Prehistoric Art Research Paper

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As far as we know, people have been making objects, forms and images that we consider to be ‘art’ for at least 35,000 years and perhaps even longer. Some claim that evidence of red ochre, as a kind of coloring material, indicates human engagement with artistic activities (such as body painting) for more than 200,000 years. Others have pointed to individual objects, dated to even earlier than that, which they are convinced were modified by ancient humans with an intent to represent something, suggesting that ‘art’ has long been a part of the cultural repertoire of humans, even of different biological species than we anatomically modern humans. And when most lay people learn that they are talking to an archaeologist, they inevitably ask, ‘What is the most fantastic thing you have ever found?,’ hoping we will be able to tell them about a gold decorated necklace, a carved figurine, or magnificent painted jar: they want to know about ‘prehistoric art.’

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1. Definitions

The very term, ‘prehistoric art,’ is difficult to define. Technically speaking, it refers to the ‘art’ made by prehistoric peoples; that is, by people in those societies without, and usually before the development of, written texts. There have in recent times been human societies without writing systems (nonliterate) and with what might be called ‘the arts,’ but these are more likely to be what we call ‘ethnographic arts’ because they are still ‘living’ arts and can be described ethnographically. There are some problems with the way in which the term ‘prehistory’ is used, including the implication that, without writing systems, prehistoric groups have no history, and experienced little change. But we know this is not the case at all, and that there are myriad ways other than in writing by which ‘history’ is reckoned, transmitted, and experienced. Also, in relation to the idea of ‘prehistoric art,’ there are some archaeologically known societies, such as the Maya or Egyptians, who had writing systems, but whose ‘arts’ are sometimes referred to as prehistoric or, more often, as ancient art. In fact, it is perhaps better to think of the arts that we are interested in as the archaeological arts, rather than prehistoric ones. With such a term, we realize we are dealing with the art(s) from past human societies that we study by using the wide range of archaeological methods, theories, and techniques.

Then there is the term ‘art,’ which is itself notoriously difficult to define. Furthermore, it is a term that has had differing meanings even within the last two centuries of Western scholarship and culture. Since the nineteenth century, ‘we’ in the Western tradition have associated the term, ‘art,’ with aesthetics and aesthetically-pleasing attributes; as something that is usually produced by specialists who are often considered to be gifted individuals with admirable degrees of creativity, and who are often separated from real-life, everyday activities. Our present-day notions of art include the idea that art is to be held in awe while, at the same time, the production and products of art are embedded in the capitalist system, with economic as well as cultural value; art objects function in their own domain, that of high culture and aesthetics.

However, all this is unlikely to be applicable to the art-making and art images and forms that we are concerned with in prehistoric and archaeological contexts. It is a well-known truism in anthropology that in most cultures which have been studied ethnographically, there is rarely a word, or even a concept, equivalent to our word and concept, ‘art.’ It is not really possible to try to separate out ‘art’ from other aspects of cultural life, such as art as something distinct from religion, social relations, and/or politics. And yet there are images, forms, and cultural practices in other cultural contexts, both ethnographic and archaeological, that we acknowledge unproblematically as ‘art,’ mostly because, if they were produced by our own culture, we would classify them readily as art: cave and rock paintings, sculpted figurines or statues, decorated bronze goblets, and the like.

Is there a better term: visual culture? Material culture? Images? Representations? Material symbols? The term or label we use, such as ‘art,’ is not itself the real problem; what is more of an issue is that if we use such a term in our own sense, without recognizing its historical specificity, then what we mean by it is often left unexamined, and the analysis or interpretation of the phenomenon is led in certain directions because of the label. If what we have is ‘art,’ then there must be artists and aesthetic meanings. However, as Morphy (1999) has so eloquently noted: we need to develop a concept of art that ‘neither distances the objects of other societies from Western cultures nor appropriates the object to European categories.’

Books that treat the topic of ‘prehistoric art’ as a single entity are rare; most book-length treatments are concerned with the art and imagery of specific regions (e.g., Keyser 1992; see also Sub-Saharan Africa, Archaeology of), time periods (e.g., Leroi-Gourhan 1967) or in specific media (Dowson 1992). In 1966, Powell authored an overview of prehistoric art, which was divided into four chapters: the art of the hunters, that of the cultivators, that of the metalworkers, and what he called the ‘art of a barbarian nation,’ referring to the Celts of Europe (Powell 1966). His coverage was limited to Europe, and he treated each ‘kind’ of art by apparent categories of ‘lifestyle,’ but it is just as much a book about the ‘progress’ of art from the Paleolithic period (the hunters), through the Neolithic (the cultivators), the Bronze and Iron Ages (the metalworkers), to the ‘archaic state’ (Celts). As such, he presents a now-problematic evolutionist view, a view of ‘progress’ through different chronocultural periods. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the ethnographic (and archaeological) arts have been embedded in a progressivist notion (Errington 1998); we used to talk unquestioningly of ‘primitive art’ (Price 1989).

