Our prehistoric ancestors moved around a lot. It was a short and brutal life back then - you needed the protection and guidance of your gods and goddesses. So, what better solution than to carry them around in your pocket? Portable gods! Let’s take a look at the kind of hand held idols, amulets, totems, and sacred objects belonging to our distant prehistoric past.
A look at prehistoric art that can be held in the hand
Firstly, let me confess that I don’t know our ancestors had ‘pockets’. These sacred items would actually probably be wrapped in a special pouch, carried by a senior member of the group. Oh, and ‘portable gods’ is also my own invention. Archaeologists call these items ‘mobiliary art’, and of course no-one knows exactly what they represented. But suffice to say, they were valued, cared for, and important.
E. H. Gombrich
The famous art historian E. H. Gombrich, required reading on art history courses, seems to believe that vernacular or primitive sculpture is of little interest:
“The story of art as a continuous effort does not begin in the caves of southern France or among the North American Indians. There is no direct tradition which linked these strange beginnings with our own days.”E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon Press, 1950.
“under certain conditions tribal artists can produce work which is just as correct in the rendering of nature as the most skilful work by a Western master”.E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon Press, 1950.
But his assertion is that such work is “queer and unreasonable.” Sorry Mr. Gombrich, but we have no sympathy for your overblown imperialist pomposity. Prehistoric art is vital, exciting and most definitely a part of our artistic past. We all claim ancestry in the cradle of civilisation, so this is our very own history we are examining.
But, let’s set our clocks first – what is ‘prehistoric art’? It is generally agreed to cover a period from the Paleolithic age (or old Stone Age) through to around 10,000 BCE. As humans developed a bigger, more sophisticated brain, they were able to access higher functions such as language and creative expression - they were able to create art.
Small, hand-held figures are the first known evidence of prehistoric sculpture. Human, animal or a mixture of both, these are carved in stone, bone, antler or ivory. We cannot know the exact meaning, use or history of the earliest sculptural objects, but there is evidently great effort, skill and care involved in their production. Why would nomadic people carry around any object that wasn’t essential? Many art historians favour the spiritual angle, but we must also consider they may have been cultural objects, personal ornaments, toys, or even teaching tools. Whatever their role, they must have been important. We don’t see a huge amount of portable art - possibly 10,000 pieces across the whole globe. But what we have found will take your breath away!
Venus of Willendorf
Perhaps the most well-known mobiliary art is the Woman of Willendorf. She was excavated in Austria in 1908. This Paleolithic-era figure is made of oolitic limestone and is just over 11cm high. The stone used was not local to the area where she was found, so she was definitely transported to her final resting place. She has no facial features which seems deliberate, perhaps to suggest her divine status? Her hair is braided in geometric circles, or it may be a headdress. Her breasts, pubic area and soft rounded belly are emphasized. That ripe, well-fed body does seem to promise abundance and the continuance of life. When discovered she was decorated in red ochre, commonly used to symbolise the miraculous power of menstruation and birth.
Art historians generally agree that with these early ‘Venus’ female figures, there is probably a totemic, fertility aspect, evidenced by their huge breasts and hips. The Woman of Willendorf is one of around 100 fertility style female artefacts unearthed across the globe. Remember the goddess gifs that danced across the internet a couple of years ago? Our own Alexandra Kiely took a close look at the goddess creations of artist Nina Paley.
The Venus of Berekhat Ram and the Venus of Tan Tan are both unusual in that they are pre-Homo sapien, at somewhere between 230,000 and 700,000 years old. By comparison the youthful ‘Woman of Willendorf’ is just 25,000 years old - significantly later but much more well known.
There are also some anthropomorphic and animal figures to be found, but like the goddess figures, we can't be certain if these relate to food, lifestyle, cultural or spiritual beliefs. Some artefacts have non-figurative art, including abstract shapes, grids, lines, dots, curves and zigzags. It is difficult to date hand-held artefacts, as they are often found far from the site where they were made. And although a stone can be dated, the engraving upon it cannot.
The Swimming Reindeer is a very complex piece of art, 13,000 years old. It shows a male and female reindeer, swimming nose to tail. It is known to have been chopped with a tool, whittled with a stone knife and scraper, precisely incised with an engraving tool, then polished with powdered iron oxide and buffed with leather.
Another British Museum piece is the Ain Sakhri Lovers (11,000 years old). A natural calcite cobble has been picked at with a stone point to represent two figures embracing, face to face, in a sitting position. It is the oldest know representation of a couple making love, although the genders are not identified.
One of the most famous examples of prehistoric art that came up at auction is this ancient piece of Mesopotamian art known as The Guennol Lioness (c.3,000 BCE). It sold in 2007 for $57million. Sotheby's auction house said "it is diminutive in size but monumental in conception". One of the oldest and rarest pieces of art in the world!
Lepenski Vir in Serbia is an example of a very early phase in the development of prehistoric culture in Europe. The excavation site is noted for its level of preservation and the exceptional quality of the artefacts found. The Lepenski settlement was a permanent and planned one, with organized human life. Architect Hristivoje Pavlović labeled Lepenski Vir as "the first city in Europe".
The stylised piece above could have been made yesterday. Infact this Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel is 10,000 years old. This Swiss Magdalenian pendant of a stylized human figure was discovered in 1990 in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It is the oldest item of prehistoric art ever found in Switzerland and one of the oldest items of ancient jewellery. Gorgeous!
The clay figure above, the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük is obviously a female form, seated between feline-headed arm-rests. Some have suggested that this artefact depicts a fecund and fertile Mother Goddess, in the process of giving birth while seated on her throne. Others suggest she is a high status aged woman - an elder, respected for her experience and wisdom. Either way, it seems our ancient ancestors celebrated women both in their art and in their communities. The settlement of Çatalhöyük thrived for more than a millennium. Full of densely packed mud brick houses covered in paintings and symbolic decorations, its population reached 8,000. That made it one of the biggest settlements of its era. Not that we would recognise it as familiar. Well, unless you live in a place where there are no streets, where you walk on roofs and where you bury your dead under the house floor. You would remove their head first though, so you could carry it with you when you moved on.
Let's finish with this absolute stunner - the Venus of Brassempouy (c. 23,000 BCE). Carved from ivory, this was found in Brassempouy, Landes, in France. It is an example of Gravettian culture and currently held by the Museum of National Antiquities, Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France. This is one of the earliest known representations of a human face. Imagine seeing it - or even holding it!
We hope you've enjoyed this quick tour of our favourite mobiliary art. Did we miss something? Let us know! A quote from a very modern professional sculptor, Alberto Giacometti seems a rather fitting way to end:
“Gropingly I seek to capture in the void the invisible white thread of the miraculous which vibrates, and from which facts and dreams escape with the murmur of a brook rolling over lively and precious pebbles.”Alberto Giacometti, Charbon d'Herbe poem, 1933.
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