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Pre-historic art

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Pre-historic art of Europe


The earliest European art found so far is of the upper palaeolithic period. This includes both cave painting, such as the famous paintings at Lascaux, and portable art, such as animal carvings and so called Venus figurines such as the Venus of Willendorf. There are some speculations that only homo sapiens is capable of artistic expression, in comparison to the Homo neanderthalensis.

Yet homo erectus had, long before, produced seemingly aimless patterns on artifacts, as is evidenced by the finds from Bilzingsleben, Thuringia that might be understood as a precursor technology to art, as well as to reveal some intent of the artificer to decorate, to fashion beyond the practical necessities of the tool under production. The symmetry and attention given to the shape of a tool has led authors to see middle palaeolithic hand axes and especially laurel points as artistic expressions as well. The Bereket Ram Venus (Israel) and its counterpart in Morocco The Tan-Tan Venus , dated between 800,000 and 220,000 BCE, may indicate the earliest attempts at human form as well as purpose. A recent find, the Mask of La Roche-Cotard in France, now suggests that Neanderthal humans may have developed a sophisticated and more complicated artistic tradition.


The Mesolithic period has some examples of portable art, like painted pebbles (Azilien ) from Birseck , Eremitage in Switzerland, and in some areas, like the Spanish Levant , stylized rock art. Patterns on utilitarian objects, like the paddles from Tybrind Vig , Denmark, are known as well.


Free standing sculpture had already begun by the Neolithic, the earliest being the anthropomorphic figurines, often embellished by animals from the very beginning of the Neolithic discovered in Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe near Urfa in eastern Turkey, dating to ca. 10th millennium BC. The mesolithic statues of Lepenski Vir at the Iron Gorge , Serbia and Montenegro date to the 7th millennium BC and represent either humans or mixtures of humans and fish.

In Central Europe, many neolithic cultures, like Linearbandkeramic, Lengyel and Vinca, produced female (rarely male) and animal statues that can be called art. Whether the elaborate pottery decoration of, for example, the Želiesovce and painted Lengyel style are to be classified as art is a matter of definition.

Megalithic monuments are found in the Neolithic from Spain to the British isles and Poland. They start in the 5th Millennium BC, though some authors speculate on mesolithic roots. Because of frequent reuse, this is difficult to prove. While the most well-known of these is Stonehenge, were the main structures date from the early Bronze age, such monuments have been found throughout most of Western and Northern Europe, notably at Carnac, France, at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands, in Portugal, and in Wiltshire, England, the area of Stonehenge, the Avebury circle, the tombs at West Kennet, and Woodhenge. One tomb found in New Grange, Ireland, has its entrance marked with a massive stone carved with a complex design of spirals. The tomb of Knowth has rock-cut ornaments as well; one of them may be the oldest known image of the Moon. Many of these monuments were megalithic tombs, and archaeologists speculate that most have religious significance.

Bronze age

During the 3rd millennium BC, however, the Bronze Age began in Europe, bringing with it a new medium for art. The increased efficiency of bronze tools also meant an increase in productivity, which led to a surplus - the first step in the creation of a class of artisans. Because of the increased wealth of society, luxury goods began to be created, especially decorated weapons. Examples include ceremonial bronze helmets, ornamental ax-heads and swords, elaborate instruments such as lurer, and other ceremonial objects without a practical purpose. Rock art, showing scenes from the daily life and religious rituals have been found in many areas, for example in Bohuslän Sweden and the Val Carmonica in Northern Italy.

Iron age

The Iron age saw the development of anthropomorphic sculptures, such as the warrior of Hirschlanden, and the statue from the Glauberg , Germany. Hallstatt artists in the early Iron Age favoured geometric, abstract designs perhaps influenced by trade links with the Classical world.

The more elaborate and curvilinear La Tčne artistic style developed in Europe in the later Iron Age from a centre in the Rhine valley but it soon spread across the continent. The rich chieftain classes appear to have encouraged ostentation and Classical influences such as bronze drinking vessels attest to a new fashion for wine drinking. Communal eating and drinking were an important part of Celtic society and culture and much of their art was often expressed through plates, knives, cauldrons and cups. Horses' tack and weaponry were also subjects deemed fit for elaboration. Mythical animals were a common motif along with religious and natural subjects and their depiction is a mix between the naturalistic and the stylised. Megalithic art was still practised, examples include the carved limestone pillars of the sanctuary at Entremont in modern day France. Personal adornment included torc necklaces whilst the introduction of coinage provided a further opportunity for artistic expression. Although the coins of this period are poorly made derivatives of Greek and Roman types, the more exuberant Celtic artistic style is still visible.

The famous late fourth century BC chariot burial at Waldalgesheim in the Rhineland produced many fine examples of La Tčne art including a bronze flagon and bronze plaques with repoussé human figures. Many pieces had curvy, organic styles though to be derived from Classical tendril patterns.

In much of western Europe elements of this artistic style can be discerned surviving in the art and architecture of the Roman colonies. In areas where Roman influence was missing altogether, the later Iron age artistic tradition continued well into the historic period, perhaps most famously in Ireland and Northumbria.

Pre-historic art of Asia

Native arts of Africa

Considering the African origins of human beings and that the hunter-gathering technologies evolved there, there are scant representatives of true art before the great flowering of culture in the upper Paleolithic. There are however, indications that hominids may have had a broader conception of their world than was previously supposed.

Native arts of the Americas

sand painting

Native arts of Oceania

Starting from its first settlers from Asia, the natives of Australia, often known as Aborigines, have been creating distinctive patterns of art. Early known artworks of the Aborigines are mostly rock paintings. Many are called X-ray paintings because they show the bones and organs of the animals they depict. Some aboriginal art seems abstract to modern viewers; aboriginal art often employs geometrical figures and lines to represent landscape, which is often shown from a birds-eye view. For instance, in aboriginal symbology, a swirl stands for a watering hole.

The Bradshaws are a unique form of rock art found in Western Australia. They are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning. They have been dated at over 17 000 years old and debate rages as to who actually created them.

Like the aborigines of Australia, the natives of Polynesia left behind a distinct artistic heritage. While many of their artifacts were made with organic materials and thus lost to history, some of their most striking achievements survive in clay and stone. Among these are numerous pottery fragments from around Oceania, from the late 2nd millennium BC. Also, the natives of Polynesia left scattered around their islands stone platforms and sculptures of ancestor figures , the most famous of which is located at Easter Island.

See also

External links

  • (Lepenski Vir)
  • (Göbekli Tepe, in German)
  • (Nevali Cori)

Last updated: 05-23-2005 14:04:31