A Tourist in the Ice Age
Throughout human history, our ancestors have been exploring beneath the earth’s surface; they have lived there, made art there, performed rituals there. Ancient myths—think Orpheus and Eurydice—reflect knowledge and memory of the underground, of another world beneath or within or contiguous to our world, where the earth’s membrane is open at places and we can enter at will. And we did enter, leaving art, tools, footprints—including the footprints of children (Pech Merle and Chauvet) hardened there for us to find many thousands of years later.
We no longer have a memory of this underworld. We live on the surface. The only notion of the underworld that I grew up with, though I never seriously believed in it, was Hell. Hell is a fairly recent invention, its mention in the New Testament is a translation of the word Gehenna, a literal place outside Jerusalem, sometimes said to have been a garbage dump, and sometimes said to have been a place where human sacrifice had once taken place. Our simplistic notion of hell is of a place of punishment and endless suffering. We point down at the earth when we speak of it, as if we could dig down and find it near the molten core of the plan
et. It implies fear and inscrutability about what’s beneath the surface. It implies a vertical hierarchy: evil below, divine above. Maybe it also implies buried memory, and the exiled unconscious.
But spend any time in the painted Ice Age caves and you see that the concept of hell defies many thousands of years of human understanding and connection to the world below our feet—those spaces inside mountains and behind rubble from which sometimes rivers pour out, where ancient animals like the extinct Cave Bear slept and often died, where stone age artists painted, sculpted, engraved, conducted rituals, adults and children, as far as they could go, without batteries, without machines, without pickaxes, with only tallow lamps or a torch, with ground-up minerals or just their own spit and charcoal for paint, and with just their hands and stones for tools.
If you find yourself inside the earth, standing before a painting dating back between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, something red or black, an animal accurately shaped and proportioned, painted on rock with an understanding of three dimensionality because the shape and bulk of the stone has been used to make the animal seem as if it is emerging from the wall, would you come out again, walking over slippery rock towards the place where the light comes in, not touching anything because there’s so much to preserve and so many ways we can contaminate a cave, would you leave that underworld passing from darkness to light, from cool to warmth, and still believe in the gratuitous cruelty of hell? Or would you experience a different kind of passage between worlds? Would you feel yourself changing at the threshold, would you value the interiority of the earth, see the earth as something dimensional, substantial, and not merely a crust for us to live on and exploit?
I began my journey as a tourist in the Ice Age in 2009 when I made my first trip to see painted caves in northern Spain. I went with a tour group and an expert guide, the archaeologist and writer, Paul Bahn. I had read a little in preparation, but once there I realized how uninformed I was. What I saw in the approximately 10 caves we visited, stunned me, threw me back in time into a culture so much richer than I could have imagined, so much older than my sense of history could grasp, and since then I have been enthralled, returning to see caves in France, reading about the art of our Ice Age ancestors, about our cousins the Neanderthals, about evolution. If I am a less ignorant tourist, I still feel myself a tourist in a world so far from me, far from what I once thought of as human history.
The cave painters of the late Ice Age were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in a Stone Age culture of decorated tools, sculptures, paintings and engravings. Such art represents what has survived, or what we’ve found of what has survived, but of course doesn’t include the stories, the songs, the dancing, the mythologies, the body painting, none of which could have been preserved. What about the clothing, not just animal hides draped on their bodies as popular myth would have it, but clothing made with fine bone needles that look like the needles we still use today?
It’s a good thing to be as far along in my life as I am, a woman with three grown children, and to have my view of myself, my view of history and the world around me disturbed, unsettled, as it was by seeing painted animals, hand prints, engravings and signs, deep in the caves, as well as the tools and sculptures found at the habitation sites. Since I saw the many hand prints in El Castillo in 2009, negative prints with red paint blown by mouth around them, they have been newly dated and found to be much older than previously thought, older than 40,000 years, putting it in the realm of possibility that they were made by Neanderthals.
The art of the Ice Age includes the great cave paintings in well-known caves like Lascaux and Altamira, along with many lesser known caves in northern Spain and southern France. It includes thousands of engravings on cave walls, the large sculpted reliefs in rock shelters like Cap Blanc, and it also includes what is known as portable art—the small, stunning sculptures of the kind that were on exhibit this past spring in the British Museum’s exhibit: Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, with its companion book of the same title by Jill Cook.
