Sunday 17 March 2013

Ice Age Art - The British Museum Exhibition

This one's for Marja-Leena...

I'd waited a while. The British Museum's Ice Age Art  exhibition has been open for over a month, I'd read about it, I'd eagerly anticipated a visit, fate, life, had other plans.

Until this weekend.
Last night I attended a lecture called "Art and the arrival of the modern mind" in one of the museum's lecture theatres. It was fascinating but frustrating, everyone else had, it seemed, seen the exhibition, everyone except me.

Today I went to see for myself. So here is my amateur but very enthusiastic account of a visit to the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum.

Note, the exhibition is very popular and was fully-booked.
I was able simply to turn up and wander in thanks to my membership of the museum which grants me free and unrestricted entry to the exhibitions at any time, a generous discount in the shop and the restaurants, and a member's cloakroom and lounge, in addition to special member's events and evenings.  It has been a real gift to me.

So, let's wander back in time some 40,000 years....

 This is a thought-provoking exploration of the masterpieces of sculpture, drawing and decoration of the last Ice Age. Produced between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, this is some of the oldest known figurative art in the world. Looking at these art works provides a fascinating insight into the earliest modern minds and their capacity to express ideas symbolically through art.

Over 100 objects are featured, including small but exquisite sculptures made from mammoth ivory, engraved drawings, ceramic models, decorated objects and jewellery from the age of the great painted caves. Some are celebrated masterpieces such as the Swimming Reindeer (13,000 years old), the so- called Willendorf Venus (25,000 years old), the Vogelherd Horse (32,000 years old) and the Lion Man (32,000 years old); others are lesser- known treasures from the collections of European museums. The author examines them in a new light, as works of aesthetic – not solely archaeological – interest, and as such forming part of an unbroken continuum of human creativity.

The compelling narrative is also illustrated with a wealth of images, from classical sculpture to twentieth-century painting and even contemporary advertising campaigns, which demonstrate surprising aesthetic parallels between these ancient works and familiar modern pieces.

In this way,
Ice Age art will bring home the point that the minds that created these objects in all their diversity and inventiveness were modern minds like our own, capable of highly sophisticated thought and expression.
(British Museum)

It's 40,000 years ago. Europe is emerging from the last Ice Age, Britain is joined to continental Europe, ice covers most of the country.

Times are hard, food is not abundant, your prey is difficult to catch and kill armed, as you are, only with stone tools, and if you do manage to bring down a bison or catch a reindeer, well, there are other predators ready to deprive you of your kill and, if you're not agile and smart, of your own life.

You are an early human, out of Africa, a cave-dweller, you lack sophistication, some people would even suggest that you are still a savage.
Or are you?

The oldest known figurative art in Europe appeared 40,000 years ago.
Our species, homo sapiens, was not solely surviving the harsh realities of life in the Ice Age, they were also creating art. They were painting the walls of the caves that gave them shelter, with vivid and breathtakingly beautiful images of reindeer and bison, lions and rhinos.

They were carving the tusks of mammoth and reindeer to create beautiful sculptures, and not just of the animals that figured so prominently in their everyday lives, but also of naked women, of pregnant women and of women in childbirth, they were making amulets to hang round their necks and they were making models of fantasy creatures.

Pause to think about the time span. 40,000 years ago and our ancestors were making art.

 I took few pictures during my visit to the Ice Age Art exhibition.
The lighting was subdued, cave-like, people wandered in silence, for me the atmosphere was reverential, almost religious. I wanted to look and to really see, rather than be distracted by my camera. I did, however, feel compelled to capture a few images,so here are the best of them...

The Zaraysk Bison
Zaraysk, Osetr Valley, Russia

This sculpture of an adult, female bison was carved from the the tusk of a mammoth.

It is around 21,000 years old

The Lion Man
Hohle Feis Cave, Baden-Wurrtenburg, Germany
What makes this statue special and so significant is that it is not a carving of a real animal. This is a figment of one of our ancestors imagination and it shows that the human mind had taken a huge leap forward.

There are theories that the Lion Man may have had a special significance, perhaps it was used in shamanic rituals devoted to giving the lion's strength and hunting skills to its owner.

Carvings of deer on the tusk of a mammoth

This pair are quite simple but quite lovely.

A collection of horses, mammoths, and lions.
Some of the carvings have holes in them which leads us to believe that they were designed to be worn as pendants, interestingly upside-down so that the wearer could lift them to look at them.

Why? Because they were beautiful, or was it because they would endow the animal's qualities on the wearer?    

The Woman from Dolni Vestonice
The oldest known ceramic lady.

A full-figured mature lady made from earth baked in a fire. She has obviously borne children, her body bears the evidence of motherhood.

