After the rather ho-hum art of the Mesolithic era, art in the Neolithic (literally: “new stone”) age represents a spree of hellzapoppin’ innovation. Humans were settling themselves down into agrarian societies, which left them enough spare time to explore some key concepts of civilization – namely, religion, measurement, the rudiments of architecture and writing and, yes, art.
What was going on in the world?
The big geological news was that the glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere concluded their long, slow retreat, thus freeing up a lot of real estate and stabilizing the climate. The impact this had on humans was of the utmost significance. For the first time, anyone living from the sub-tropics northward to the tundra could count on crops that appeared on schedule, and seasons that could be reliably tracked.
- This newly-found climatic stability (however relative it may seem to us in the present) was the one factor that allowed many tribes to abandon their wandering ways and begin to construct more-or-less permanent villages. No longer dependent, since the end of the Mesolithic era, on herd migration for food supplies, peoples of the Neolithic were becoming adept at refining farming techniques and building up domesticated herds of their own animals. With an ever-increasing, steady supply of grain and meat, we humans now had time to ponder the Big Picture and invent some rather radical technological advances.
What kinds of art were created during this time?
- The “new” arts to emerge from this era were weaving, architecture, the construction of megaliths and increasingly stylized pictographs that were well on their way to becoming writing.The earlier arts of statuary, painting and pottery stuck with (and still remain with) us. The Neolithic era saw many refinements to each.Statuary (primarily statuettes), made a big comeback after having been largely absent during the Mesolithic age. Its Neolithic theme dwelt primarily on the female/fertility, or “Mother Goddess” imagery (quite in keeping with agriculture, this). There were still animal statuettes, however these weren’t lavished with the detail the goddesses enjoyed. They are often found broken into bits – perhaps indicating that they were used symbolically in hunting rituals.Additionally, sculpture was no longer created strictly by carving something. In the Near East, in particular, figurines were now fashioned out of clay and baked. Archaeological digs at Jericho turned up a marvelous human skull (c. 7,000 BC) overlaid with delicate, sculpted plaster features.
Painting, in Western Europe and the Near East, left the caves and cliffs for good, and became a purely decorative element. The finds of Çatal Hüyük, an ancient village in modern Turkey, show lovely wall paintings (including the world’s earliest known landscape), dating from c. 6150 BC.
As for pottery, it began replacing stone and wood utensils at a rapid pace, and also become more highly decorated.
What are the key characteristics of Neolithic art?
- • It was still, almost without exception, created for some functional purpose.• There were more images of humans than animals, and the humans looked more, well, human.• It began to be used for ornamentation.• In the cases of architecture and megalithic constructions, art was now created in fixed locations. This was significant. Where temples, sanctuaries and stone rings were built, gods and goddesses were provided with known destinations. Additionally, the emergence of tombs provided unmoving, “visit-able” resting places for the dearly departed – another first.
Side note: At this point, Dear Reader, “art history” typically begins to follow a prescribed course: Iron and bronze are discovered. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt arise, make art, and are followed by art in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. After this, we hang out in Europe for the next thousand years, eventually moving on to the New World, which subsequently shares artistic honors with Europe. This route is commonly known as “Western Art”, and is often the focus of any art history/art appreciation syllabus.
Amazing stone age paintings have been found in caves in Britain France and Spain. Some of them are thought to have been done as far back as an amazing 40,000 years ago during the last Ice Age! Studies done on the paintings found that the paints were made of mixtures of ground up rock minerals or charcoal, and animal fats. The animal fats soaked into the rock allowing archaeologists to date the paintings using radiocarbon dating.They give us a glimpse into life in a different era with pictures of animals which are now extinct.
How to make Stone Age Paint
You will need:
- some charcoal – we used the remains of a piece of wood from the fire
- some fat or oil – we used vegetable oil
- a mortar and pestle or some rocks to grind with.
First grind the charcoal up a finely as possible in the mortar and pestle.
Add some oil to form a liquid with a paint like consistency. It will probably be still a little gritty but that is fine.
Grind up the charcoal with oil (cooking oil is ideal)
Now you can try it out. Try painting using sticks or feathers. This is quite hard! It is easiest to paint with a very fine brush. Try drawing some stick figures, animals or symbols.
Other ideas to I tried out
- I tried using different pigments if you can find any near you. Red coloured clay or ground up coloured stones might also make good paint.
- I tried other binding agents like water, eggs or saliva!
- I tried painting on stones or pebbles.
- I tried telling a story or leaving someone a message using a cave painting (no words!)
- I tried painting by candlelight! Really! A lot of the cave paintings are found deep in very dark cave systems and would have had to be done by torch light.
What does it all mean?
Now imagine it was 30,000 years ago. You are being led through a cave down narrow damp passages, with only flickering torch light to see where you are going. Stalactites and stalagmites are throwing weird shadows on the the walls of the caverns. After walking into the mountain for half an hour you come to a huge echoing chamber. There are some men huddled near one of the walls. They have some bowls and brushes and are painting the walls. Why do think they are doing it? What do the painting and symbols mean? Who is meant to see the paintings? Why are they so deep in the cave system?
No-one really knows for sure but it is fun to wonder isn’t it?
What do you think?