Prehistoric art was essentially naturalistic and based on animal representations and is closely associated to civilizations engaged in hunting during the Upper Paleolithic. This art was developed between the thirtieth and tenth millennia. The most important five millennia, from 15,000 to 10,000, BC, encompass all the prime locations of great Rock Art.
Rock Art was very prolific: Rouffignac cave (France) alone accounts for 46% of known drawn mammoths (65% of them belonging to the Magdalenian art school). Rock art was a purely naturalistic art because was strongly associated with the hunting economy.
At what point does a human work become art? The oldest Humanity only knew rudimentary tools composed mainly of boulders or “hand axes”, carefully made by beating them between each other. This beating determined a sharp piece or useful tip for cutting or carving. The craftsman, whether the Australopithecus or the Pithecanthropus, chose the boulder because of its mass, its natural form, which suggested to him the tool he wanted and which he had previously imagined in his mind. This election is properly human, supposes intelligence, leads to an aesthetic and constitutes a very ancient artistic intent. During the industry called “Abbevillian” (“Oldowan” in modern terms) from ca. eight hundred thousand years old, predominates a voluntary type of tool: the double-sided stone, a pebble or small block of flint with bifacial cut, of about fifteen to thirty cm long, which kept in the base of the original block and with a tip forged through vigorous blows with a hammer rock. It was a “universal tool”, suitable for many different uses. Around 150,000 years BC, these “bifaces” became the characteristic “almond” of the “Acheulian” civilization, thus called from Saint-Acheul a suburb of Amiens in the Somme (France). Its shape was sharper and thinner than that of the first boulders or hand axes. The beautiful Acheulian “almond” offers unquestionable aerodynamics announcing our modern forms.
At about 50,000 years BC, the Neanderthal had flint scrapers of perfect cut, and thin boulders with cutting tips. These were tools whose well finished technique led to artistic forms and whose execution brought out the enjoyment of a craftsman turned artist. We find then the first evidences of graphic art. The strokes on clay, made with the finger, found in Toirano may be among the oldest human traces.
Towards the thirtieth millennium, these strokes of Toirano “painted” with fingers avidly multiplied inside caves. They consist in drawings made with the fingers over malleable clay. We could think of these as abstract graphies, but it does not seem so. Rather we can find such frenzy in those multiple lines traced with fingers as if their purpose was to guard the wall as a manifestation of horror to the emptiness of the wall or to the bare clay.
A new stage followed this initial “strokes”. First random -then deliberately- the fingers draw an animal outline: a dorsal line, two horns, and a zigzag evoked the bovid’s legs. The zoomorph graphism consolidates, inspired obviously in the hunting environment of the daily life. The first statuettes or the contours cut on ivory from Dolni-Vistonice in Willendorf, the high relief blocks from Laussel, which are from back around the thirtieth millennium are examples of this.
It remains to solve the difficult problem of the origin of the abstract art. Initially it was represented by a style we call today “abstract derived”, which evolved from naturalism, beginning in the fifteenth millennium. Thus, many abstract elements were merely the result of successive transformations of naturalist models.
Alongside this abstract derived art there was another known as “pure abstract” consisting solely of non-figurative traces beginning in 30,000 BC. From here, the lines were arranged in parallel stripes forming shady designs, now in one direction, now in another, creating true squared patterns or even crosses. From this moment the figurative and the abstract motifs shared the world.
Prehistoric art was born and evolved along with hunting. It was an “animalistic” art. Along with shelter-caves, sanctuary-caves also appeared, and prehistoric art was the art of these caves. Evidence of the sanctuary or temple character given to these primitive caves are the mammoths engraved on the “Frieze of Five” in Rouffignac, the “Grandfather” of the great roof of that same cave, or the bison from the “Black Room” in Niaux. The Prehistoric works of art are anonymous, but they show clearly the influence of a “master”, especially in the art of the most important caves. There is the “master of Rouffignac” that excels in the representation of the mammoth, with a wonderful sense of composition and organization of themes: frieze, confrontation, pyramidal balance, etc. There is the “master of Lascaux”, as there are in Niaux or Altamira. The Prehistoric art, without losing its anonymity, acquires certain personality. But the monumentality and spectacularity of the rock art should not make us forget the portable art (mobiliary art) with its objects decorated with multiple naturalistic ornamentation. Quite naturally, the various hunting implements (tips of flint, bone tips, harpoons …) appear all decorated with animal motifs.
