What Is Art For? Part 6.2

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his investigation into how art has been used, and why, throughout the millennia. Do make sure to read his previous entries in the Journal here.

Dr Charles Whitehead

In southwest Asia, where the climate was temperate even during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), changes were occurring well before the Holocene. At Ohalo II, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, settled fisher-hunter-gatherers were harvesting wild grains during the LGM, 23,000 years ago. The polish on their flint sickle blades shows that they were cutting grasses just before the seeds were ripe. Skeletal injuries show they spent long hours kneeling to reap these grasses. They used grindstones to process the grain. The site is near the western tip of the Fertile Crescent. Thousands of years later (15-9.5 kya), the entire western limb of the Fertile Crescent was occupied by Natufian foragers, many of whom lived in more or less permanent villages and also harvested and stored wild cereals. They were the earliest known makers of bread (Shubayqa 1, Jordan, 14.5 kya) and brewers of beer (Raqefet Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel, 13 kya). There is indirect evidence that the first cultivation of wild rye occurred at the Natufian site of Abu Hureyra (ca. 11 kya), but agriculture with truly domesticated cereals developed later (ca. 10 kya). The earlier cultivation, if it occurred, was  probably short lived. It coincided with the Younger Dryas glaciation, which began suddenly and lasted around 1,000 years. The colder and dryer climate caused bush to replace much of the grassland on which the Natufians depended for grain. The villagers of Abu Hureyra may have been forced to clear the brush and plant rye, until the harsh climate caused them to abandon their village.

Natufian culture suggests three major changes relative to the Upper Palaeolithic, involving “counter-revolutionary” shifts in ideology, reflected in Natufian art: (1) settled villages of complex as opposed to simple foragers; (2) social hierarchy as opposed to relative egalitarianism; and (3) patriarchy as opposed to matriarchy. Of many burials at Natufian sites, only around six percent are ‘decorated’ – that is, the deceased was buried wearing elaborate regalia and with other grave goods, suggesting high rank. Some of the decorated graves were of children, probably implicating a hereditary aristocracy. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the fact that many decorated skeletons were close relatives (indicated by e.g. a congenital ‘dent’ in the skull, or missing third molars). Animal parts, red ochre, and other inclusions in graves have been seen by archaeologists as evidence that these privileged persons were shamans, and a significant minority of these are women, suggesting that female shamans were a significant social force during the Natufian.

Unfortunately, Natufian sites have so far yielded a rather sparse collection of iconic art objects. These include ambiguous human and animal figures in both schematic and naturalistic styles, several detached heads in clay or stone, and both male and female genitals. Sickle hafts were often decorated with animal heads, and pestles for grinding seeds and ochre were sometimes carved to represent phalli.

‘The Ain Sakhri Lovers’, the most famous piece of Natufian art, claimed to be the oldest known depiction of coitus. Some artists consider this to be highly witty because, when viewed from six different directions, it appears to also show two phalli, a scrotum, and a vagina. Images of ambiguous and androgynous gender are common during the succeeding Neolithic. White calcite, 10 cm x 6 cm (4″ x 2.4″) 11 kya.

Female skull with head-dress from el-Wad, and reconstruction showing also a necklace of the ‘twinned bead’ style. This style has been interpreted as fusing male and female imagery.

Male skull with head-dress from el-Wad, and reconstruction showing a twinned bead necklace.

Bone carved with a human head at one end and an animal head at the other, perhaps reflecting shamanic shape-shifting.

But the most spectacular construction of the pre-agricultural period is Göbekli Tepe, the oldest known megalithic monument in the world, built by hunter-gatherers 11,500 years ago. There are more than two hundred massive pillars arranged in about twenty circles in the first phase of building. Each pillar has a height of up to six meters (20 ft) and weighs up to ten tons. This is six thousand years older than Stonehenge and, unlike Stonehenge, the stones are covered in what archaeologists describe as “beautiful carvings”. The whole structure could be regarded as a work of art and, far from being “beautiful”, it is arguably the ugliest nightmare art ever created by prehistoric people.

The largest stone pillars – the ones with a second massive stone laid across the top to form a “T” shape – are clearly meant to represent giant anthropomorphs. Some are carved with a pair of human arms, the hands grasping the corners of the pillar. Phase 1 is characterised by round or oval buildings with two of these giant statues facing each other in the middle. In the best-preserved building, the two central giants are carved in low relief with arms, hands, necklaces, belts, belt buckles, loincloths, and other accessories. The horizontal capstone thus appears to represent a faceless head. Many pillars are ‘guarded’ by snarling and snapping beasts. The giant columns may represent aggrandised ancestors or even the world’s first gods or goddesses, though there is only one explicitly female figure at this site – a squatting woman with something issuing from her vagina. Certainly such giant figures do not appear in art before this time.

