Was there art in the ancient world?(1) More specifically, was there fine art; skill, ingenuity or expressiveness in things made to look beautiful? The most stringent test would be with the earliest evidence. Archeology and social anthropology suggest that, although standards of living were modest among prehistoric ‘hunter-gatherers’, they provided for every need with time aplenty to enjoy ‘the original affluent society’.(2) Yet, unlike the Modern experience of specialization and division of labour — right down to artists — all their tasks were embedded in each other, from running the household and supplying it to worship or war. While, then, certainly, some ancients — perhaps many — made things with artistic qualities, how much was made just for the sake of making it well? Or was their art ‘mere’ decorative art?

Our museums tend to imply answers. Some relate ‘art’ to its archeological context in order to document a way of life or the history of lifeways. Or there may, indeed, be circumstantial evidence encouraging us to present artefacts as art. Although inspired more by religion or history than ‘art’, the Romans admired and collected sculptures, worked gems and paintings. For today’s interest in the history of collecting, antiquities are sometimes displayed to illustrate Modern discernment of ‘art’; but that does not tell us about ancient life.

These ruminations were prompted by two temporary exhibitions in England. The British Museum, in London, has been showing ‘Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind’ while, in March, the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology mounted ‘Pitoti: Digital Rock-Art from Ancient Europe’. A larger version of Cambridge’s was shown in 2012 at the Triennale Design Museum, Milan.

The British Museum’s claim about ‘the Modern Mind’ is that, already, 40000 years ago, “communities” (to quote the gallery) “tried to understand themselves and their ... world” by observing and manipulating volume, scale, light, perspective and movement. It is illustrated by finds from the Pyrenees to Siberia in the Museum’s own collections and others in France, Germany, Moravia and Russia. In materials surviving the millennia, stone and clay, bone, ivory and antler, they show (more or less clearly) human figures, animals — including the plaque from La Madeleine which, in the 1860s, proved contemporaneity of people and mammoth — and non-representational motifs. For archaeologists, certainly, it is unforgettable to see such famous pieces together along with less familiar but equally striking finds.(3)

Among the exhibition’s many stylized figurines are the famous Dolni Vestonice ‘Venus’ (Cover Image), the bulging ‘Schwabian Eve’ unearthed in 2008 and the elegant-looking head from Brassempouy. A preoccupation after about 30000 BC, it seems, were the phases of human female fertility and pregnancy. There are figurines and drawings of animals and a replica of the man with lion’s head from Stadel Cave (more fragments of it were found recently so conservators are working on the original). The exhibition mentions cultural variation but space evidently permitted only the broadest allusions to changing geographical and historical conditions for ‘communities’ or traditions. So, in large part, the exhibits must speak for themselves.

As though to compensate, a sound track suggests a cavern’s ambiguous echoes and dripping water. Many of the exhibits are tools such as spatulae or spear throwers; there are flutes; and beads; but, although they may have been made for rites, the figurines’ designs, pictures of France & Spain’s celebrated wall paintings (projected onto the mock-up of a cave), and a cast of the bison modelled in clay at Le Tuc d’Audubert all look unconstrained by functional requirements. The women and bison on a plaque from Isturitz were “drawn with confidence by an accomplished artist”; the carvings of horse heads there, we are told, are among some 80 finds that suggest a studio.

To support its claim about mentality, the exhibition includes Modern drawings and sculptures — Matisse and Moore, among others, and four elegant figures of George Brassaï’s perched amongst some of the enigmatic little stone shapes found at Oelknitz. The first exhibit is an ivory from Lespugue that fascinated Picasso. These juxtapositions are quite thrilling — but how telling are they?