Was she revered as such? Was she seen as the perfect example of the female form? Rounded, soft, fertile? Was that her claim to fame that resulted in her appearance in a museum 30,000 years later?

I wish that I'd taken pictures of the little statues of pregnant women, some evidently at the start of their pregnancies, some heavily pregnant, some in the act of giving birth. Sadly they were too small to be captured on film, they have to be examined up close and personal to appreciate their beauty.

But I was struck by how much our ancestors revered pregnant women and how they must have been captivated and fascinated by the whole process of giving life to the next generation. It's also obvious that pregnancy and child birth would have been very dangerous times in the lives of these women, little wonder that so many statues and carvings were made, possibly to offer them protection.

Art and Identity

It is always subjective, is an object decorative or utilitarian? Sometimes we have clues, the beads and pendants that are found still adorning bodies that were buried so long ago, the carving placed on the breastbone of a corpse...

Sometimes, in the absence of evidence and of clues we have to use our imagination  

The Swimming Reindeer Carved on a mammoth tusk 13,000 years ago and found in Montastruc, France.

Not a good picture, I was a little over-excited to be, once again, up close and personal with my favourite museum piece. 

But how could I not include The Swimming Reindeer?

I'll doubtless write about them again. In the museum shop I bought a small book devoted to these reindeer, written by one of the curators, Dr Jill Cook, who kindly signed my copy. I admit it, I am not averse to a little hero-worship, even at my age.  

If I have one criticism, no, request, it would be that the Swimming Reindeer be given pride of place in the exhibition. But that's my own, highly personal opinion based on my devotion to this particular piece of Ice Age Art. It was a chance-meeting, a serendipitous meeting, that introduced me to this sculpture and so to a late-flowering fascination with the Ice Age.  

I've collected many books on the subject of the prehistoric, several about our cousins, the Neanderthals, some devoted to cave paintings, a few weighty tomes on the evolution of the human brain, and now this one has been added to my book shelf...    

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

My two trips to London were exhausting. I don't feel comfortable in a crowd and I don't feel at home in a city.

So, on Sunday, as I recover from my adventures and plan a quiet day reading my books by the fire and revisiting my memories of the Ice Age Art exhibition, it's rather fitting that this is the scene that greeted me as I pulled back the curtains this morning.

Thick, fat snowflakes falling on the green

The story of how I followed my visit to the exhibition with a workshop on flint napping and made my very own flint hand tool will have to wait for another post, suffice to say I am now equipped to skin a mammoth should the carcass of one happen to appear on the village green today. And if it keeps on snowing as heavily as it is now that could be a distinct possibility! 

A few links:

British Museum - Ice Age Art


Interview with Dr Jill Cook on Ice Age Art


  1. Glad you're sorted for the mammoth encounter anyway!

    It looks wonderful. How did you feel about the inclusion of more modern pieces, advertising campaigns etc? I'm a little wary of those kind of parallels being made too glibly, or would perhaps prefer to draw my own, but this exhibition has been so well received, no one seems to have had a problem with it...

  2. To be honest Lucy, I barely noticed anything other than the ice age exhibits. One or two modern pictures caught my eye but they were the ones representing the female form in similar ways to those of the ancestor's art and at first I thought that they were sketches of the exhibits. I'm not artistic and I do not always appreciate that which is most popular, I would describe myself more as an anthropological art-appreciator if that makes sense, I like art that 'speaks to me' from other cultures and from other times. I'm perhaps not expressing myself very well...

  3. I'm so glad you saw this and shared it with this lover of ancient art and archaeology - thank you Julia!

    1. I wish that you could have come with me, you would have been as enthralled as I was, it was lovely, perfectly lovely, and I am going back again!

  4. I love this took me there. and I love the photo of the snow scene that you posted. It's like a postcard...xo

    1. Hello Claudia, welcome to the new blog. Thank you for your kind comment, and wasn't it fitting that it snowed the next day! I loved that!

  5. Thank you for the lovely tours! I have enjoyed catching up with you and missed you when you moved blogs.

    1. Hello and Welcome! I'm pleased that you enjoyed my posts and happy to have you join me here :-)

  6. An exhibition I would have loved to see :-)

    By the way, what a beautiful view outside your window.

  7. Hello Britt-Arnhild. It is a fabulous exhibition and very popular, the British Museum have produced a masterpiece! And more treats to come with Pompeii and Herculaneum next.
    Yes, my view is lovely, especially when it snows, it is the reason why I rent this tiny, expensive little house, for the view and the people who wander the green with Tashi and I :-)

  8. Enjoyed your cyber tour, If you are interested in paleolithic culture you might like this fictional book which is available from smashwords, where you can download a pdf file for free.
    regards GPL (


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