Ice Age Art at the British Museum

ice age artThere are a lot of benefits derived from being a member of the Council for British Archaeology, but I think yesterday’s private view of Ice Age Art at the British Museum was, by itself, worth the membership fee. Space …….…….. room …………… loads of it. It’s spoilt me for the future: I shall hate (even more than previously) to find exhibitions are packed so tight they’re like tube trains in the rush hour (e.g. the BM), have people who stand in front of you when you’re looking at something (e.g. the RA), or have the labelling at navel level so only the front row of the scrum can read them (e.g. the V&A). At yesterday’s viewing it was more a case of being able to choose to look at something that had no one else near it.

None of the books about the art of this period prepared me for what is on display here.

The animals are so well-crafted, some anatomically exact, others also bringing our more of the essence of the animal. There are many horses (which are drawn so well it is possible to see whether they are cantering or galloping), bison, mammoths, and the rather famous swimming reindeer (this is better displayed here than when it was showing as one of the Puppet man100 Objects series). Seeing the actual artefact brings home how cleverly the chosen object was suited to the image, and how skilfully the object was manipulated to produce the final image. I am enjoying the accompanying book, the pictures will mean far more to me having seen the objects.

The puppet man was decidedly spooky. I can’t bring myself to imagine it as a doll except in a rather unpleasant nightmare or an episode of Doctor Who, nor can I imagine it being used to entertain small children; more likely a shaman enacting fearsome stories of the Otherworld with the light of a fire casting flickering shadows and frightening the willies out of the watchers. We’ll never know, it was 26000 years ago.

Pregnant womanOne item I found particularly moving. The limestone sculpture of a heavily pregnant woman which was found in a pit in a structure supported by mammoth bones and tusks; before it was buried it had been deliberately smashed with a stone hammer – following the death of the mother, her baby, or both in childbirth? It took a lot of force to smash this item, and possibly a lot of anger too. There is a video about the female figures by Jill Cook, the exhibition curator, on the BM website.

Some of the art is on objects with an everyday use; whether the items were adorned as a way of propitiating the gods or just for decoration (although I see no reason why it couldn’t be both) we’ll never know. The perforated batons made from antlers are a good example of this, and of man’s ingenuity. A multi-purpose tool, they have a hole which was probably used as a gauge to make a straight, well-balanced spear shaft, and thongs were probably threaded onto the baton to make it a spear thrower – experiments have shown that they are very efficient at both activities. They were nicely decorated, to boot.

And Ice Age animation anyone? There are some small discs which have an animal engraved on each side, in a different position, but so skilfully positioned that if the disc is spun the image appears to move, in a way similar to a flick book. A piece of bone has three horses in various positions (rather like an Edweard Muybridge) which can also be visualized as an animation.

Most of the objects were much smaller than I had expected, although as these people were leading a nomadic or seminomadic life, they would want their art to be portable. Some of it was designed to be hung around the neck, the holes are worn to show that they were suspended upside down, presumably so the wearer could look at them the right way up.

At the end there was a Q&A with Jill Cook, after which we were able to handle replicas of some of the objects; what struck me was how they were not only easy to handle, they also felt very comfortable to hold in the hand.

This really is a once in a lifetime chance to see most of these objects which have been assembled from a wide range of collections throughout Europe, some of them never having been seen in western Europe before. If you want to see the limestone pregnant woman after 2nd June you’ll be needing to go to St Petersburg. Or Brno to see the puppet man.

Ice Age Art transcended my expectations. In the afternoon I went to the Courtauld Gallery for Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. His early work is interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking of his later works and how some of that Ice Age art out-Picassoed Picasso.

There is a cliché that the life of ‘savages’ was harsh, brutal and short. Certainly life on the permafrost was very harsh for these people, and survival must have been difficult; but they were not brutes, and they found the resources to support and maintain members of their communities who were producing pieces of art, which, to our way of thinking at least, had no practical use. They were, to a great degree, very like us, with similar needs and desires, but we mustn’t forget that they were also very, very different. The period covered is from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, so their society would have changed dramatically over those 30,000 years, and the geographic spread across Eurasia is wide too. As far as they were concerned, this art may have been integral to the success, or failure, of their activities, and ultimately the survival of their social group. But we will never know.

(the run has been extended to 2nd June, so the date in the video is wrong)

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