A few months ago I was lucky enough to get to the British Museum exhibition on Ice Age art, called “The Arrival of the Modern Mind”. I have to say it was on a par with the larger, much grander and more popular Pompeii exhibit, which was also brilliant.
Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of my own; snaps were banned, which is understandable given the delicate nature of the items and commercial rights of various museums. The main theme of the art exhibition was that the styles and techniques of the earliest human artists were strikingly similar to what we would consider modern art. Picasso, known for his abstract depictions of women, was heavily inspired by a neolithic carving of a woman; he kept two casts of it in his studio. The exhibit curators had also sourced recent paintings that had similar brush stroke and compositional techniques to our early ancestors.
Seeing such tiny and delicate things in front of me through the glass, I was struck not only by their beauty but their fragility and the amount of effort it took to produce them. Some of these pieces were 40,000 years old. One bone carving of a human with a lion’s head was estimated to have taken over 400 hours to create.
When you consider that these people were hunter-gatherers, and so always on the borderline in terms of starvation, that they would commit so much of themselves to producing such art shows that the human creative genius must have always needed an outlet. Whether it was for ritual or decorative purposes, these people had an idea and took whatever time was necessary for that idea to come to fruition. We tend to think of our ancestors as primitive, but they don’t seem to have been too far behind us in many respects.
I’ve noted previously how much people of the here and now and antiquity enjoyed having little objets d’arts scattered about, and our ancient ancestors were no different, with tiny little lion-men as well as water birds.
When you think about how little has made it to us from so long ago, it makes you wonder what will be left of us in 40,000 years apart from plastic bottles.