Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind at the British Museum

By Richard Moss | 07 February 2013

Exhibition review: Ice Age art - Arrival of the Modern Mind, British Museum, London, until May 26 2013

a photo of an female figurine with large breasts and rolls of fat around the hips
Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world© On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno
40,000 years ago our Ice Age ancestors, the hunter gatherers, weren’t making pots and pans, they were making weapons and art.

This fact may have you pondering how far we have come during the past few millennia. But the British Museum’s exhibition of their sculpture, ceramics, drawing and ornament will also have you contemplating their bewildering creativity and skill - as well as the baffling complexities of the human brain.

Take one of the central pieces, Lion Man, a 40,000-year-old statuette uncovered from the Hohlenstein-Sadel Cave in Germany in 1939. Carved from a single piece of bone. it tells us as much about the capability to imagine – and the development of neurons, synapses and the prefontal cortex – as it does about the beliefs of the person who made it.

It is presented here primarily as an artwork rather than a piece of archaeology together with an astonishing collection of Ice Age masterpieces from across Europe and a smattering of 20th century Modernist artworks influenced by them.

A film shows a sculptor making a Lion Man with a stone tool, a process that took 400 hours of scraping and hollowing.

Perhaps wisely, the British Museum prefers not to speculate on the meaning of the finished figure, but rather invites us to appreciate its artistry and ponder how it signals the "arrival of the modern mind" with the modern humans - Homo Sapiens - 45,000 years ago.

A further gigantic leap in artistic imagination and brain development is revealed via the oldest known work of art in baked clay.

Somewhere between 26,000 and 31,000 years ago, in what is now Moravia in the Czech Republic, someone dug, formed and fired an abstract female figure with pendulous breasts and fatty folds around her front and back. Today, this mother symbol is one of the most recogniseable figurative representations in world art.

Like many of the objects here it has a contemporary, abstract feel to it, and it’s easy to see why Modernists such as Moore, Matisse and Picasso were entranced. Picasso was particularly taken with the mother figure, having several copies of this potent symbol in his studio.

The tendency of our Ice Age ancestors to “modernism” was tempered when their art spilled over into decorative objects. And as the exhibition progresses through fragments of bone and engraved antlers, naturalistic depictions of animals and people emerge to reveal how the modern mind turned towards representational art.

There’s the oldest puppet or doll - a hauntingly weathered articulated figure made of mammoth ivory; a tip of mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer; the oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory and a reindeer antler sculpted as a mammoth.

But one of the most lifelike artworks is also one of the tiniest - a carving of a diving or flying water bird found in Germany, which the BM conjectures could be a "symbol connecting upper, middle and lower worlds". Or simply “a bag of feathers and a small meal”.

Another bone carving of a group of deer made on a fragment of rib bone even has a sense of proportion and depth and a recognisable landscape created by someone with an innate feel for movement and drama.

This was something the early cave painters also seem to have understood very well. Caves were lit by fat lamps and wooden torches, and the artists who worked within them were very skilled at using the flickering light to create a sense of movement.A film installation conjures some of this magic, but it's the objects in the cases that really fire the imagination here.

Standing before great art can be inspiring. Standing before the oldest known works of sculpture, ceramics and drawing seems doubly so.
  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Tickets £5-£10 (free for under-16s). Book online.

More pictures:

a sculpted ivory head of a woman
The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic (circa 26,000 years old)© Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute
a carved mammoth tusk carved into the shape of two reindeer
Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France© The Trustees of the British Museum
a piece of bone with a reindeer carved into it
Fragment of decorated reindeer metatarsal (bone) engraved on the obverse surface with two reindeer, one of which is now incomplete; decorated bone; Palaeolithic; Madeleine, France© The Trustees of the British Museum
a wooden fragment of a bone carved human figure
The oldest puppet or doll: an articulated figure made of mammoth ivory© On loan from Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute
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