Thanks to the “periodicity” in the themes and characteristics of the rock paintings, it has been possible to define “Art Schools” for the Prehistoric times. Hence come the expressions “Perigordian” and “Magdalenian”. The school of Périgord, with its particular graphy, was born circa 30,000 BC and is represented by the archaeological material called “Perigordian” composed of boulders or engraved bones. The school of Périgord owned and retained for many millennia simple visual features, primitive technical procedures and original graphies, such as the “twisted perspective” so characteristic: the animals appear in profile but the horns and antlers are drawn in front view. The process of “hollow” painting appeared in Gargas, with handprints in “negative”: the hand, once it is removed from the surface, leaves its blank form, and its silhouette is surrounded by a haloed color. The climax of pictorial Perigordian is found in Lascaux, where modeling triumphs, the skilled faded colors predominate, and the silhouettes are drawn on white rock. The great figures of the “Hall of the Bulls” are authentic masterpieces, the culmination of a long and fruitful evolution.
The Magdalenian school affirmed around 50,000 BC and lasted approximately toward 10,000 BC. The simple linear strokes acquired an elegance and precision radically new. Slowly, the plain colors always dark, invaded surfaces representing animals, which led to a new experience in modeling. The detail was imposed, which was accompanied by clinical details. The perspective is “real”. Rouffignac illustrates the classic phase of Magdalenian drawing. In it, the expressive characters multiply: the animals’ fur, expressionism in the eyes, rich detail in the horns, the mouths, hooves and mane, but above all, precision and accuracy in the representation of lively attitudes. This rhythmic and complex organization of the figures is the essential contribution of Magdalenian school. The theme of the confrontation begins here a long and fruitful race that will lead to the Lionesses of Mycenae.
Exceptional samples of the Magdalenian school are the caves of Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume, Marsoulas and Niaux, the Tuc d’Audobert and Trois Freres, the caves of Mount Castillo, Tito Bustillo, the wonder of Altamira. The Magdalenian school was much more than an artistic school. It was also a school of thought. The art became philosophy, religion… In the cave of Rouffignac alone we can count 123 mammoths…
While the drawings, engravings, paintings, and sculptures of animals explicitly had a great aesthetic quality, the human representations showed a pitiful clumsiness with bad-defined traits, clumsy and grotesque attitudes, caricaturized profiles, and a deep “miserabilism”. The statuettes, known by the name of “Venus”, expressly present identical characteristics: exaggerated forms, big and abundant, frequent negligence in the features of the face, arms and legs, as if essential femininity was limited to an overloaded body deformed by maternity. Indeed, these statuettes are not “beauties” but “mothers”. From the West End to the farthest Asia, without prejudging their area of origin, we can find them. Drawings and female human figurines are the result of a “domestic” art closely linked to the home. Even when the weather changed and the new economies caused the disappearance, around the 10,000 of the naturalistic art depicting animals, still these domestic female figurines prevailed.
Upon the eighth millennium, a fundamental economic shift appeared, and began an economy based on plants instead of animals. A production policy started, and man became pastor and peasant, thus allowing the appearance of new art forms expressed on brand new media. Ceramic then became a symbol of the new agricultural economy. It encouraged the decor, but it was not inspired by the animal world anymore, but instead sought motifs in the abstract world of lines and surfaces, which often took on a symbolic value. Towards the end of the third millennium and during the second we see materials “substitutions”. The use of stone, especially flint, was relegated to vulgar material. The ruling class adopted new materials: copper and bronze, and later iron. The social revolution caused by the prevailing use of metals was manifested through an authentic and deep hierarchy which should be apparent both in the world of the living and of the dead. This explains the “megalithism”, those powerful constructions based on stone blocks standing vertically on the ground, gathered, stacked to form the enigmatic alignments in Carnac, the temple of Stonehenge, those innumerable monumental tombs that constitute the dolmens, the vast “covered galleries”, the mysterious hypogea, the talayots of the Balearics, the Sardinian nuraghes… all of them testimonies of a new art form: architecture. To bury his dead, the Neanderthal man placed them in a pit. These facts which may be placed between the fiftieth and forty millennia announce the funeral rites of the last millennia of Prehistory and of the centuries of History: great tombs, huge mounds, megalithic monuments.
