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prehistoric art

Prehistoric Playskool?

Yesterday I was doing a little research on a female figurine from Çatal Höyük.  This figurine (shown right), dates from the 7th century BC.  It was excavated in the 1960s by James Mellaart, who argued that this figurine (and the other female figurines found on the complex) are proof that a matriarchal society and goddess cult existed at Çatal Höyük.  However, today archaeologists are questioning Mellaart’s goddess argument.  Michael Balter points out that Mellaart developed his goddess theory in the 1960s, just when feminist movements were beginning across the world.  I think it’s likely that Mellaart was influenced by his own cultural surroundings (and perhaps a desire to capture the interest of the general public?) when he came to conclusions about a Neolithic goddess cult and matriarchal society.

There are other reasons why scholars doubt Mellaart’s conclusions.  One of the main reasons is that there is actually very little evidence of a goddess cult.  Along these lines, relatively recent excavations have found close to 2,000 figurines at Çatal Höyük, and most of them are not female figurines.  Actually, as reported here, less than 5% of the figurines could be considered female.  Most of the figurines are representations of sheep and goats.

So, what was the function of these small figurines?  Some scholars think that they could have been used as teaching aides or educational toys!  It appears that these figurines were carried around and then discarded (these figurines were discovered in the Stone Age trash).  Prof. Lynn Gaskell (Stanford University) is quoted in this article saying, “These are things that were made and used on a daily basis.  People carried them around and then discarded them.” Basically, these figurines could have been the prehistoric version of action figures!  Here are a couple of figurines discovered at the site:

I think that this is a really interesting and fun theory, although I have some doubts.  Just like Mellaart’s theory might have been influenced by the onset of the feminist movement, couldn’t this toy theory also be influenced by our 21st century mindset?  Just because children play with action figurines today (and because we throw toys away when they are broken or abandoned), how do we know that Neolithic people acted the same way?

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Venus of Willendorf’s Sister

Apparently I am behind-the-times in regards to recent prehistoric discoveries. I heard that the world’s oldest instrument was recently discovered in Hohle Fels, Germany – it’s a flute (carved from the bone of a griffon vulture) that is at least 35,000 years old. (You can read more about this flute here and can listen to a replica of the flute played here). I didn’t know, though, that this flute was discovered in sediment next to a female statuette (the discovery of which was announced last May).

This nude, buxom female figurine, the Venus of Hohle Fels, is at least 35,000 years old (shown above). It is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art. The exaggerated emphasis on the female genitalia and breasts are a common feature in prehistoric art, as can be observed in statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf (ca. 28,000-25,000 BC, shown below). It is thought that statuettes like these were used for some type of fertility ritual.

However, there is one major difference between these two statuettes. The Venus of Willendorf has a head full of tight, stylized curls, whereas the Venus of Hohle Fels is headless. Intentionally headless. Instead of a head, there is a carved ring at the top of the figurine, supposedly so that the statuette could be dangled from some type of string. I think it’s especially interesting that the head is missing – this reinforces the fact that these statuettes were not intended to represent specific individuals (which is also the reasoning for why the Venus of Willendorf does not have any facial characteristics).

If you’re interested, you can read more about the Venus of Hohle Fels here.

What do you think of these new discoveries?

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Into to Neolithic Art

Unfortunately, it was necessary for me to not think about art for the past ten days or so. To get my art history groove going again, I thought I’d post a little bit about Neolithic art.

In the Near East, the Neolithic period began about 8000 BC, whereas in Europe it began around 4000 BC. There are a couple of different ways to define the Neolithic period. Initially, the Neolithic (“New Stone”) Age was characterized by the development of two types of artifacts: stone polished tools and pottery. However, the Neolithic period is also different from the Mesolithic period in terms of food production; Neolithic peoples produced food (i.e. farming and stock raising) whereas Mesolithic people were food gatherers.

One of the great monuments from the Neolithic period is Stonehenge. Since I have already written a little about Stonehenge here, I want to focus this post on two of the earliest experiments in urban living, the cities Jericho and Çatal Hüyük (Turkey).

