The best art by ice-age Homo sapiens are masterpieces that took hundreds of hours to produce, says curator
It’s smaller than your thumb: a little piece of mammoth ivory delicately carved into the shape of a woman’s head. But this miniature sculpture, with one wonky eye and rather elongated, slightly Modigliani-esque proportions, is the oldest known portrait in the world, and is about to go on show to the public for the first time in Britain in a new exhibition at the British Museum, Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind.
Some 26,000 years ago, in a valley teeming with game in what is now Moravia, a man or woman carved this little head with skill and not a little persistence, using stone tools to smooth away the recalcitrant, hard ivory.
According to the British Museum’s curator Jill Cook, “The reason we say it is a portrait is because she has absolutely individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes over and there’s just a slit. Perhaps she had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. In any case, she had a dodgy eye. And she has a little dimple in her chin: this is an image of a real, living woman.”
The exhibition will show that the first figurative art was created in Europe in the shadow of the Ice Age – and that the people making it were capable not only of highly naturalistic images but also of abstract representation. Everything, argues Cook, that we think of as art was already present in the culture of these early people.
“Most people looking at art are looking at the five minutes to midnight – the art of the last 500 years,” she says. “We have been used to separating work like this off by that horrible word ‘prehistory’. It’s a word that tends to bring the shutters down, but this is the deep history of us.”
The works even suggest a nascent art world, she argues – professionals occupying a particular place in society, entrusted with the work of creating art. “Some of the things we have from digs are a bit rubbish; some of them almost look like apprentice pieces. But the best things are masterpieces and would have taken hundreds of hours to produce.”