were also completed. At the end of the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian style moved toward formalized seminude figures with long bodies and large eyes.

5.1.3 – The Art of East Asia

Ritual cooking vessel: China, Shang or Zhou dynasty bronze, c. 1000 BCE. Taotie – a mask of an imaginary animal with eyes, horns, snout, and jaw. Motif common in Shang and early Zhou dynasties.

In the East, civilization emerged in the Indus River valley, and from the Yellow River came the beginnings of Chinese civilization. Chinese bronze artifacts are generally either utilitarian , like spear points or adze heads, or ” ritual bronzes,” more elaborate versions of everyday vessels in precious materials of everyday vessels, tools, and weapons. In addition to numerous large sacrificial tripods known as dings in Chinese, there are many other distinct shapes. Ritual bronzes were highly decorated with taotie motifs , including highly stylized animal faces, in three main types: demons, symbolic animals, and abstract symbols. Many large bronzes also bear cast inscriptions that comprise the bulk of surviving early Chinese writing and have helped historians and archaeologists piece together the history of China.

5.1.4 – The Art of Western Europe

The Atlantic Bronze Age is the period of approximately 1300 to 700 BCE that includes different cultures in Portugal, Andalusia, Galicia, and the British Isles. It is marked by economic and cultural exchange. Commercial contacts extended to Denmark and the Mediterranean. The Atlantic Bronze Age was defined by a number of distinct regional centers of metal production, unified by a regular maritime exchange of products.

Bronze sword blade (c. 800 BCE): Museum of National Antiques, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.

In Great Britain, the Bronze Age is dated from around 2,100 to 750 BCE. Migration brought new people to the islands from the continent. Recent tooth enamel isotope research on bodies found in early Bronze Age graves indicate that some of the migrants came from the area of modern Switzerland. Burial of the dead, previously communal, became individual as bodies were interred in barrows and cists covered with cairns.

The greatest quantities of bronze objects in England were discovered in East Cambridgeshire—especially in Isleham, where more than 6,500 pieces were found. Alloying of copper with zinc or tin to make brass or bronze was practiced soon after the discovery of copper. The earliest identified metalworking site (Sigwells, Somerset) is much later, dated by Globular Urn style pottery to approximately the 12th century BCE.

The Bronze Age in Ireland commenced around 2,000 BCE, when copper was alloyed with tin and used primarily in the field of metallurgy. One of the characteristic types of artifact of the Early Bronze Age in Ireland is the flat axe, notably the Ballybeg-type flat axe. Ireland is also known for a large number of Early Bronze Age burials.

5.2 – Bronze Age Rock Carvings

5.2.1 – Overview

Petroglyphs, or rock engravings, exist around the world and range in purpose from ritual to communication to narration.

Petroglyphs in Tanum, Sweden (c. 1700–500 BCE).: Rock carving with the shape of a flock of birds.

Petroglyphs (rock engravings ) are images containing pictograms and logograms created by removing part of a rock surface via incising, picking, carving, and/or abrading. Rock carvings are found worldwide, with the highest concentrations in Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, southwestern North America, and Australia dating between the late Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. However, some carvings date to the Bronze Age. Many rock carvings were produced by hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area and typically depicted animals and humans as well as some narrative scenes.

5.2.2 – Interpretations

Traditionally, individual markings are called motifs, while groups of motifs are known as panels. Rock carvings are found across a wide geographical and temporal scope of cultures . Scholars have devised numerous theories to explain their purpose, depending on location, age, and image type.

Some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical markers, maps, or other such forms of communication. A petroglyph that represents a land form or the surrounding terrain is known as a geocontourglyph. Glyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700-500 BCE) seem to refer to a territorial boundary between tribes, in addition to possible religious meaning. It also appears that local or regional dialects from similar or neighboring peoples existed.

Composite photograph of petroglyphs from Häljesta, Sweden (c. 1700–500 BCE): The glyphs have been painted to make them more visible. They have been identified as (top to bottom, left to right): Plowing with oxen (the branch in the farmer’s hand is assumed to be part of a fertility ritual), archer/hunter with bow, fishing from a small boat, (middle row) a procession of unknown nature, foot prints, (bottom row) man with dog, typical Scandinavian rock carving ship symbol.

Many researchers have noticed the notable resemblance of different styles of petroglyphs across different continents. This could be mere coincidence, an indication that certain groups of people migrated widely from some initial common area, or indication of a common origin.