Jericho was a flourishing Neolithic city that covered about ten acres in 8000 BC. By about 7500 BC, this town housed about two thousand people and was surrounded by a thick five-foot-wall.1 A large circular stone tower (shown in this photograph to the left) was built into this wall that originally stood twenty-eight feet high. The tower is thirty-three feet in diameter and also houses an inner stairway. Considering the primitive types of stone tools that were used at this time, this tower is a significant achievement. Unfortunately, not enough of this site has been excavated to determine if this tower belonged to a series of towers.2 It will be interesting to learn if this tower is part of a series of towers that surrounded the city.

Çatal Hüyük is a Neolithic town that was located at the base of a volcano, next to a major trading route. The city inhabitants would trade obsidian, a volcanic rock that could be shaped into sharp tools. I think Çatal Hüyük is especially interesting because the city layout and plan do not contain any type of street! Instead, all of the houses adjoin each other. In order to get inside a house, one would climb through an opening on the roof. Interior and exterior ladders and stairs were used to get from one place to another. You can see a restored side view of Çatal Hüyük here.

For me, the most fascinating thing about Çatal Hüyük is a painting that is located in one of the shrines of the city. Radiocarbon dating places this painting around 6150 BC. This painting is probably the world’s first landscape. The rectangular shapes in the foreground probably are houses (shown in aerial perspective), representing the city Çatal Hüyük. The background depicts an erupting volcano, which archaeologists have identified as the mountain Hasan Dağ.3 Because the painting is located in a shrine, it is thought that it contains some kind of religious significance (as opposed to relating a historical event connected to a volcanic eruption). If the painting is ever proven to be connected to a true historical event, the mural will not be considered a true landscape anymore.

There are a lot of other interesting things about the shrines at Çatal Hüyük. The rooms are decorated with bucrania (bovine skulls), which is considered to be a symbol of male fertility. I wonder if in the imagery of the erupting volcano also could be connected to male fertility.4

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 13 ed. (Cengage Learning EMEA, 2008), 25.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 27.

4 I have found a couple of online sources which think that the volcano is related to female fertility and a “Volcano Goddess.” In a relatively recent publication, Carl J. Becker briefly mentioned that the erupting volcano is connected to the female fertility; he described the eruption of volcanic ash as similar to human birth. (See Carl J. Becker, A Modern Theory of Language Evolution, iUniverse, 2004, 241; found online here). However, since in ancient times the imagery of rain was connected with semen and ejaculation, I wonder if volcanic lava could also be a similar reference for this prehistoric mural. I would be interested to know if anyone has any information or more speculation regarding male fertility and this mural.

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Intro to Mesolithic Art

In recent editions of art history texts, the Mesolithic period (“Middle Stone Age”) is only briefly mentioned as a “transitory” era between the Paleolithic and Neolithic (“New Stone Age”) periods. I think that the word “transitory” is used because the early Mesolithic period was an age of hunting and gathering, whereas the end of the period saw the development of farming. In regards to art, though, I think this period is difficult to discuss because it is hard to interpret Mesolithic art. Soren H. Anderson points out that while some Mesolithic artifacts are decorated, we do not know the intent of the decoration. These objects could have been marked to indicate ownership, gender differentiation, or social rank.1 Any deeper symbolic meaning of these decorations is impossible without a knowledge of the mythology of the Mesolithic people.

Some Mesolithic rock paintings that I like are located on the east coast of Spain. It is very likely that these paintings in shallow rock shelters originated from cave art. Above is a reproduction of a cave painting at Cingle de la Mola, Remigia (Castellon, Spain), c. 7000-4000 BC. The legs are spread wide apart, which suggests that the men in the group are either leaping or marching, perhaps in conjunction with a ritual dance. I think these paintings are interesting because they show individualized, descriptive features like the headdress of the leader. Art historically, these images are important because they show the human figure in a composite view – the torso is shown from a frontal perspective, whereas the legs and head are shown in profile. Obviously, it would be impossible for the human body to contort into this position, but the composite view allows for a more descriptive, detailed depiction of the human body.

There are other interesting artifacts from the Mesolithic period as well, such as amber statues of wild boar from Scandinavia. In Norway, rock engravings of elk, furred creatures (such as foxes) and small whales have been found along the coast and freshwater concourses 1. I especially like the Azilian painted pebbles (shown left, c. 9,050 BC (c. 11,000 BP)) that come from the Mesolithic period. The function of these rocks is unknown; some scholars think that they might be for a cult ritual, but I am drawn to a different interpretation that the painted forms represent letters or numbers (some type of writing system).