By 10,000 BC, a milestone date, West slowly changed. A softer, more humid weather caused the development of pastures and forests. The Magdalenian fauna -mammoth, bison and reindeer- were extinct, but the deer and boar assumed the role of game pieces. The vegetable crops became more important, the resources diversified and increased, thus humans no longer depended solely on hunting. The animalistic art lost its primitive magical value, its religiosity, since the gods became an aid to civilization.
Man leaved the caves. The art did it so and expanded outdoors, on the rocky sheds. The art became “anecdotal”, released from subterranean depths and religious magic. It became “mundane” and entered the world.
The consequences were significant. During the few remaining millennia of Prehistory, until the middle of the first millennium BC, we attended to a dual artistic movement: on the one hand, the decline of animal naturalism, on the other, the development of abstract art. Both streams were merged at the height of the Bronze Age, towards the second millennium. The new hierarchy of living will imposed, with its monumental tombs, the hierarchy of the dead. The enslaved masses built the megalithic constructions: dolmens, talayots or nuraghes.
This new art took place in the rocky shelters of Mediterranean Spain, freed from the terrors of the underworld. It is known as the art of the Spanish Levante. For some time, it continued being a hunters’ art, essentially pictorial art, but with picturesque scenes full of life, and often in small format. There was no longer room for serious themes, the mystery, the religious sense, the myth of the magic creation. The everyday scenes –on the contrary- made their way, the first chronicles in pictures, the first cartoons drawn on the rock. They evoked the hunting of deer, wild boar, wild goat, along with the anecdotes of hunting. These scenes are full of life and the boar hunting of Remigia presents us the archer and the animal treated with the dynamic technique of “Volant gallop”, in which legs and feet are wide extended. Surprisingly, however, the Périgord tradition predominated in regard to the twisted perspective. This pictorial art continued until the Bronze Age, progressively schematizing and becoming even more dynamic. Hunters became filiform, a simple silhouette of a few thin lines, but were animated with an unprecedented movement. This trend to schematization in the art is general. The bronze figurines adopted the same uncompromising styling rules.
The “purely abstract” décor, born perhaps somewhere in the vast Eurasian plain -in Ukraine- towards the 15,000, accompanied naturalistic motifs that appeared in burnishers, bone pieces or Magdalenian pebbles. While animal naturalism disappeared, these abstract motifs, however, lasted thanks to the use of perishable media such as wood, bark or skins. A new media, easily mouldable and comfortable to decorate: ceramic, made its entry into Prehistory. It was the great mean of spreading of abstract themes from the Middle East to the Far West. After the first smooth ceramics were produced came a phase of ornamented ceramics decorated with multiple incisions on the soft clay through many different techniques: spathula, comb and, even more frequently, with the incision of a commonly found shell, the Cardium. From these techniques derived the term used to designate these ceramics: “incised” and “cardial”. In the Middle East the painted pottery dominated, mixing the filiform wild goats and very stylized anthropomorphic motifs with purely geometric themes. It was accompanied of both: lineal decoration and spiral decoration engraved on the soft clay. It was then when the spiral decoration was found throughout Eurasia, from the Hoang Ho to the Loire.
This theme of the spiral had its climax in the Nordic Bronze Age, systematically decorating shields and large metal vessels. The spiral was the main motif carved on the great disc of the Trundholm sun chariot, mounted on a carriage pulled by a stylized horse. The bronze disc was covered by a resplendent gold leaf and the wonderful net of spirals was achieved with the technique of embossing.