I stumbled on a short review of the exhibit in Nature and began trying to figure out how I could get myself to London before the exhibit closed to see the sculptures and decorated tools gathered from many sites including Russia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany and Italy, knowing that except for this opportunity, there was little chance I would ever see most of these pieces; so in May 2013 I booked a flight and bought tickets to see the exhibit three times in three days.
Much has been written about the caves and their paintings, many theories argued over, so that speaking of the sculptures in the British Museum exhibit Jill Cook writes, “looking at the variety and character of these works over time provides an opportunity to observe the many masterpieces so often overshadowed by the painted caves. What emerges is not an evolutionary sequence but a patchwork of accomplishments, preferences, styles and schools.”
The exhibit’s sculptures were made out of mammoth ivory, antler, bone, limestone, in one case a pebble, and there was even a ceramic female figure. In other words our ancestors made art out of all the materials they had at hand. That the painted caves have been the recipients of a lot of attention is understandable, but much of what I have read about cave painting doesn’t put the art in a context that would include portable art, and doesn’t give equal attention, when it gives any, to these astounding pieces.
The experience of seeing cave paintings is wholly unique. We smell what the painters smelled, and feel the same damp chill inside the earth, light is dim and sounds amplified. We can’t know why the paintings were made and why they were made in those specific places, whatever theories have been put forth. But cave paintings were not made in isolation, the rich artistic culture from which they emerged included not only the portable sculptures and tools, but music—the exhibit included a flute made of the wing bone of a griffin that is approximately 36,000-40,000 years old.
The culture also included burial of the dead, with some bodies elaborately decorated. Of course even to use the word culture, rather than cultures, is to show how much, like those who first studied the caves, my thinking wants to create one overriding theory to encompass all cave painting, all Ice Age art, as if it were monolithic and not spread over a period of 30,000 years, as if it had all been done in one area of what we now call Europe, rather than being spread out over hundreds of known sites, as if it weren’t part of a continuum that began with the making of tools a million years ago.
It’s clear in reading Cook’s detailed and beautifully researched book that she took on the task of trying to neutralize some of the less than scientific assumptions that have slipped into the study of Ice Age Art. A small example of this is that she never calls the female sculptures Venuses—Ice Age art precedes Greek and Roman mythology by thousands of years—and the title (as in the Venus of Willendorf) sexualizes and taints the pieces with modern assumptions. Her book is gorgeous, well worth the price if only for the photographs of the art, but also worth reading for Cook’s careful analyses. She follows the art both chronologically and geographically, allowing the reader to have a better understanding of the when and where, showing how certain styles and methods came out of different locations, or workshops. And she attempts to show us that the Ice Age artists’ minds, their brains really, were modern, no different than ours. She takes a measured approach to help us see those ancestors as equals, people who could think the way we think but who had to exist in circumstances we cannot imagine, hunter-gatherers who lived on the move and yet found time and myriad ways to make art. In a rare moment of emotion Cook states the issue plainly:
All art is not the same and it is evident that individuals and societies determine the use of representations in ways that define their peculiar culture. A tiny horse head sculpted in mammoth ivory, made at least 13,000 years ago and found in a cave in the Pyrenees, has the same realism and power as a monumentally sized, marble horse head from the Parthenon…They look similar because they show the same sort of animal and were sculpted with intent by extremely skilled, artistic hands. This is important to see because it stops us from regarding the oldest art, discovered by archaeologists, as the work of incompetent aliens from the foreign country of the past whom we subconsciously judge by our own preferences and cultural norms. Nevertheless, we know that the presentation, purpose and messages people took from the two horses at the time they were made, as well as now, were completely different.
The exhibit incorporated modern pieces by such artists as Matisse and Brassai; these modern pieces created a context, a bridge between then and now. It would not have worked if the ancient sculptures and tools didn’t look so fine, so alive, even in close proximity to what we think of now as great art.