If you are interested in learning more about Mesolithic art, you might like to read this book.

1 David M. Jones, et al. “Prehistoric Europe.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T069317pg3 (accessed March 18, 2009).

2 Ibid.

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Intro to Survey Posts & Paleolithic Art

About two weeks ago, I had a friend mention to me that she loves reading my posts but she knows nothing about art. “Where do I start?” she asked. I couldn’t really pinpoint a good place to start on my blog; I write about works of art or articles that interest me, but I don’t include a lot of introductory or survey information. I’ve been looking for some websites that I could recommend to art neophytes, but I haven’t found anything yet that impresses me. So, I have decided to occasionally write some introductory posts. I will try to write in chronological order so that one can get a scope of historical progression by looking at posts under the “introductory/survey” label. I also plan on making an art history timeline that can be viewed/downloaded from this site. Hopefully these posts will be helpful and less-intimidating to newcomers to art history. I hope that the comments for these posts can not only include dialogue and feedback (any art historians are welcome to chime in!), but also be a question and answer forum. I think it will also be good for me, because I can continually review and refine my lecture notes. However, I should also mention that these posts will not be any substitute for an art history survey or art appreciation course. I plan on only writing about works of art and historical information that I find especially interesting!

Some of the earliest examples of art date about 30,000 BC. The Paleolithic (“paleo” = old, “lithic” = stone) people were the first to create representations of humans and animals. One of my favorite Paleolithic sculptures is the “Venus of Willendorf” (ca. 28,000 – 25,000 BC). This little statuette is only about four inches tall, and her navel is actually a natural indentation of the rock (it was not carved). The purpose and meaning of this statue is not clear (we obviously don’t have a lot of information about paleolithic people), but many think that the exaggerated anatomical features suggest that this statuette is a fertility figurine. There is particular emphasis on the breasts, belly, and pubic area. This preoccupation with fertility makes sense, since the survival of prehistoric peoples would have depended on the fertility and child-bearing capabilities of women. Furthermore, it seems that this statue was not supposed to represent a specific individual, since there are no facial features included.

The thing I love about this statue are the itty-bitty, tiny arms that rest on top of the Venus’ breasts. They are so dainty and petite in comparison to the rest of the body!

There are many cave paintings which date from the Paleolithic period. Some of the most popular cave paintings of bison are found in Lascaux, France (ca. 15,000 – 13,000 BC). Some of these bull paintings are quite large – the largest bull is over eleven feet long! These caves were discovered in the 1940 by some teenagers who were outside playing with a dog. For a while, the caves were open to the public, but the amount of visitors (and body heat) raised the temperature within the cave and fungus began to grow inside. In 1963 the cave was closed in order to preserve the paintings. Today, an exact replica of the caves is open to the public, located very near the original site.

Just as with the “Venus of Willendorf”, we don’t know the exact reasons why these paintings were created. Some think that bulls held some type of religious significance for ancient peoples. It could be that these paintings are located deep inside a cave because they are connected with some type of religious ritual. Horned animals also were associated with fertility in the ancient world, and these paintings be associated with a fertility ritual. You can read more about the caves official website about the caves is found here.

My favorite prehistoric cave drawings, however, are found at Pech-Merle, France (ca. 22,000 BC). These drawings depict a spotted horse, and it is possible that the spots (which are both inside and outside the horses’ outlines) were created by the artist throwing painted rocks at the cave wall. The thing I love most about this cave, however, are the human hand prints. These hand prints are depicted with “negative” space, meaning that the artist placed his hand against the wall and probably blew pigment around it with a hollow reed or bone. The pigment created a “positive” space, and the original “negative” space of the cave wall depicts the hand. Even though animals are the main theme of these paintings instead of humans, I love the inclusion of the artist’s (or artists’) hands.

If you are interested in reading more about Paleolithic art, there is a New Yorker article which discusses cave paintings and gives some information about Chauvet cave. Although the date of the Chauvet paintings is debated, this cave possibly houses the oldest cave paintings known today.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.