Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind – Jill Cook

Th absence of reindeer could mean that the representations are not purely concerned with important food animals, whereas the preponderance of mammoths, horses and lions within the known sample of works suggests an aesthetic and psychological interest in animals that please, fascinate and generate respect even today. If the animal sculptures were worn, were they simply ornaments, did the wearers wish to identify with the qualities of the animal or was the creature a spiritual helper?

The book that accompanied one of my favourite exhibitions at the British Museum, it has taken me a good long while to read this, in it’s coffee table hardback format, although recently it has given me a resfreshing break from Westeros as I plough through all 486 books of the Song of Ice and Fire saga.

Covering the width of Europe, Cook evaluates the fascinating array of objects from the Ice Age, from small anatomically correct miniatures to large scale cave paintings. While I would suggest that this is not quite a casual read, due to the subject matter, if you have even a slight interest in this, the book is interesting and accessible.

Brilliant pictures that mostly sit within the correct place in the text (i.e you can see the object that you are currently reading about, it’s not 4 pages on) and detailed analysis, as humans developed the ability to abstract from themselves and nature, create musical instruments, life like representations of the world around them in miniature and ornamental form. Sculptures that took a high number of hours to create through manual labour, but seemingly have no practical function. Others provoked a lot of thought, such as the miniatures that had holes so they could be worn as a pendant or necklace. However they would be upside down, so that the creature would need to be held up to be the correct way up and appreciated, completely opposite of how pendants and necklaces are worn today.
The chapter on the female form is particularly interesting, how much did these people know of conception? The highly stylised depictions of expectant mothers amongst the female sculptures lead to any number of conclusions. Later depictions of the female form are so stylised there were certain objects where I thought the idea that they represented females was completely made up.

Mostly hypothetical, we can never know, but well thought out analysis is given by Cook as to the reasons or suggestions she gives behind the pieces. She also notes the difficulty in some respects, where initial interpretations are coloured by they prevailing thoughts at the time of excavation, such as the 1800’s.

The more the objects are studied the more theories abound. As the objects become more detailed or stylised, they effectively took the maker out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for hours if not days at a time, this meant that others in the group would have to sustain them, indicating the importance of the objects they were crafting. Some of these were deliberately smashed after, for reasons we will never know. For practical tools this is understandable, for what could be considered works of art, it is less clear, particularly examples of worked beads, each one taking two to three hours to complete, and from materials that would have had to have come from a hundred kilometres away.

The carvings, engravings and drawings of animals on stone, antler, bone, tusk are incredible, particularly in the cases where they are anatomically correct, even down to hair and features, some were in miniature, some were massive cave paintings, were they decorations, weapons or functional tools. Cook give’s expert analysis, but even so there is still a part of your mind that says, surely we can never know what any man or woman was thinking 17,000 years ago?

And maybe we can’t, but we can give it a well thought out analysed guess, and that’s exactly what Cook does here.

The frieze is placed 3m above the floor of the chamber and is one of several in the Nave that would have required some sort of scaffolding to enable the artist to work. Like the ivory swimming reindeer from Montastruc and the La Vache engraving, it is a reminder of how much time and effort had to be put in to the artist’s work. Collecting and preparing pigment, making and maintaining torches and lamps, as well as making ladders or platforms required an investment in art that reflects its value and significance to the community.


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