When the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London first opened in 1948 it mounted an exhibition with the title 40,000 Years of Modern Art. With the subtitle ‘A Comparison of Primitive and Modern,’ the idea was to suggest that modern art was drawing on the same impulses as those that drove the earliest endeavours in creative art. In so doing, the Institute’s director, Herbert Read, was continuing a tradition of some 40 years of European and American primitivism, in which artists, in search of the universal roots of artistic creativity, sought to emulate the artefacts and images of prehistoric times as well as those of the supposedly ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
The problems with this primitivist project have long been recognised and critiqued, from its reduction of the visual arts to merely formal practices to its reliance on racist notions of the tribal, the savage and the primitive. However, the title of the ICA exhibition did unintentionally point to the fact that prehistoric art raised many of the same issues that had preoccupied modern artists and aesthetic theorists. When Marcel Duchamp famously submitted a urinal to the Armory Show in New York in 1917, he brought into question not only the norms governing art practice, but also how we differentiate an artwork from a mere object. This question later received renewed impetus in the 1980s and 1990s when Arthur Danto and Thierry de Duve considered the legacy of Duchamp once more.1 How does one distinguish between an artwork and artefact, when they may appear identical, as Danto asked in a celebrated exhibition he co-curated in New York?2
Precisely this question is raised by the exhibition Nejstarší šperky a ozdoby těla (The oldest jewellery and body ornament), currently on display at the Anthropos Pavilion in Brno until February 2023. The Pavilion is a museum of prehistoric archaeology and is one of the many parts of the Moravian Regional Museum. It houses a permanent display on human evolution, with a variety of skeletal and other prehistoric remains, along with life-size dioramas of prehistoric humans and their ancestors in various contexts, and large-scale copies on the walls of the famous cave paintings of Lascaux. The centrepiece of the permanent exhibition is a spectacular life-size recreation of a woolly mammoth that was originally created for the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture held in Brno in 1928 and is based on the remains of a mammoth that had been found in southern Moravia.
Fig. 1: Diorama from Anthropos Pavilion. Source: own image.
Fig. 2: Copy of Lascaux cave painting from the Anthropos Pavilion. Source: own image.
Fig. 3: The woolly mammoth on display in the Anthropos Pavilion. Source: own image.
Nejstarší šperky a ozdoby těla is housed in the temporary exhibition space in the basement and mostly strikes a very different note from the recreation of mammoths and cavemen and women on the upper floor. The exhibition consists of finds from Dolní Věstonice, a village close to the border of Austria and southern Moravia, and they consist almost entirely of antlers, pieces of bone, ivory, shell and wood. It seems an unpromising collection of objects, but such items have proven to be a source of endless fascination, as this review will later show.
Fig. 4: Installation view of the Nejstarší šperky a ozdoby těla exhibition. Source: own image.
The material here was first excavated in the 1920s by Karel Absolon (1877-1960), a custodian of the Moravian Regional Museum and professor of ‘Geography, Palaeoanthropology and Zoogeography’ at Charles University. Dolní Věstonice proved to be a site of world-wide archaeological importance due to the thousands of Palaeolithic artefacts, some 25,000 years old, that were unearthed there. They included the ‘Venus of Věstonice’ (Věstonická venuše) a small female figurine, 11.5 centimetres in height, which, although less well known than the famous Venus of Willendorf, is no less significant. Absolon would later boast about his achievement and that of his wife in finding it.3
Fig. 5: The Venus of Věstonice (ca. 25,000 BP). Source: own image.
Inclusion of the Venus is, from one perspective, understandable, for it is by far the most spectacular object on display, but one might also ask what it is doing here. For by no stretch of the imagination was it a piece of jewellery or body ornament. On the other hand, the statuette does raise the important question that underpins the entire exhibition, namely, what kind of aesthetic culture did the Palaeolithic inhabitants of central Europe practice? For as the title indicates, we are to see the artefacts on display as aesthetic objects. The status of such material has long been debated and the commentary accompanying this exhibition acknowledges that while reasonable inferences can be made, interpretation often has to rely on informed speculation.
The exhibition presents, in addition to the Venus of Věstonice, several other carved figurines as well as numerous cases of hundreds of bones and antlers inscribed with figurative and abstract motifs, pierced shells, antlers and other artefacts which, it suggests, may have been the parts of necklaces. To achieve maximum effect, they are sometimes presented in serried ranks, at other times those that are supposed to have belonged to necklaces have been arranged in semi-circles, as if waiting to be strung together.
Fig. 6: Ivory carved figure (ca. 25 - 20,000 BP). Source: own image.
Fig. 7: Oldest jewellery and body ornaments. Source: Moravian Regional Museum.
Fig. 8. Source: Photo Benjamin Rampley.
Fig. 9. Source: own image.
