This is one of my great passions, so I had to see the exhibition at the British Museum, but have to admit I was a bit disappointed.
It was mostly about portable pieces of art, many of which were incredibly small so hard to seee through the crowds, and even then, I ofte struggled to make out what the notes were describing; if I couldn’t make them out, then I wondered how much was in the eye of the beholder. I am talking some pieces not much bigger than a fingernail.
Then there were pieces of stone with multiple drawings on them, resembling a scribble pad; the notes highlighted several animals in there, but how could this be called an artefact when it seemed to be more a practice piece?
There were of course my usual complaints – how do they know this?
Like the notion that people were dancing in front of a piece of cave art. How can you tell from ancient footprints the difference between jumping around to keep warm, or having a fight and/or hissy fit?
I don’t think you can.
Some items were described as having been deliberately broken.
Again, how could they know this?
Maybe the piece fell. Maybe there was a fight over it and it got broken – parents have all been there with this one – or maybe it was dropped. Or they just got sick of it or got a new one.
There were suggestions that items had been used for rituals, and again, I really don’t buy this.
And there is an ongoing problem for the archaeologists that human faces are absent. Well, maybe there’s a reason for this.
We are dealing with small family groups. In Australia, there was for many decades a problem with the justice system dealing with Aborigines that resulted in many of them being banged up for minor offences.
It took a long time to realise that the problem lay largely with the notion of personal space. That is, aborigines live very close together, and they cope with this by often averting their eyes, to increase the sense of space between people. When confronted with a police officer/magistrate, they averted their eyes in a similar way, leading to them being seen as dishonest/shifty, so more likely to be convicted of crime.
If Ice Age people behaved like this, they would not spend a lot of time gazing at each others’ faces, so might not spend a lot of time gazing, learning details to the point of being able to reproduce them.
Which leads to another point. One of the most famous pieces on display was the lion headed man from Germany. The head is said to be some sort of ritualistic image, but it is also angular, so much easier to carve than a human face. Was the artist just being lazy? Or taking less risks with a difficult and time consuming material? Maybe he was carving a brave man, so used the lion head as metaphor, or maybe – and this is a notion that seems completely missing in archaology, maybe the carver was just messing about.
That said, the exhibition was worthwhile. I saw some wonderful carving that I hadn’t known about, and watching images of Chauvet and Lascaux caves projected onto a wall was a joy. I love this really early stuff.
But we are dealing with images, images way out of context. So all we can really do with them is guess.
Anyone interested in this early cave art – track down the book by Jeane Clottes, ‘Cave Art’. It is a big, heavy book full of wonderful images, some of which fold out to give you a real sense of the scale of these wonderful works of art. There are maps so you can piece together the layout of the caves, how the art changes as you go deeper. Best of all, there is not a lot of narrative. It’s a book full of dreams. It’s the only way to reach back to the oldest of our ancestors, the ancestors of all of us, so it’s an art that unites us like nothing else can.