Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Art, Archaeology and the Modern Mind

Figure carved from mammoth ivory, 26k years old, Dolni Vestonici, Czech (BM)
I love the idea that people 40,000 years ago had modern minds, although the definition of 'modern' adopted by the British Museum for its amazing exhibition of Ice Age art is fairly broad. Writing in the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine, curator Jill Cook puts it thus:

The premise is that complex language and all forms of art require a modern brain, like our own, with a well-developed region at the front to power minds capable of externalising imaginative and abstract thoughts.

Some might argue that mind and brain are rather different, but perhaps I'm just being picky. The show sounds unmissable, bringing together as it does Ice Age artworks from umpteen European museums and displaying them alongside work by Matisse, Mondrian and Henry Moore. I've no doubt that treating cave paintings and carved objects of the distant past as pieces of art, rather than as archaeological finds, will help to break down barriers. My feeling, in the face of minimal evidence, is that we probably share more in common with our distant ancestors than we imagine. We've been conditioned by ideas of progress to assume that people in the past were less clever and more barbaric than we are; the sight of a deer beautifully drawn on the wall of a cave (an experience to be recreated within the exhibition) makes us think again, as do the kind of carvings that will be on show.

Replica of Lespugue figurine, 25k years old, France
In the same article Jill talks about the inspiration 20th century artists found in ancient artefacts, citing the example of Picasso and the curvaceous figurine popularly known as the Venus of Lespugue. Artists had always looked to the past for guidance, but the idea of looking to the distant past was a more modern phenomenon, part of a wider interest in the prehistoric that is celebrated in a second British Museum-sponsored exhibition opening this week.

You probably won't have to queue as long to get into the Quadriga Gallery, an exhibition space run by English Heritage and located, bizarrely, inside the Wellington Arch near Hyde Park Corner, but I think 'The General, the Scientist and the Banker: the Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past' sounds fascinating (if a little long-winded):

In 1859 two extraordinary events changed the way people considered human existence: a flint hand axe was found in a gravel quarry level with bones of extinct animals, and Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s big idea and the discovery of the axe broke the Biblical version of history. Opening with the book and the rarely seen axe, this exhibition tells the story of what happened next - as archaeological pioneers battled to save Britain’s great prehistoric sites from destruction.

Paul Nash, Silbury Hill, c1935 (Tate)
Naturally this exhibition is also written up in British Archaeology. We learn that the initial Ancient Monuments Protection Act, passed in 1882, achieved very little, and that the business of preserving old sites and buildings really took off 30 years later, accelerating rapidly after World War One. A widespread, respectful fascination for the prehistoric seems to be a 20th and 21st century phenomenon - a feature, perhaps, of the modern mind.

Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious were both fascinated by ancient monuments, as they were by downland landscapes more generally. I've written about this here and also, more recently, for British Archaeology magazine. For this very issue (No 129), in fact. I have to say - and this is no thanks to me - it looks great, particularly the photos of Rav's impossible-to-photograph White Horse dummy. Wonderful.

Incidentally, the Wiltshire Heritage Museum is fund-raising to cover its purchase of the White Horse dummy at auction last year. Find out more here.


  1. Dolni Vestonice, in the Czech Republic, where the top head comes from, is extraordinary. Well, a very ordinary looking town with this tiny museum that looks like a private house, and inside four rooms of these amazing figurines, carved animal heads, "Venuses" and so on. I've never been anywhere that seemed so unpromising that turned out to be so fascinating. Even so, a lot of the key pieces are in the museum in Brno, and many of the Brno pieces will be in the BM exhibition, which sounds unmissable.

  2. Thanks Philip - the museum sounds just my kind of thing!