In order to aid the viewer, copies of some these objects have been mounted on a life-size mannequin representing a shaman based on one in the permanent display in the upper floors of the museum. To display them like this is speculation, of course; it is not known what kind of clothing the inhabitants of the region wore 25,000 years ago, and the idea that we might model prehistoric religions on the shamanism of historic times has been popular, but also hotly debated and contested.4 Nevertheless, given the fragmentary nature of the material on display, it helps visualise how they might have been used and how they might have adorned the human body.
Fig. 10: Mannequin of a prehistoric shaman. Source: Moravian Regional Museum.
The central issue raised by this exhibition is how these tiny fragments are to be interpreted. Were they aesthetic objects, as the title tells us? The display cases, set in a darkened space and spot lit, invite us towards this conclusion, our attention given over to the formal qualities of their contents. In this respect the exhibition has adopted a similar approach to a much larger exhibition on prehistoric art held at the British Museum in 2013.5 Yet even if we admire them as aesthetic objects, and even if we now agree that they are amenable to such appreciation, how can we be sure that this is how their creators and their users viewed them?
Much about these objects remains ambiguous or just simply impossible to know. For example, while the fact that the Venus of Věstonice is the representation of a female figure is hardly likely to be contested, who she is remains a matter of guesswork. The nomenclature of ‘Venus’ assumes she is a female deity or spirit, and this is a plausible suggestion. The prevalence of such figures in central Europe, including, of course, in Willendorf in Austria, would suggest this might be the case, but the fact that such figures have been found as far afield as western Russia might prompt caution. Is it likely that a common religion existed across such a large territory? Might the Venus not equally simply be a prototype that was disseminated across central and eastern Europe, but given different meanings and purposes in different contexts? The simple answer is that we do not know.
Other mysteries abound, too. Many of the objects bear markings, but the purpose is not at all clear. They could simply be decorative patterns. Equally, however, they could have some other significance; the American archaeologist Alexander Marshack was famous for his close readings of incised bones and other objects, in which he identified symbols and iconographic patterns, in some cases suggesting that they were prehistoric calendrical systems.6
Certain conclusions can, nevertheless, be drawn from the various artefacts on display. They attest to a certain degree of technical know-how and capacity for refinement. Prehistoric artworks have also been the focus of more fundamental philosophical speculation. For they can be treated as indices of the evolution of human cognitive capacities. Indeed, an entire field, cognitive archaeology, has grown up as an attempt to address this theme.7
The most relevant issue here is the broader implication of referring to the objects in aesthetic terms, i.e. as jewellery and adornment. For this implies acceptance of the idea that their makers had a capacity for aesthetic appreciation. Yet where did such appreciation come from and how far back can it be traced? It has been suggested that it has deep roots; when he wrote The Origin of Species Charles Darwin suggested that it could be related to sexual selection. Evidence for this, he suggested, could be found in the magnificent plumage and song of birds, which play an important part in finding a mate, and other authors have since put forward similar ideas.8 At the same time, many have vigorously contested the idea that ‘art’ is anything but the product of a very specific culture: that of Enlightenment Europe, and that if we imagine our prehistoric ancestors aesthetically ‘admiring’ artefacts, we are projecting onto them a very modern sensibility. This is a commonly rehearsed objection but it is problematic. For even if we admit that the admiration of artistic qualities for their own sake is a historically recent and specific phenomenon, aesthetic sensibility seems to be much more widespread. As the art historian David Summers has pointed out, there are countless examples of prehistoric artefacts that exhibit refinement, i.e. ‘superfluous facture, more than is necessary simply to “finish” a configuration.’9 Such ‘superfluous facture’ can be seen in objects of immense antiquity, such as the large hand axe from Furze Platt in Berkshire in England, which is estimated to be up to 300,000 years old and is one of the very first examples of symmetrical design.10 Even if the ends of such refinement are extra-aesthetic, the fact of refinement signifies some capacity for aesthetic judgement. The Furze Platt hand axe has been of especial interest due to its size. Some 40 centimetres in length, it is too large to have been used as a hand axe, prompting speculation as to other possible uses.
Fig. 11: The Great Hand Axe from Furze Platt. Natural History Museum, London. Source: Wikipedia.
Bifaz de 40 cm de largo, considerado uno de los mayores de Europa, se dice que demasiado grande para ser útil, y por tanto se le atribuye una utilidad simbólica.
300.000 años de antigüedad.
Related to this is the role of such images and artefacts as indices of the capacity for symbolic communication. The Venus figurines as well as the vast number of examples of prehistoric figurative representation globally, from ancient rock art in southern Africa to Indonesia, offer clear evidence of the antiquity of such capacities. Yet the further back in history one goes, the more the difficulties pile up. The acquisition of the capacity for such communication has been seen as the sign of a human cognitive revolution and the emergence of the symbolic mind around 70,000 years ago.11 This idea is beset with problems, however. Archaeological discoveries worldwide indicate that such symbolic cognition, as expressed in figurative representations such as the Venus of Věstonice, appears to have occurred in several different places across the globe at the same time, and, crucially, that it post-dated the move of modern humans out of Africa. If we wished to link the development of art to cognitive evolution, we would have to suggest that the human mind evolved independently in the same way in locations separated by thousands of miles. This is not impossible, but its probability is low.