Pitoti: in the dialect of Alpine Valcamonica (Italy), little puppets, or fools, as people have dubbed the 300000 images scored into the rocks smoothed down there by glaciers.(4) Hunts, combat, dances, herds and solitary animals as well as geometrical patterns and inscrutable semi-representational designs, the earliest are more than 8000 years old but the majority date from about 3500 BC to the end of the Middle Ages. Where most of the British Museum’s exhibits are portable, Cambridge’s, of course, were reproductions. Mounted on stands and video screens, ‘Pitoti’ comprised photographs, images derived from three-dimensional laser scans, and simulacra or experimental templates for making sense of the motifs. Investigators have now discovered special acoustic qualities at three of the earlier sites, so the exhibition included recordings of yodels and alpenhorn along with the sound of engravers pecking rock.(5)

Although one of ‘Pitoti’’s panels did point out that various interpretations have been suggested for the images, this exhibition offered even less historical and archeological background than ‘Ice Age Art’. For its emphasis was on recent investigations of the carvings.6 The display stands were cardboard, as though to aver that it was provisional. We were invited to think about the images: shining a torch at the model of a typical ‘stick’ figure in order to cast variations of it in shadow; exploring views and details in a manipulable panoramic photograph of the landscape; standing amongst screens showing sequences of both the scenery and studies of the designs; or manipulating a set of electronic images on a touch screen — “zooming in and out”, as we were urged, “learning” the conventions, “the ... logic ... shaping the forms.” During National Science Week, the gallery filled with chatter, especially families at the touch screen. The warders were continually (and gladly) resetting the gadgetry!

<>Both exhibitions worked hard to elicit the knowledge or capacities that visitors bring. ‘Ice Age Art’ counts on its analogy with the 1900s. ‘Pitoti’, more truly than other museum ‘experiences’, depended on interactivity. It was an experiment in presentation — indeed, a little museological milestone; but then the university is for learning through repeated essay and experiment. As a national and international attraction, the British Museum has to make sense in a single visit: its visitors cannot necessarily be expected to recognize the question begged.

Was it equally just to call both exhibitions ‘art’? Was Cambridge’s usage merely promotional short-hand? Should we discriminate among the British Museum’s exhibits? For, other than through principles that we bring to them, prehistoric artefacts do not speak for themselves.  That our own principles may allow us to recognize Ice Age aesthetics sounds moving but to argue that people back then had the same capacities as us or Henri Matisse, perhaps the same appreciation of form, is not to say that their conditions encouraged art in the same way or in the same sense as ours. The ‘Ice Age Art’ curator points out that it would be facile to dwell on similarities between Stone Age depiction of horses and the Parthenon’s.(6)

The issue can be largely resolved by taking account of social, economic and symbolic background; but neither exhibition could explain enough about the contexts for the ‘art’. The British Museum’s book does point out that changing population density might have encouraged different forms of expression but many visitors will have missed that. (7)Archeologists argue about whether there were significant changes in the style of Ice Age figurines; and, equally, we could ask whether the Valcamonica’s “logic” did not change in 8000 years. How good a sample of the ancient work is ‘Ice Age Art’, then? What were the prehistoric era’s priorities, principles and values? What, for that matter, were the Romans’ ... and how well do we understand our own?

As the British Museum’s permanent galleries show, archeology offers more answers than either exhibition could give. May ‘Ice Age Art’, then, prove as stimulating to others as to the present writer, prompting them too to pursue further its extensive issues and implications.

"Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind" runs until 26 May at the British Museum in London.
Admission by ticket booked in advance.


1. Christiane Andersson, Christopher Evans and Sally Gaucheron kindly commented on a draft of my text but, for any remaining shortcomings, mea culpa. Thanks are due too to the British Museum’s press office for welcoming me to ‘Ice Age Art’.

2. Marshall Sahlins. 2003. Stone Age economics (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

3. Jill Cook. 2013. Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind. London: British Museum; technically, not a catalogue.

4. Tiziana Cittadini, Cristina Gastaldi, Alberto Marretta & Umberto Sansoni. 2012. Valcamonica: stone images. Milan: Skira; http://www.pitoti.org/index.php/

5. Christopher Chippindale & Frederick Baker. 2012. Pitoti, digital rock-art from prehistoric Europe: heritage, film, archaeology pp. 42-5. Milan: Skira.

6. Christopher Chippindale & Frederick Baker. 2012. Pitoti, digital rock-art from prehistoric Europe: heritage, film, archaeology. Milan: Skira.

7. Cook (note 3.) pp. 19-20.

Cover Image: Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice;
The oldest ceramic figure in the world;
On loan from Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute.
Figure is about 115 mm. high;
Image and caption courtesy of the British Museum. Ref Number: 01172519.