One common symbol called the cup-and-ring mark has been found on petroglyphs in the British Isles as well as on the European continent in locations as diverse as Spain, Scandinavia, and Greece. This symbol consists of a concave depression, no more than a few centimeters in diameter, pecked into a rock surface and often surrounded by concentric circles also etched into the stone. Sometimes a linear channel called a gutter protrudes from the middle.

Laxe dos carballos (fourth-second millennium BCE): Cup-and-ring mark and deer hunting scenes. (The cup-and-ring mark lies to the right of the deer.) Campo Lameiro, Galicia, Spain.

Some scholars have suggested that the cup-and-ring mark was symbolically linked to water, having sacred associations in late prehistoric society. As evidence, they note that a number of the larger cups, referred to as basins, would have collected rain water. They believe that cup-and-ring marks look like the ripples produced when raindrops hit water.

5.3 – Bronze Age Advancements in Metallurgy

The discovery of bronze through existing metallurgical techniques revolutionized the production of weapons and works of art.

An important development of the Bronze Age was the evolution of metallurgy, which resulted in the discovery of bronze. Certain metals, notably tin, lead and (at a higher temperature) copper, can be recovered from their ores by heating the rocks in a fire or blast furnace, a process known as smelting. The first evidence of this extractive metallurgy dates to Serbian sites from the fifth and sixth millennia BCE.

Bronze flag (third millennium BCE): Found in Shahdad, Kerman, (now Iran).

In approximately the fourth millennium BCE in Sumer, India, and China, it was discovered that combining copper and tin creates a superior metal, an alloy called bronze. This discovery represented the beginning of the Bronze Age, enabling people to create metal objects that were harder than previously possible. Bronze tools, weapons, armor, and building materials such as decorative tiles were more durable than their stone and copper predecessors.

Initially, bronze was made out of copper and arsenic, forming arsenic bronze, or from naturally or artificially mixed ores of copper and arsenic, with the earliest known artifacts coming from the Iranian plateau in the fifth millennium BCE. It was only later, approximately in 3500 BCE, that tin became the major non-copper ingredient of bronze. Tin bronze was superior to arsenic bronze in that the alloying process could be more easily controlled and the resulting alloy was stronger and easier to cast. Furthermore, unlike arsenic, metallic tin and fumes from tin refining are not toxic. In the Bronze Age, two forms of bronze were commonly used. “Classic bronze,” about ten percent tin, was used in casting. “Mild bronze,” about six percent tin, was hammered from ingots to make sheets. Bladed weapons were mostly cast from classic bronze, while helmets and armor were hammered from mild bronze. The flag pictured below was also likely hammered from mild bronze.

Socketed axe blades.: A hoard of axes from the Bronze Age found in modern Germany. Archaeological Museum of the state of Brandenburg.

In many parts of the world, large hoards of bronze artifacts have been discovered, suggesting that bronze also represented a store of value and an indicator of social status. In Europe large hoards of bronze tools, typically socketed axes with little to no signs of wear, have been found. Axes were the most valued tools of the period.

Dancing Girl (c. 2500 BCE): Bronze. 4 1/8 in × 2 in. National Museum, New Delhi.

Although bronze was originally used for producing weapons, metal workers soon applied the alloy to the production of art. Among the oldest and most common method of producing bronze sculptures is through the lost wax process, which creates hollow one-of-a-kind sculptures in whatever form the artist chooses. Dancing Girl (c. 2500 BCE), from Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley, is perhaps the first bronze statue of the world. Although it is in a standing position, it was named Dancing Girl with an assumption of her profession. This is one of two bronze art works found at Mohenjodaro that show more flexible features when compared to other more formal poses. The girl is naked, wears a number of bangles and a necklace, stands in a naturalistic position with her right hand on her hip, and holds an object in her left hand, which rests against her thigh.

Nebra Sky Disk (c. 1600 BCE): Bronze and gold. 30 cm diameter. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

The Únětice culture arose at the beginning of the Central European Bronze Age (2300-1600 BCE). The culture is distinguished by its characteristic metal objects including ingot torques, flat axes, flat triangular daggers, bracelets with spiral-ends, disk- and paddle-headed pins, and curl rings, which are distributed over a wide area of Central Europe and beyond. An interesting mixed media object from this culture is the Nebra Sky Disk (c. 1600 BCE), which consists of a blue-green patina inlaid with gold symbols. These symbols have been interpreted generally as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent , and stars (including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades). Two golden arcs along the sides, marking the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a solar barge with numerous oars, as the Milky Way, or as a rainbow). Likely produced through hammering, the disk is possibly an astronomical instrument as well as an item of religious significance.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Art History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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