More recently, Bahn (1998) has authored an illustrated history of prehistoric art, but it is almost exclusively about ‘rock art,’ with a short chapter on ‘body art’ and one on ‘objets d’art,’ or portable art (items that could circulate). He returns again and again to a baseline of the Ice Age imagery of Europe, although this book is an important source for appreciating that rock art—paintings, engravings, and petroglyphs on rock surfaces, rock shelters and in caves—is truly global in its distribution. Bahn’s map of sites is a map of the world, while Powell’s is one of Europe. This is indicative of a real shift of scope in our understanding and treatments of ‘early art’ and/or rock art from all times. As we will see below, the search for the earliest art has been one of the major preoccupations of many who study ‘prehistoric art.’

2. How To Study Prehistoric Art

First, it is always important to recognize that the corpus of materials that we consider as ‘prehistoric art’ is certainly only a sample of what was made in the human past. There is always the problem of preservation, and that what we have in the present is only a sample of past artistic production. It is no coincidence that rock art, ceramic sculpture and decorated pots, metal objects, and images made out of ivory, bone, antler, shell, and beads of various sorts are some of the primary forms of prehistoric art. The wood, hide, basketry, cloth, netting and twining, feathers, and body art are rarely, if ever, preserved. If the arts of ethnographic groups are any indication, we have an impoverished archaeological sample of prehistoric visual and material culture.

But given the preservation of at least some portion of prehistoric artistic production, how do we then go about studying it? First, we need some theoretical or conceptual frameworks within which even to think about what the images and forms might be about, especially if we cannot directly apply our own notions of ‘art,’ artists, and aesthetics. Much of this has to come from related fields, such as the anthropology of art, the ethnographic arts, and art history. We need to draw on understandings of what visual and material representation is all about (e.g., Gombrich 1961, Bryson 1983), of symbolism (e.g., Geertz 1983), and of humans as materialists and symbolists (Conkey 1993); of how technology and materials are integral to the art-forms (e.g., Lechtman 1984), of style (Conkey and Hastorf 1990); and of the social contexts and production of art (e.g., Wolff 1981), and of the ‘social life of things’ (e.g., Appadurai 1986). Studies of ‘art’ in ethnographic contexts (e.g., Morphy 1991), general overviews of the anthropology of art (e.g., Layton 1981), and ethnoarchaeological studies provide important resources.

Second, we need to recognize the importance of the archaeological context of the so-called art forms, and we need to take context into consideration when we try to interpret or understand the meanings, uses, or even the making of the art. Do the preconceptions that female figurines—from about 7,000 years ago from sites in such places as southeast Europe—are objects of worship and a female-centered world change when we recognize that some, if not many, of the figurines have been recovered from trash deposits, often broken? Are the Ice Age paintings of southwestern Europe found deep in caves, away from daylight, comparable to those found on daylit shelters? Is there a difference in the uses and meanings between objects found in everyday places and living sites, and those found in architectural structures that are so different in size, form, and location that they must be otherthan-‘houses’? The individual images and objects may well take their specific meanings from the locations where they were made and/or found, or from the other artifacts or structures with which they are associated. We can use the most up-to-date techniques and methods, especially those of materials science, to make inferences about the images and objects: we can identify the sources of the raw materials, such as clay, stones, or pigments, which in turn can inform on trade, exchange, circulation of goods, and the social relations that effect such practices. We can identify different ways in which pigments were processed by Ice Age cave ‘artists’ in Europe (e.g., Clottes 1993), and therefore suggest the social relationships that must have obtained in order to have images in different sites made by the same pigment ‘recipes.’ We can show how certain fibers were used to apply pigment in Australian rock paintings (e.g., Cole and Watchman 1992).

We can infer the stages of manufacture of metal earspools (e.g., Lechtman 1984) and how these stages resonate with other cultural principles and practices. We can use infrared photography to ‘see’ color and images that have long since faded away. We can use high powered microscopic analysis to detect the precise strokes of a stone tool on the surface of a bone object; from such analyses have come the suggestion that lunar calendars may have been made at least 15,000 years ago (Marshack 1991). These are just a few examples of how our increasingly sophisticated methods of materials science that are common in the analysis of other archaeological materials can be applied to the study of prehistoric art images and objects.

