Created by Megan Ogborn
Senior Seminar Project
January 29, 2003
When was the Prehistoric Era?
Lower and Middle Paleolithic: c. 750,000-40,000 BP
Upper Paleolithic: c. 40,000-10,000 BP
Mesolithic: c. 8,000-6,000 BP
Neolithic: c. 6,500-1500 BP
What is Prehistoric Art?
Prehistoric art can be several things, from megaliths to little stone figurines, to paintings on the walls of caves. The term “prehistoric” indicates that the culture that produced the artwork did not have a written language. Some of the more famous examples are Stonehenge, the Nasca lines in Peru, and Lascaux Cave. Prehistoric artifacts and artwork can be found all over the world.
There are several forms of prehistoric artifacts and artwork. There are small stone figurines (1), petroglyphs (2) found all over the world, geoglyphs (3), megaliths (4), and last but not least, cave paintings (5). This webpage will focus on two examples of cave paintings, as well as female figurines, particularly the “Venus” figurines.
1. Stone Female Figurine 2. Petroglyph
3. Geoglyph—Monkey from the Nasca Lines (Peru)
4. Megalith in Scotland
4. Altamira Cave, Spain
History of Prehistoric Artwork:
The study of prehistoric work includes the collaborative efforts of archaeologists, historians, and art historians. Each brings a particular skill to the table; archaeologists look at tangible evidence, through examination of stones, minerals, bone, tusks, etc. Historians work towards creating a chronology of evolution while the art historian studies the artwork in relation to its culture. However, in the case of prehistoric artwork, there simply is not enough evidence for an art historian to look at the socio-economic structure behind the work produced. Thus, the art historian will look at the image, or object, compare it to others of the time, and of other cultures, and will offer some suggestions, as will the other two disciplines, for the psyche and motivation for these ancient cultures to produce the works they did. When interpreting prehistoric artwork, concerns are the current threats, different approaches of interpretation, pigments (cave paintings), and dating. Throughout the search and study of prehistoric artwork, there have existed many theories to the meaning of driving force behind the creation of the work. To fully appreciate prehistoric work, archaeologists, historians, and art historians seek out clues of the cultures that produced such works. To go through each theory ever developed about prehistoric art would be painfully long, so the three main players of twentieth century prehistoric theory will be discussed.
Breuil, LeRoi-Gourhan, and Marshack: The Theorists
Perhaps one of the strongest voices of the twentieth century, Breuil was most noted for his sketchings of the cave paintings he visited rather than solid scholarly work. It was under his theories that the links between prehistoric cave art and “magic hunting,” totemsism, spirituality, and the ever strong motivation of ritual. Breuil believed that at the core of each action to create prehistoric art was a ritual act or ceremony in some way. Although most of his theories have been disproved, his was the voice that was unquestioned for the majority of the twentieth century.
A careful scholar, Leroi-Gourhan was meticulous in his observations. He is known for his “structuralist” approach to the chronology of prehistoric cultures. Perhaps the greatest concept was the idea of the cave as a “global environment.” This idea is based further on view of “sanctuary” and “style.” He creates terms for different styles, “prefigurative,” “primitive,” “archaic,” and “classical.” He again divides when looking at the arrangement and placement of the animals. His works divide and divide again different groups.
Marshack is a contemporary scholar who focuses on the cognitive development of prehistoric cultures. His approach is one that does not separate the cognitive developments of today’s human from the Paleolithic homo sapiens. His efforts are meticulous, and all inclusive. He differs from Breuil, feeling that the “magic” and “fertility” are oversimplified terms that ignore several cases.
Lascaux Cave, near Montignac, Dordogne, France:
This wonderful cave was discovered in 1940. There are several aspects of this site which make is extremely important, enabling scholars to study the style of Paleolithic art. There are stone tools near the engraved segments, numerous lamps were found, and clumps of pigment were found.