Snakes – one of them crawling up the back of a man’s head – a snarling boar, and presumed vultures.

Spiders (with the wrong number of legs), a scorpion,  more vultures, and a headless ithyphallic human (bottom right)

This is a spectacular change from Upper Palaeolithic and even Mesolithic art. The beautiful and naturalistic wild animals of earlier periods have been largely replaced by an entirely new and fantastic kind of bestiary, deliberately selected for repugnant, threatening, and venomous qualities. The sculptors also paid scant attention to naturalism – some animals are unidentifiable and spiders have the wrong number of legs, suggesting that the artists were only interested in their repellent features.

We can only infer an unprecedented scale of political force, asserted through this threatening art and monumental architecture. An enormous labour force must have been involved. The people who built Göbekli Tepe were foragers, and foraging requires much more territory than farming. Villages in this region are far apart and housed no more than 100 or 150 people. Which means that the necessary labour force must have been recruited from a considerable area – possibly as far afield as Egypt and the Persian Gulf. It may have been a cult centre for the entire Fertile Crescent, drawing pilgrims from across the Levant to take part in seasonal rituals. In a similar way Stonehenge drew people from all over Britain, including Scotland and West Wales, for the mid-winter pig feast. There is little evidence of residency at Göbekli Tepe – no hearths, huts, or houses. There are fragmentary human bones but no evidence of systematic burial of the dead. No one ever lived there. But there is evidence of lavish feasting which would serve to reward the builders and unite and motivate this scattered population. People came here for purely ceremonial reasons.

Another peculiarity of Göbekli Tepe is that the various structures were continuously rebuilt over a span of around 1,500 years. Old structures were repeatedly buried with a huge amount of infill, mainly limestone rubble mixed with artefacts, lots of animal bones, and a few human bones. It is these successive burials and reconstructions that created the mound which gives the site its name – “Göbekli Tepe” means “pot-bellied hill” in Turkish. It would seem that the power structure of this new kind of Mesolithic society required repetitive feats of Herculean labour to sustain itself. But it was this power structure that made possible the shift to a fully agricultural way of life, which in turn made possible the rise of cities, nation states, empires, modern science, postmodern art, and everything we describe – for better or worse – as “progress”.

Composite photograph showing divers investigating the massive monolith discovered on the Pantelleria Vecchia Bank, which was an island until submerged by rising sea levels 9,300 years ago.

There are few examples of monumental art dating to the Mesolithic, but the ones we have are fortuitous discoveries, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It would be an impossible task for archaeologists to dig up the whole of Europe to establish an exhaustive view of prehistory. However, in the Sicilian Strait, about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, marine archaeologists discovered a huge monolith, twelve meters (39 ft) long and weighing 15 tons. It has three carved holes which are undoubtedly human made, and the stone is not of local origin – it was brought to this site when the bank on which it rests was still an island, more than 9,300 years ago. It may not count as a ‘work of art’, but it shows that Herculean engineering and the ability to command a large workforce was not unique to Göbekli Tepe.

More interesting, perhaps, are the carved boulders from Lepenski Vir, on the Serbian side of the Danube, downstream from the Iron Gates cataracts. These churning rapids create high oxygen levels in the water, sustaining a dense population of fish, notably sturgeon, catfish, and carp, which are easily trapped in the whirlpool at this site (Lepenski Vir means “red clay whirlpool” in Serbian). Some of these carvings have geometric designs sometimes resembling fish skeletons; others depict human/fish hybrid figures with goggle eyes, fish-like mouths, woebegone expressions, and sometimes other features such as hands with four fingers. It has been suggested that they may represent “river gods”. Though they are no more than 60 cm (2 ft) tall, archaeologists describe them as “monumental” because they are larger than life-size and much bigger than other Mesolithic figurines. The largest boulders weigh over 50 kg and were carried here from the headwaters of the Boljetinska River, about 10 km away. There are traces of red pigment within the grooves of the carvings. What this art has in common with Göbekli Tepe, apart from being distinctly weird compared with earlier more naturalistic art, is that it appears at the end of the Mesolithic.

Lepenski Vir was built on a sloping terrace on the western bank of the Danube, backed by high cliffs forming a natural amphitheatre, with access only by a narrow passageway to the south. This village-sized settlement has been described as Europe’s “first city” because it shows the earliest evidence of civic planning. Though houses vary in size, they are all built to the same trapezoidal plan, facing the river, and arranged so that each house has direct access to the water, with stone ramps and steps on steeper slopes and a clear communal area in the centre. Opposite the village, on the Romanian side of the river, is the distinctly trapezoidal cliff face of Treskavac Mountain, which may have been regarded as sacred, and probably inspired the geometric plan of the houses, the public space, and the whole settlement.