Both of these approaches—knowing the archaeological contexts of the art, and the application of scientific techniques—have featured prominently in the increasing ability to date many objects and images. It has long been the case that objects that are found in stratigraphic context—that is, in the geological archaeological layers of an archaeological site—can, if excavated and recorded carefully, be attributed to at least a relative date. They can also be given more secure dates if other artifacts or materials in the same stratigraphic layer are suitable for some of the many techniques of archaeological or chronometric dating. However, many art forms, such as rock art or objects that are unfortunately out-of-context, cannot be dated in this associative manner. And many of these images themselves cannot be dated at all, although recent advances have changed this somewhat. Earlier generations of scholars, for example, dated all the cave art of Europe or the varying rock art styles of Australia by means of stylistic criteria, often based on assumptions as to what ‘ought’ to be earlier image-making and what ‘ought’ to be later. At the same time, many researchers were reluctant even to consider the art as a subject worthy of archaeological study, primarily because it could not be dated (see Whitley and Loendorf 1994).

That much art cannot be dated has, in combination with the fact that the interpretation of art is never straightforward (if only because it is the product of symbolic cultural practices that are not easily comprehended through the usual archaeological methods), led many archaeologists to dismiss art and images as viable archaeological data. This has been the case especially when it comes to objects and images from many thousands of years ago, where there are no real historic links between the archaeological ‘cultures’ and those known ethnohistorically or ethnographically, where there is no direct historical method that can be applied. Some have suggested that the recent explosion of interest in the global study of rock art is due, in part, to new dating methods that have allowed researchers to begin to date imagery with more security. For this genre of prehistoric art—rock art—the most important new technique has been the development of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) carbon-14 dating, which can be done using a very minute sample of material, thus not destroying a painting or image, although it can only be used if there are organic materials in the pigments, such as charcoal.

3. Some Major Questions

At least two major questions come to mind when we sit down to address the subject of prehistoric art: first there is the question of the origins or the ‘birth’ of art; second, there is the challenging issue of how we can interpret the art and approach what it might mean. Until recently, it was thought that the cave paintings and other arts of the Upper Paleolithic period (c. 30,000–10,000 years ago) in Europe comprised the ‘first’ art, even though images from ancient cultures had been found all over the globe (see Bahn 1998 on the ‘discovery’ of prehistoric art). This was a compelling idea because there were many different caves with images and many other objects and art forms; because it seemed to be associated with the earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans—our own species, Homo sapiens; and because it was in Europe, which allowed for the idea of a continuous tradition of art—a crucial essence of what it means to be human— from deep prehistory up into the twenty-first century.

However, work during the last few decades of the twentieth century has undermined seriously the idea that there is any single ‘birthplace’ of art: both southern Africa and Australia have yielded rock art images that can be attributed to the same general time period as the European Paleolithic imagery. And there are those who point to more isolated finds (see Bahn 1998, pp. 86–7), although many are debated hotly as being ‘art’ or intentional representations at even earlier dates. And we now recognize that anatomically modern humans have a deeper history, perhaps as much as 200,000 years longer, than previously thought. However, the exact nature of the relationship between being anatomically modern and the appearance of representational and/or symbolic imagery is hardly resolved, but the fact that this kind of imagery appears in multiple locations, in varying forms and amounts, calls for a more contextual approach: what is it about life and social relations at these times that set a context within which ‘art’—at least in more durable forms that have been preserved—became a part of cultural practices? While the search for ‘the origins’ of many phenomena in the human past is always a seductive question, as far as prehistoric art is concerned, it is now clear that there was no single ‘center’ for art-making, but that the preserved evidence around the globe attests the engagement of ancient humans with materials, images, and technologies (of working stone, of coloring materials, etc.) for cultural purposes that still elude us.

And thus, the final, but most difficult question is the interpretive one: how can we infer some (if any) of the meanings of prehistoric art? This question is both the most difficult and most complex question, and what everyone wants to know. Since all of archaeology is interpretive, while drawing on as much empirical evidence as possible, and since human behavior is so multivocal, with so many potential meanings and ambiguities, it is unlikely to expect a single answer, a single interpretation. Even in known or ethnographic contexts, the so-called meaning of art-making or of the art itself is ever-shifting, contextual, and multiple, dependent upon viewers, users, makers, and situations. Do we assume that prehistoric peoples were somehow ‘simpler’ and therefore a (simple) single account can suffice?

Despite the complexity of the challenge, there are some things that we can say about interpreting prehistoric art. In some instances, we can infer information clearly about clothing from human depictions, about activities as depicted in ‘scenes,’ preferred symbols or forms, and what kinds of object were traded or used in certain contexts. In other instances, we can advance general theories, such as the role of shamans in making images that derive from their visions (e.g., Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1989, Turpin 1994), such as the ways in which ritual landscapes were created with artforms and megaliths, such as the idea that some arts appear to be ‘about’ interpersonal social relations, whereas other arts appear to be ‘about’ maintaining the corporate entity (e.g., Layton 1985). While we are unlikely ever to fix, with certainty, what a particular picture or object ‘meant,’ recent past decades have witnessed enormous gains, thanks to the application of scientific techniques, the innovative and expanded theories for interpretation, and a more widespread recognition that the archaeological arts are just as crucial to our understanding of past societies as are other kinds of archaeological data.


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