Encountering the art of the late Ice Age, whether it is delicate and simple as the deer grazing on the walls of the small cave Covalanas in Spain—the first place I saw actual cave paintings—or the many depictions of mammoths in the great tunnels of Rouffignac, or the hand-sized sculptures of female figures and animals so well represented in the exhibit at the British Museum, is to encounter an art that disturbs our sense of ourselves as modern, as the culmination of thousands of years of history. Instead of setting us apart from our ancestors, it offers a mirror—men and women from the very ancient past whose art was incredibly skilled, moving in its tenderness, an art that connects, as all art must, to some experience within that we can hardly summon or name.
Portable art, if it is available to the public, is in museums and lacks the same atmosphere and buildup, the journey itself that frames the cave art. The British Museum did good job of creating atmosphere by having visitors climb stairs and enter a darkened space. Before us was the first lit glass case and its occupant. Cook does not exaggerate when she calls the small sculptures of the exhibit masterpieces. As in all Ice Age art there is a variety of styles, even when there is a fairly consistent range of subjects. But there is no denying that these works are captivating, whether they are sculptures of humans, or animals, or whether they are functional tools. The very first sculpture greeting the visitor to the exhibit was the “famous sculpture of a woman admired by Picasso.” In fact Picasso kept two copies of her in his studio.
This sculpture of a woman from Lespugue Cave greeting visitors to the exhibit is 14.7 centimeters tall, larger than most, and made of mammoth ivory. Like many other sculptures of women, her breasts, buttocks and upper thighs are huge, stylized, exaggerated. Like other such sculptures, her head, neck and shoulders are small, delicate, her head bent over so she is staring down at her engorged breasts and belly. She may or may not be pregnant but the area around her womb, with the bulbous breasts and swollen thighs is enormous.
I disagree with Cook in one detail; she tends to describe these figures as “obese” a word which seems too particular to our time with too many negative connotations. She says about this piece “the volumes of the sculpture can be seen to represent a heavily obese figure with, setting aside artistic licence, some abnormal pathology of the breasts and abdomen”.
I don’t see how or why we would set aside artistic license. Cook rightly attempts to look at these works from as many angles as possible, including realistically, even when, as in this case, realism doesn’t necessarily seem to be the intention.
Later, comparing other works that show the female body in this way she says “the majority of figures portray motherhood, when all a woman’s energy is devoted to giving birth successfully and raising a child”. The energy of these pieces, with their enlarged breasts, buttocks and bellies, reflects this devotion. There were a number of pieces like Picasso’s muse in the exhibit—a small figure called Nude Woman,made of yellow steatite whose breasts were voluminous and situated close to her womb. This was not, by far, the only female type, the exhibit included a particularly beautiful thin figure from Laugerie Basse, possibly adolescent, about which Cook says “her femininity is determined by the vulvar slit clearly marked by an incision”. There were also more abstract pieces, often just torsos, some pregnant and even one squatting to give birth. There were beads in the shape of breasts that would have been strung together and worn as necklaces.
And of course the exhibit included much work other than female figures, many animals such as bison, lions, and horses. It included the exquisite Swimming Reindeer, a piece that Cook has already written about separately. Even the tools were captivating, decorated tools such as spear throwers, and a group of long spatulas from Russia thought to possibly have been used for clearing off snow.
On my third and last visit to the exhibit I concentrated on the woman from Lespugue. I circled her. From the discoloration of the ivory she looked almost cobalt in places. Though damaged by a pickaxe, she is still beautiful. Her head is small and her shoulders and arms thin. Her legs taper to a kind of point—not unusual—as if the sculpture could be planted in the ground (many of these pieces have holes at the top and were worn as pendants). From the side the distortion is clearest. Her chest is flat and her breasts balloon out over her womb rather than below her shoulders.
Her head and shoulders and her lower legs are delicate, small, her energy is concentrated and almost exploding from the middle of her body. I kept coming back to the silhouette she makes from the side. There was something so familiar about it. Her head bowed she looks down at her belly. I felt I’d seen her, or pieces like her before, and realized finally that it was the tilt of her head that seemed so familiar. Before me was the same quietly bowed head, the same sense of silence and dignity, as the many Madonnas (thousands?) I have seen all my life.
Except that the Virgin Mary’s head is usually bent to look down at the male-child on her lap. In the Ice Age sculpture the woman looks down at her own body, all that vital energy contained in her lower torso, her female body parts swelling outward, looking a bit grotesque at first as the eye and mind adjust to her power and beauty. In most depictions of the Madonna that core energy is no longer within the woman’s body but is taken up externally by the boy child on her lap, and later as the pieta, the man/boy dead on her lap.