It is undeniable that one of the main concerns of man is death and the problem of the life after death. A Cro-Magnon from Grimaldi had his head framed by two stones put vertically, and horizontal stones formed primitive lintels. By the year 10,000 BC, in the Riviere Saint Germain (Girone), the burial of a Magdalenian presents a double stone lintel similar to a “microdolmen”. In Teviec, an island of Morbihan, a tumulus points to the graves of the years 7,000 BC to 6,000 BC. These tumuli are already a presage of the Egyptian mastabas and pyramids. By 3,000 BC the West was covered with dolmens and began to bristle with menhirs which proliferated in the course of the second millennium. The so called Menga cave in Spain is the most impressive tomb of all the Prehistory. The burial chamber was 25 m long by 6.50 m in width with a height of 3.30 m. Yet this hypogeum only consisted of 31 monumental stones. Only eight flagstones form the chamber, covered by four gigantic lintels. The bottom flagstone of 10 to 12 meters long by 6 or 7 meters wide and with a width of almost two meters, weighs 320 tons. The 31 blocks of this monument reach the 1,600 tons and their placement required more technique than the static stacking of the blocks of the Gizah pyramid.
More elaborate as seen by its regular plan combining the circular and horseshoe shapes forming a large circular precinct of 100 meters in diameter, more “finished” with its carefully pricked walls, and more well built with its assemblies of stones with notches, Stonehenge is the symbol of western megalithic. The monumental part consists of a circle of stones of 30 meters in diameter with 30 vertical stone blocks of 4.20 meters, joined together by 30 lintels that were originally forming a crown. Inside there are five “trilithons” arranged in a horseshoe, two on each side framing the central of 8 meters in height.
With Stonehenge, devoted to solar worship, built around 1,800 BC, the megalithic became architecture. The entire West took part in this building frenzy: the talayots of the Balearics, the Sardinian nuraghes, the brochs of Scotland. A real “building rage” erupted throughout the second millennium BC.
But these monuments should not obscure man. Western hunters implored protection to their mother-goddess statuettes. Twenty thousand years later, we find them again in the same places with the same generous forms, always alike to one another. In hypogea we also found them guarding the entrance to the tomb, the same figures -carved in plaster- representing the mother-goddess transformed in protector of the dead. These female figurines -a humble symbol of domestic life and home- represented a necessary protection symbol, the continuity of the species and its survival, they even were a symbol of life after death. These statuettes prevailed throughout the whole Prehistory.
*Broch: A drystone hollow-walled structure from the Iron Age found only in Scotland. Brochs are considered some of the most sophisticated examples of drystone architecture ever created, the most sophisticated being polygon-drystone monoliths from South America.
*Dolmen: A dolmen or cromlech is a type of megalithic tomb in the form of a single-chamber, usually consisting of two or more big stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (or “table”). The majority of dolmens date from the early Neolithic (4000-3000 BCE). The oldest known dolmens are in Western Europe, where they were set in place around 7000 years ago.
*Lintel: A lintel is a structural element in architecture that can either be a load-bearing building component, a decorative architectural element, or an ornamented-structural item. It is usually found over portals, doors, windows, and/or fireplaces.
*Menhir: A large upright standing stone typical of pre-historic times and that can be found singly as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Menhirs are widely distributed across Europe, Africa and Asia, but are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany (northwest France).
*Nuraghe: A type of ancient megalithic structure found in Sardinia (Italy) and originated during the Nuragic Age (1900-730 BCE). They have the shape of a truncated conical tower resembling a medieval tower outside and a beehive inside.
*Talayot: Also known as talaiots, are megalithic monuments from the Bronze Age (ca. 2nd to early 1st millennium BC) found only on the islands of Minorca and Majorca (Balearic Islands, Spain) and that were part of the Talaiotic Culture.
*Trilithon: Also called trilith is a structure commonly used in megalithic monuments, and consisting of two large vertical stones or posts supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top (the lintel).