Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Swimming Reindeer

As with art and literature and my love of languages, I came to history late in life.
I daresay that youth is a time of looking forward and not back, and that we ourselves have to age a little before we can appreciate history. Perhaps we must have a past of our own before we can appreciate the Past?

Well, it seems to have been the case for me.

When I was in France I fell in love with The Past, so easy to do in such a celtic culture and where medieval villages and old houses nestles in the folds of hillsides, and where menhirs dot the landscape.

It was a television programme called "The Day We Learned To Think" that first sparked my interest in the transition of our species from the first bi-pedal ape that descended from the trees to who, and what, we have become today. And, as so often happens when a passing interest becomes a passion, I began to study Ice Age Art in the form of cave paintings, and then to purchase prints of those at Lascaux to adorn the walls of my own twenty-first century caves in Oxfordshire and in Brittany, and to collect books and to visit museums, and so it continues....

And on my journey of discovery I learned that I find it so much easier to comprehend and to connect with the past than with the present or the future, especially the future.

I'm coming to the reindeer...

Let me take you back some four years to a difficult and challenging period in my life, not long after I'd returned from France. Stress plays havoc with the immune system and I had succumbed to a chest infection which meant that I was obliged to spend some time in bed, sick. I do not sleep alone, my favourite bed-mates being BBC Radio 4 when I'm in England and France Culture when I'm back in Brittany. They're my adult equivalent of sleeping with the light on.

We're getting to the reindeer
So, there I was, in bed, snoozing during the daytime and in that unpleasant state when the brain asks "Why are you in bed when your circadian rhythms decree that you should be up and active", and the body replies "I'm sick, let me rest" and the result is a strange disharmony of being that can be most unpleasant.

And during my time in bed I heard a new series called A History Of The World In 100 Objects
Not only that, but the episode that I listened to as I lay in bed fighting the bugs focused on The Swimming Reindeer.


Found in France and dating back 13,000 years, this is a carving of two swimming reindeer. The creator of this carving was one of the first humans to express their world through art. (BBC)

   This sculpture of two swimming reindeer is one of the oldest works of art in the British Museum. It was carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and made during an extraordinary period of artistic creativity during the last Ice Age. Such works of art could be carried around, bringing images found in the great painted caves of Europe into the daylight. These Ice Age artists were fully modern people with the same mental abilities as humans today.

What was Ice Age art used for?

The artist has depicted the reindeer as they look in autumn. At this time of year the meat, skin and antlers are at their best for use as food, clothing and materials for making equipment. Showing the reindeer swimming may suggest migration or a moment when the animals were easy prey for their human hunters. Was this sculpture a means of communicating with the supernatural world or a charm to guarantee a successful hunt at the start of a bitterly cold Ice Age winter?


I was entranced.
13,000 years ago someone sat by the banks of a river in France and gazed in awe at the herds of reindeer swimming by and was so fascinated and moved by these animals that he carved an image on a piece of mammoth tusk.

 He was one of the first homo sapiens, thinking humans, to express his admiration in art
To create something purely for pleasure
To leave a legacy for us

Something, between say 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, happens in the human brain, that allows this fantastic creativity, imagination, artistic abilities, to emerge.' (Professor Steven Mithen)

It's perhaps silly but this little reindeer-loving Francophile was deeply moved by this object
and very, very inspired by the gift from the past
Which is, I think, a wonderful land
N'est-ce pas?

And so began my love affair with Ice Age Art sculptures, and especially the Swimming Reindeer, an enduring love that led to a wonderful meeting during a Mother's Day excursion organised by my offspring (also known as The Ragazzi), and many, many 'listening-agains' to the podcast of that episode, and the recent purchase of a copy of the carving of the reindeer that now sits on a bookcase in my small sitting room and which I sit and admire often. And next weekend, there will be another meeting when we visit the British Museum's Ice Age Art exhibition during which my the Swimming Reindeer will be the main attraction.

As a scientifically-minded youngster I never understood the value of culture, as in the arts. It has taken me all of this time to appreciate that which culture adds to our lives, how it enriches us, how it enlightens us, and how it is our culture that makes us who we are. Isn't it rather amazing that someone sitting by a river, carving a pair of reindeer on a piece of mammoth tusk, in France, thirteen thousand years ago was responsible for such a shift in my way of thinking?

That's what being human is all about.  


  1. Good to meet again.
    I must visit the British Museum for this very special event. I was captivated by the television preview, which made the point that we are all the same, emotionally, no matter where and when we live.

  2. I love your swimming reindeer. Makes me think of Finnish Lapland as well as early man. I think my interest in early art came with my art history studies at art school. I doubt that we covered it in school before that, I sure don't remember.

    How I wish I could visit that exhibition at the British Museum! They do have a good website which I'm enjoying, plus many articles here and there.


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