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.”
In one Pyrenean cave, where a number of delicate carvings of horses’ heads were found – boldly likened by Cook to the equine sculptures on the Parthenon frieze – was an area where carvings had clearly been produced over a period of time, like an “atelier”, said Cook. The skill and time required to make the works suggest that “this was a society that valued their producers”.
In fact, Cook is convinced that the urge to make art – including the earlier abstract work made by Homo sapiens in Africa, before the species made its way to Europe – is as old as the frontal cortex itself. “This work is where the executive brain comes from: the ability to think ahead, to collaborate, to compromise, to regulate ourselves,” said Cook.
The profound need for objects that had no practical function, but seem to have been created purely to delight, to entrance, or to inspire awe or reverence, is aptly demonstrated by a small clay sculpture of a woman. She has drooping breasts, a paunchy stomach and, endearingly, carefully incised fat folds, or love handles, on her back. “Gravity is taking over,” said Cook. “I have some sympathy.” This object, between 31,000 and 27,000 years old, is the oldest known object made from clay – not a pot or a vessel, but a sculpture.
The woman’s portrait head from Moravia was excavated in the 1920s in Dolní Věstonice, a valley frequented in the Ice Age by mammoth and reindeer and other huntable beasts travelling between the Polish plains and the Danube valley. A headline in the Illustrated London News called the excavation the “The Stone-age Pompeii” because of the wealth of objects discovered there. But, according to Cook, “in the wake of the second world war and the Iron Curtain people in western Europe almost forgot about the finds.”
The head and other artefacts are a rare loan from the Moravian Museum in Brno – their arrival on British shores having been delayed, as it happens, by the ice and snow at the weekend.
Other artefacts – such as a 32,000-year-old lion-headed man from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany, carved with consummate skill from a mammoth tusk – suggest that Ice Age artists were capable of imaginative works. Such fantasies may hint at the existence of myth or story.
At the opposite extreme is what Cook calls a “hyper-real” landscape picture of deer pausing at a stream, scratched into bone about 14,000 years ago. “The artist has carefully chosen the right piece of bone, and prepared the surface, which suggests a preconceived plan,” said Cook. “The figures of the deer occupy just the right amount of space to give you a sense of perspective. The texture and colour of the deer’s coat have been carefully depicted, even its white bottom. These are exactly the considerations that a modern artist would make. The key concepts of drawing are all there.”