As the cave paintings go back several chambers into rock, light must have been brought into the cave. For most caves, portable lights were used, most likely in the form of torches. To infer what method was used for lighting, let our attention fall on another Paleolithic cave, Altamira. As with Lascaux, bones were left near the cave walls. Although Breuil suggested that the bones, filled with bone marrow, blood, resins were used to bind the pigment to the wall, scholar Matilde Muzquiz Perez-Seoane suggests that in fact the marrow was used for lighting. A clay pot or bone holding marrow could use a plant fiber for a wick. Her studies indicated that these “torches” did not produce soot, which would have harmed the paintings over time, but the flame was somewhat unstable. The use of at least three torches would provide a steady glow to work by. Yet the flickering light might help create an atmosphere where the viewer could almost see the wild bison moving. The soft light of the torch would have also given a soft light to the paints, making red appear to be brown, yellow look more orange. The pigments were made of local flora, and the technique to obtain the colors was fairly sophisticated. For the red pigment, iron oxide (red ochre) was used. Black was manganese dioxide, although in some cases, charcoal from juniper or pine was used. The use of shells to mix the pigments was common, as seen with both caves at Tito Bustillo, and Altamira, both located in Spain. To adhere to the cave wall, the pigment was mixed with water, or oils from flora and animals. In his studies, Leroi-Gourhan noticed that certain groups of animals were placed in the same location in several different caves. Lascaux caves work as an example of his theory. Group A contained horses—about 30% of the animals depicted. Group B shows bison and aurochs—again 30% of the total. Group C portrays ibex, deer and mammoth at 30%, and finally Group D represents 10%. Rare animals such as felines, bears, and rhinoceroses are displayed in Group D. Thus, the animals in Groups A and B were located on the main walls in the central area. Group C animals were located near the entrance, and on the peripheries of the central areas. Group D animals were placed in the more remote areas.
Paleolithic artists have five colors at their disposal: yellow, red, brown, black and white. Although white is a rare color, it is seen at Lascaux! Pigment was applied to the wall in several ways, but the most effective was a brush made of animals fur. The ceilings were painted as well, but no extended brush was needed, as the ceilings were so low.
Spit painting: best eyen 2-4 inches from wall. As French prehistoric art specialist Michel Lorblanchet said, “Human breath, the most profound expression of a human being, literally breathes life onto a cave wall. The painter projects his being onto the rock.”
The Lascaux caves were an immediate sensation. Shortly after the end of World War II, scientists began to note some deterioration on the paintings. Not long after, patches of green mold and algae ere visible. On April 20, 1963, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs closed the Lascaux caves indefinitely. The deterioration was the result of gas acidified affecting the water vapor being breathed in and out by visitors. Other threats to prehistoric works are animal droppings, weather, and temperature changes. In 1980, a popular reproduction project was set in motion. Today all caves of Lascaux are in their original condition, and visitors can still marvel at all chambers of Lascaux.
Methods to Date Prehistoric Art:
Relative dating relies on stylistic analysis, superimposition analysis, weathering, and inter-site patterning. When considering the weathering method, it is mostly based upon common-sense observation: a less weathered engraving could be younger. Factors of the weathering method are micro-environment, or the depth of an engraving. Through stylistic dating researchers study superimposition and weathering in order to create a chronology of different styles and activity of different groups.
Absolute dating is much less reliable, comparing one object to another to obtain a chronology. The concept of stratified art holds some bearing, in which the layers of soil, varnishes, or deposits can date an object over the object in question. Association dating, however, is extremely unreliable. The concept with this method holds that an object can be compared to another object of a known date, thus dating the object in question. However, if an Egyptian object is brought to Greece, although the Egyptian object might at one time have been contemporary with the Grecian object in question, the Egyptian piece could have been kept as an heirloom, and not buried until some centuries after it was originally brought over.
1. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS):
A method of radio-carbon dating which counts the actual number of carbon 14 atoms present in a sample, rather than the small number of 14C atoms which decay radioactively during the measurement time. It requires only a tiny sample of carbon, and is a quicker but more expensive method than conventional radiocarbon dating.