We cannot know the mythology behind these sculpted women, or why there are so very few representations of men in comparison. But the sense of beauty and potency embodied in these ancient figures is hypnotic. We cannot know whether there was much in the way of hierarchy in the hunter gatherer clans though Cook writes about modern hunter gatherers:
In research on the lives of women in arctic societies in Northern Eurasia, Sandra Sázelová shows that despite gender specific activities there is no concept of male/female superiority or measuring of activity values. Men and women serve one world through different tasks.
In these ancient sculptures there is a sense of spiritual and physical power, a sense of mystery, which carries forward in time I’m not at all saying there is a direct line from Ice Age art to Christian art, only that how we depict ourselves says something about who we are and who we think we are.
It is a long time since women were exiled from the religious pantheon yet Mariology thrives, even though her strength and mystery has had to be acknowledged indirectly, and her real power to be diverted, embodied in her son. Walk through any museum and the women of paintings, photographs and sculptures are looking downward. Occasionally a woman will be looking out at us, a temptress, looking at the male painter, but rarely will you find a woman who is not in response to the male viewer/artist in some way. I think of a Botticelli I saw recently at the Chicago Institute of Art where the male child is standing precociously on a ledge so that he is level with his mother. He stares above her while she looks, of course, modestly, self-effacingly, downward. Her downward gaze is not the same as the downward gaze of the female sculptures of the Ice Age who are complete in themselves, whose powers are internal and feminine, not external and masculine.
Though I heard different guides say the same thing in different locations, namely that there are few depictions of humans in cave art, it is clear to anyone who looks carefully that there are indeed many depictions of women in cave art, especially if you look at Ice Age art as a totality, not just the art of the caves.
To see the various ways women are depicted in Ice Age Art, with bowed heads and childbearing bodies, or with prepubescent grace, or the large female torsos sculpted into the rock shelter wall at Angles-sur-LAnglin so detailed you can see the dark line of pregnancy on one of the bellies, or women represented abstractly as in the many red triangular vulvas painted on cave walls, allows for a richness and variety our imaginations are not used to; no wonder those who first found the hand-sized sculptures called them Venuses, we still have a limited context within which to see women in art. Our visions of ourselves come from conflicted images of what it means to be women and men in our societies, and these images deeply and unconsciously affect our lives, they carry on without our realizing it, as undercurrents, even in a fast moving culture they persist as invisible strata below us for millennia.
These are the metaphors by which we live and we can only look in wonder at the images that came so long before us not knowing how they were interpreted. As for our own metaphors, be it a woman’s bowed head, or the grotesque sight of a grown son, dead, draped over the lap of the bereaved mother, a man sacrificed, as young men have been for almost 10,000 years for some divine/political purpose, we have far less insight than we think.
The animals painted, engraved and sculpted by Ice Age artists, the bison walking towards us that graces the cover of Cook’s book, or the 35,000-year-old, tiny, stunning, Vogelherd Horse with its gracefully arced neck and delicate features, were all made long before domestication, long before we owned more than we could carry or wear. It is a long time now since the animals spoke to us, but it is clear that what was beautiful to our Ice Age ancestors is still beautiful to us now.
I stand close to the sacred object whose meaning I can never fully know, and wonder what progress means and how I can learn from the deeply buried past. The image of a woman’s bowed head has come all this way. All history is a balance between what survives, often by accident, and what is erased by time or by those in power. The erased, the lost, the disappeared may, after millennia, rise again and find us, we who live on the surface. Or they may have always been near to us but we could not see them. I am grateful to those archeologists who spend their lives hoping to find one or two great pieces, a woman or man bent over, kneeling, looking for the lost and buried, and bringing them, inch by inch, into the light.
Anne Marie Macari is the author of four books of poetry, including Red Deer, forthcoming from Persea Books, and She Heads Into the Wilderness (Autumn House, 2008). In 2000 Macari won the APR/Honickman first book prize for Ivory Cradle, which was followed by Gloryland (2005, Alice James Books). She has also coedited, with Carey Salerno, Lit From Inside: 40 Years of Poetry From Alice James Books. She teaches in the Drew University MFA Program in Poetry & Poetry in Translation.