Alternatively, we can point to the fact that the artefacts and representations of Moravia and elsewhere are in fact the culmination of an immensely long process in which it is not possible to identify a clear break. Seemingly chance marks were gradually transformed into notations, figurative schemas and the complex representations with which we are familiar. The earliest examples, such as those discussed by Marshack, stand at a point where it is difficult to decide whether we are dealing with intentional lines, circles and dots endowed with significance, or whether they are just accidental marks.
Recent archaeological finds suggest that such a capacity might not even be unique to humans. In south-eastern Spain there is evidence of symbolic activity – the fashioning of marine shells – that can be dated to 115,000 BP, to an era before modern humans had arrived in Europe. It is therefore likely that these were made by Neanderthal hominids and that symbolic thought may be found much further back in time.12 Indeed, Ernst Gombrich attempted to locate the origins of image-making not in some uniquely human characteristic, but in a much wider cross-species ability to treat one object as a substitute for another and an ability to perceive similarities: ‘The cat runs after the ball as if it were a mouse. The baby sucks its thumb as if it were the breast. In a sense, the ball “represents” a mouse to the cat, the thumb a breast to the baby.’13
An alternative explanation of the emergence of art might see it not as an index of the cognitive evolution of symbolic capacities but, rather, to the cultural evolution of human cognition. Michael Tomasello has argued that the latter developed out of a feedback loop with the artefacts of culture.14 To illustrate this he discusses the ability to count. We share this with other species – there is evidence that a variety of non-human animals can count – but the ability to undertake higher level calculations, such as statistical analysis or algebraic equations, is not, even though it follows logically from basic numeracy and logic skills. But then, it is not even an ‘innate’ human ability. Only after the development of mathematics were many of its operations conceivable. In other words, human cognition is a cultural artefact because the accumulation of cultural technologies such as mathematics has expanded the domain of what is conceivable. Art has arguably had a similar role. Summers has suggested precisely this. Our sensitivity to qualities such as visual proportion, ambiguity, scale and symmetry are, he argued, cultural artefacts. They are not given by nature, as it were, but only emerged out of the experience of the making of images and artefacts.15
Nejstarší šperky a ozdoby těla cannot do anything more than just scratch the surface of the issues it raises. It can, however, point to why prehistoric art continues to be an object of such fascination and why it and other similar exhibitions are important. For they touch on fundamental questions to do not only with the evolution of human art making, but also with the relation between human and non-human animals. We might distance ourselves from the romantic ideas of artistic creativity expressed in 40,000 Years of Modern Art, but we might also have to accept that perhaps Herbert Read was not as misguided as we imagine. For the objects on display in the Anthropos Pavilion, as distant as they are from us, historically and culturally, nevertheless exhibit a concern for aesthetic refinement, technique and design that is not so alien to the modern observer. Those who find themselves in Brno would thus do well to set aside an hour or two to visit the exhibition.
Nejstarší šperky a ozdoby těla (The Oldest Jewellery and Body Ornaments) is on display at the Anthropos Pavilion, Moravian Regional Museum, Brno, from 19 August 2022 to 26 February 2023.
- Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).
- Susan Vogel and Arthur Danto, Art / Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections (New York: Center for African Art, 1988).
- Karel Absolon, ‘The Diluvial Anthropomorphic Statuettes and Drawings, Especially the So-Called Venus Statuettes, Discovered in Moravia: A Comparative Study,’ Artibus Asiae 3 (1949) pp. 201-20.
- Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Cave (New York: Abrams, 1998). For dissenting views see Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, ed., Chamanismes et arts préhistoriques: Vision critique (Paris: Errances, 2006).
- Jill Cook, Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind (London: British Museum, 2013).
- See James Elkins, ‘On the Impossibility of Close Reading: the Case of Alexander Marshack,’ Current Anthropology 2 (1996) pp. 185-226.
- See, for example, Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge, eds, Cognitive Models in Palaeolithic Archaeology (Oxford, 2016);
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London, 1859). See, more recently, Richard Henrik Hugh Oleson, The Aesthetic Animal (Oxford, 2018); Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty (New York, 2018).
- David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London, 2003) p. 88.
- Derek Hodgson, ‘The First Appearance of Symmetry in the Human Lineage: Where Perception Meets Art,’ Symmetry 3 (2011) pp. 37-53.
- Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (London, 1998).
- Dirk L. Hoffmann, ‘Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neanderthals 115,000 years ago,’ Science Advances 4 (22 February 2018).
- Ernst Gombrich, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, p 4.
- Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, MA, 2001).
- David Summers, Real Spaces, p. 108.