2. Carbon-ratio dating:
A technique based on the fact that the ration of calcium and potassium/titanium in rock varnish may decrease exponentially with age.
3. Micro-erosion Analysis:
An optical technique for assessing the age of petroglyphs from their degree of erosion, based on marks of known age.
4. Proton-induced X-ray emission:
A technique for analyzing chemical composition, since X-rays emitted from the sample have different wavelengths, which are characteristic of the elements present.
5. Radio-Carbon dating:
A dating method, which measures the decay of the radioactive isotope of carbon (14C) in organic (plants and animals) material to nitrogen. This decay begins as soon as an organism dies, so that a sample’s connect of 14C is an indicator of the time elapsed since death. The dates are expressed as a number, followed by a plus/minus sign and then another smaller number. The first number is the age in years before present; the second is the associated probably error.
6. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM):
A technique for examining the microscopic and submicroscopic structure of objects up to at least 50,000X magnification. The microscope forms an image as the sample is scanned by a high-energy electron beam.
7. X-ray diffraction:
A technique for identifying the mineralogy of crystalline material by exposing it to a beam of X-rays. The different X-ray intensities transmitted after passing through the sample identify the elements present.
The cave was discovered in 1994, and was authenticated as a Historic Monument on October 13, 1995. On Feb 14, 1997, the state became the owner of the cave, having in court come to the agreement of paying $87,5 million francs to the three finders. Authentication was based more on observation. Researchers looked at the engraved lines. When a line is newly engraved, the interior cut is clear, white, and after thousands of years upon the wall of a cave, the interior has become covered in micro-crystals. For a modern artist to re-create such images, the individual would have to be a master of animal representation, and of prehistoric art and those animals of the era. The floors were also a contingent—the floors were completely covered with animal skulls, and bones. The cave dates back 31,000 years ago, disproving the theories of Leroi-Gourhan. For protection against unwanted visitors or vandals, the cave is now fortified through permanent audio and video surveillance, and those who are allowed to enter must follow strict procedures including a special suit and shoes set that have not been in contact with the exterior of the cave. Within the cave, a system of climatological and biochemical surveillance has been installed to regulate the hygrometry and temperature within the cave, including the bacteriology and growth of concretions.
Through analysis, researches have found that to maintain the delicate environment within the cave, humans may only be within the cave for up to 8 hours, for 15 days. The maximum amount of persons to enter should be 12. Bearing this in mind, researchers conduct two studies a year, lasting for 15 days. Geologists and floor specialist are allowed two additional weeklong studies. Only half of the team enters on any given interval, equaling 8/9 persons per day for roughly 6-7 hours.
When entering the Brunel Chamber, there exist two groups of red, painted dots. Researchers have carefully suggested the technique they believe was used through observation of the direction of paint, the marks left by the creators. The dots were created by the application of a thick layer of colorant applied to the palm of the hand. It has been suggested that these groups of dots were created by different people—as indicative of the size of the dots. For the smallest group, it is believed that a woman or adolescent made them, as male created the larger group. The prints were made with the palm of the right hands. Small marks left by the thumb, or middle finger helps researchers place the posture and stance of the creators.
As an unexpected surprise, the cave bears several impressions of predatory animals, usually not seen within Paleolithic paintings. Animals such as the rhinoceros, lions, and bears are depicted. It is believed that the Aurignacian culture, which is considered the first culture of the early Upper Paleolithic era are the originators. This culture has produced flint tools, which were standardized to include end-scarpers, and burins. The development of body ornamentation was significant innovation of the Aurignacian culture, including bracelets, ivory beads, carved bone pendants.
Another huge discovery was located on a ceiling overhang. The decoration of the overhang includes a depiction of a “Venus” figure. In short, a Venus figure was that of a woman, and the depiction of her pubic region by the portrayal of a triangle or the letter “V” was used. Near the Venus exists a mammoth and two felines. Above the Venus figure was the composite of a man-bison, or “Sorcerer.” It is believed that the Venus was not only the earliest painting. As an interesting observation, the other figures near her were never superimposed.
