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Ice Age art Exclusive Extract!

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind opens today at the British Museum.  To mark the opening of the first exhibition of its kind in the UK, we’ve included here some exclusive content from the exhibition catalogue, written by Ice Age art curator Jill Cook.

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

‘The oldest sculpture in the British Museum’s collection is a pair of reindeer made from mammoth ivory at least 13,000 years ago. Researching it or our project A History of the World in 100 Objects, I was astonished that such a realistic and aesthetically pleasing image was made so long ago by a skilled craftsman who was a practised artist. The time and skill lavished upon it suggest that it was a valued yet apparently functionless object in the hunter-gatherer community that owned it towards the end of the last Ice Age. I now realize that is quite young by comparison with other sculptures, drawings and ornaments representing animals and people, many of which have been brought together for a special exhibition entitled Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind.

The Swimming Reindeer

The Swimming Reindeer

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind presents sculpture, drawings models and jewellery from across Europe and Eurasia. It includes the oldest known images of animals and people in the world. Dating from the last 40,000 years of the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, these works are contemporary but generally less well known than the paintings from caves such as Lascaux and Altamira that date from the same period. They are equally and, in some respects, even more revealing about the innovations of artists whose works we can enjoy because they use the same parameters of expression that every artist has used since. This is not because there is a continuity of tradition: it is because we all have the same remarkable, complex brain that enables us to imagine and communicate ideas beyond words in images and through music.’
Neil MacGregor
Director, The British Museum


Towards the end of August 1939, Robert Wetzel, Professor of Anatomy at Tübingen University in Germany, and geologist Dr Otto Völzing, hastily packed up numerous fragments of mammoth ivory from their excavations in the back of Stadel Cave on the Hohlenstein in the Lone Valley, south-west Germany. The outbreak of war was imminent and both had received call-up papers bringing their archaeological work to a halt. A letter by Wetzel dated 28 August indicates that he hoped to work on the ivory pieces in more peaceful times, but the course of the war prevented that hope. The finds would not be re-examined for thirty years.

After the war, the finds were eventually sent to Ulm, where Dr Joachim Hahn began to work on them. In sorting the tusk fragments he realised that they fitted back together and that over 200 of the fragments formed a sculpture of a standing figure with human and animal characteristics. When first published in 1970, the figure caused a sensation although it was uncertain whether the animal features were those of a bear or a big cat. The discovery and restoration of further fragments of the head in 1989 showed that it represented a lion and the sculpture became known as der Löwenmensch (the lion person).

It was quickly recognized as not only the largest known sculptural representation of this period but also indicative of a mind capable of imagining new concepts rather than simply reproducing real forms. Gradually it was realized that such a mind must indicate the activity of a complex super brain like our own, with a well-developed pre-frontal cortex powering the capacity to communicate ideas in speech and art. What might have been an arcane archaeological discovery became a talking point for the developing field of neuroscience and evolution of our grey matter. Recent excavations at the site by Claus-Joachim Kind have produced a series of radiocarbon age estimates that indicate that the statue is about 4,000 calendar years old.

Text, Swimming Reindeer image and Ice Age art book spreads  ©Trustees of the British Museum

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind opens today at the British Museum, and runs until 26th May 2013.

Extracted from Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind by Jill Cook, available for £25.00 from the British Museum online shop.

Category: History

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