The house floors are extremely well preserved because they were made from limestone mortar – predating Egyptian mortar by 1600 years. Paving stones were set at the threshold, and beyond that a rectangular stone hearth and a raised stone platform – possibly an altar. A peculiarity of the monumental sculptures is that they were not publically displayed – they were set into the mortar floors within the houses as were all the other stone features. Probably every house contained at least one sculpted boulder, whilst the largest house had seven or nine (depending on which reference you read). A central boulder, set at the head of the hearth, was often carved such that the carved area was concealed beneath the cement floor – only visible, as it were, to the dead (who were sometimes buried under house floors, though more often in an elaborate necropolis outside the village). In this community, each house interior comprised a sacred as well as a domestic space.

The remarkable art and architecture of Lepenski Vir developed at a time when farmers from the Levant were already settling the surrounding countryside. Yet Lepenski Vir remained resolutely Mesolithic, and the Neolithic farmers seem to have had some reverence for these fisher-hunter-gatherers and the sacred site they inhabited. Intermarriage and cultural exchanges occurred. Some skeletons which were genetically local are  buried in the Neolithic manner (curled into a foetal position), whilst some that were genetically Levantine were buried in the Mesolithic manner (laid out straight). Undoubtedly based on Mesolithic traditions of myth and ritual, the late florescence of Lepenski Vir culture may have been an assertion of local identity in the face of an immigrant Levantine population, and the two peoples seem to have treated each other with mutual respect. This is not what happened elsewhere in Europe: as Levantine famers migrated westward, they often displaced indigenous foraging populations.

Conclusions so far


So how does all the above help to answer the question “What is Art For?”

I have argued that the things children do for fun – including play and performative behaviours such as song, dance, and visual art – are essential for the development of self- and other-awareness. Art in particular seems to be important for the development of body image. Art in adults also relates to body image, as we saw in Melanesia and indigenous America (Part 4).

Shamanic images of therianthropes and human-animal transformations are found all over the world. which suggests that the primordial ritual – the one that triggered the “human revolution” – had a profound effect on body image. The anthropologist Scott Atran has shown that children in different cultures, by the age of four, develop an essentialist concept of bodies. For example, they know that dressing a horse in a zebra costume does not change the horse into a zebra. So the belief in shape-shifting – a non-essentialist belief – is counter-intuitive.

The known effects of ritual (such as shamanic trance and experiences of human or cosmic unity) suggest that the primordial ritual enabled humans to discover their spirituality. But at the same time they lost their essentialist sense of body. Like Boesou in New Caledonia (Part 4), they were well aware of spirit, but much less clear about their bodies. So this would represent the first transformation in consciousness, accomplished by ritual including the ritual use of art – at the very least using ochre as body paint.

In the last blog (Part 5) I gave evidence that ancient Europeans must have had perspectival beliefs, including the belief that animals are humans wearing animal suits. The emergence of perspectival beliefs in animistic societies would represent a second shift in self-other awareness. I infer this from the fact that perspectival beliefs are found across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, but not in sub-Saharan Africa, where culture of modern human type first appeared. America was colonised by humans from Asia, crossing the Behring Bridge during the Ice Age around 30,000 years ago. This suggests that perspectival beliefs diffused from an origin point north of the Sahara, finding expression in the shamanic art of the Upper Palaeolithic (Part 5). People could not have survived in Ice Age Europe without elaborate whole-body clothing made from animal hide, and the “Sorcerer” images suggest that shamans wore animal costumes in trance. This may be the origin of the perspectival association between shape-shifting and animal costume.

A third shift is implicated by Mesolithic art which is more secular and human-centred. I have inferred a patriarchal “counter revolution” – not necessarily everywhere, but most probably where we see evidence of warfare and occasional instances of monumental art, which also implies hierarchy and the necessary preconditions for the fourth shift – the “Neolithic revolution”, which I will turn to in Part 7. Therianthropes continue to appear in Mesolithic art, and since perspectival ideas have survived into modern times these probably remained dominant. The monumental art also hints at a change to something more similar to modern religions – the possible emergence of gods or goddesses, or at least aggrandised ancestor figures.

All these shifts in awareness are expressed in art and art no doubt assisted in accomplishing and maintaining them. For example, just as Bushman rock art helped to induce trance states, the same may well be true of Ice Age art. It has also been suggested that ancient European rock art was involved in summoning animal “spirit helpers”, as well as hunting magic. Thus a great deal of ancient art served magical and sacred functions. In the Mesolithic we see increasing evidence of art also serving political functions – unifying communities especially where threatened by warfare, and justifying hierarchical inequalities of power and wealth. We may also be seeing the first seeds of religious (as opposed to spiritual) art, projecting a hierarchic cosmology dominated by superhuman powers, which parallels the hierarchy of human societies. This change becomes more consolidated in the Neolithic.

To be continued in Part 7