Venus of Willendorf
It is undeniable that during the prehistoric era several female figurines were sculpted. There are generally two sets of the figurines: those belonging to the Upper Paleolithic, and those belonging to the Neolithic era. Of those within the Upper Paleolithic era, another sub-group can be noted, usually referred to as the “Venus figures.” These figurines cover the majority of Europe—from Western France to Russia. Those in the Neolithic period include a more diverse image, and geographically cover the Mediterranean island and Eastern Europe.
Prehistoric artwork within the early Upper Paleolithic era (25,000-23,000 BC) includes cave paintings in France and Spain depicting animals both hunted and feared (as seen in Chauvet Cave.) Other forms of artwork include engraved or carved bone and stone objects, as well as the Venus figurines. Of the Venus figurines, most are made of stone or mammoth ivory, and can range in size anywhere from 4cm up to 22cm, although most stay on the smaller size. They are known by having large breasts, buttocks, and thick thighs. The arms and feet are significantly decreased and disproportionate, or absent. The faces are abstract or devoid of details. Several were found close to flint tools.
Those in the Neolithic period are mostly female, but there are some male figurines, as well as a few animal models. Several do not show any particular gender characteristics. Several also hold similar markings and design throughout the region, suggesting perhaps a common meaning and links the figurines to a social or religious tradition throughout Europe. As many were similar in shape, several also have identification markers that distinguish them, usually indicating their location.
There are multiple theories that suggest how the figurines fit into the culture in which they were produced. Some theories suggest that the figurines are of the “Mother Goddess,” a deity that represents fertility for both crops and the future existence of the society. It has been suggested by scholar Margaret Ehrenberg that this ideology will not work when considering that the belief systems of forager societies, “who are closely in touch with the natural world and whose own social systems are based on greater equality than that of later socially stratified societies, typically center on general spirits and forces, rather than personified gods and goddesses (74).” Another suggestion Clive Gamble makes suggests that the figurines were left as markers in open areas during the zenith of glaciation for other nomadic peoples while one-tribe retreats to regional caves.
One question that commonly springs up from the discovery of these female figurines concerns the role of the genders within society. Darwin suggested that before the patriarchal societies became dominant, the majority of prehistoric societies were matriarchal. Scholar LeRoy McDermott has offered the original idea that perhaps the figurines were created by women as self-representations. The question still remains how these figures fit into society. McDermott offers that the figurines were part of learning within the society. In this sense, McDermott’s theory aligns well with Alexander Marshack’s. Marshack believed that the prehistoric cultures were just as advanced cognitively as contemporary society. If prehistoric societies, largely believed to be hunter and gatherers, could track the grazing patterns of animals, and follow the “rhythms of the land” to gather food, then surely these ancient cultures would be able to create artwork, either through cave painting or through sculpture. The use of these figurines as educational models to teach about the physical changes which occur in a women’s life, including, “maturation, menstruation, copulation, pregnancy, birth, and lactation” (1991A:282). This ideology does fit into the lifestyles of some contemporary tribes in Nigeria. Women desiring a child would carry a small figurine with her in hopes to become pregnant, just as a woman expecting her child might carry a small red painted female figurine with her to ward off any problems that might arise.
McDermott suggests that the exaggerated forms of the female figurines comes from the point of view the woman creating would have by looking at her own body. McDermott therefore suggests that it is only women who are sculpting these figurines, which has been hailed just as much a sexist comment as solely men making the figurines by Paul Bahn. Another flaw in McDermott’s argument is the depiction of hair, which is out of view for women, if they were creating the sculptures in their own image. As so many of the cave paintings during this period display cognitive advancement, and alteration in correct proportions, the concept of women merely copying their own bodies, without any thought, is another strong disagreeing thought, offered by Whitney Davis.
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