“He cut the veil of the rock; the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brought the moon from the blade, and the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang. He took life in his mouth, spat red over hand on the cave wall. The bull roared. Around, above him, the trample of the beasts answered; the stags, the hinds, the horses, the bulls , and the traces of old dreams. The ice rang. He held the lamp and climbed among antlers necks ears eyes horns haunches, the limbs, the nostrils, the rutting, the dancers; from the cave to the crack.”
from Boneland, by Alan Garner
The stunning exhibition of Ice Age Art at the British Museum produces more questions than answers in its array of objects. Should it be seen as ‘art’? Should it be seen as art for art’s sake? What was it done for? Was it all functional in some way? Was it regarded aesthetically at the time? Was it made by ‘artists’? Should it be seen in isolation from its context? Do the modern art works accompanying it add anything?
To take one type of example from the exhibition open to interpretation:
My hasty sketch above is of the engraving on the tip of a mammoth tusk found at the Paleolithic Pavlov site in Moravia in the Czech Republic, which it is said could be a map of the Pavlovske Hills and the River Dyje, with the small oval showing the ancient settlement.
In the exhibition this is shown with an apparently similar image by the 20th century British artist Victor Pasmore adjacent, possibly an abstraction of a snowstorm or just sequences of parallels of curved lines.
Here is a modern map of the Pavlov site from a display in the Dolní Věstonice Museum near Pavlov. (This is possibly taken from the book “Dolní Věstonice” by A. Knor, V. Lozek, J. Pelisek and K. Zebera via http://donsmaps.com/dolnivi.html where you can find information on the sites)
Are we reading our own conventions of map making – contour lines, rivers, paths- into the lines cut in the ivory?
Are these images of the oldest maps in existence?
“small, schematized, symbolic maps of the Valley or a part of it were often carried by people going on a downriver journey to the ocean or upriver to Wakwaha. As most people knew every feature of the landscape, from mountains to molehills, within four or five miles of their home, and the entire length of the valley was less than thirty miles, these maps were less guides than talismans.”
Why do we make maps? To communicate to others – how to find somewhere, something, the nature of the landscape. Do we need maps when we are in daily contact with our locality, our environment? What else could these patterns represent? Are they just doodles, early examples of the art of mark making, or do they have a symbolic meaning of some sort, to do with identity or possibly spiritual? If they do have a meaning they indicate an ability to use metaphor, which is indeed a key indicator of the ‘modern mind’, the theory behind this exhibition. I know that the scientific application of archaeological techniques can go a long way but unless we find the Paleolithic equivalent of the Rosetta Stone we will never know for sure. But in the meantime we can always speculate and let these objects play on our imaginations.
This was just one aspect of the exhibition that set me off on a train of ideas.
Why do we make art anyway? I shall keep thinking about this.
To be continued…
- Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind – review (guardian.co.uk)
- T.J. Clark: Ice Age Art (lrb.co.uk)
- Ice Age Art: Arrival Of The Modern Mind (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- Ice age carvings: strange yet familiar (guardian.co.uk)