What is Art For? Part 7.2

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his exploration into ‘What is Art For?’.

Dr Charles Whitehead

There seems to be a clear change in body-image with the advent of agriculture. Although there are still dimorphic images – animal/human and male/female – indicating an unstable or non-essential body awareness, there are also many figures that show a naturalistic body articulation and posture that is not seen in previous ages. Remember the sculptor Boesou (in Part 4) who said that Europeans did not bring the concept of spirit to New Caledonia; what they brought was the body. I have suggested that the “human revolution” – the primordial ritual that made culture of human type possible – enabled people to become aware of their spirituality, but the cost of this was the loss of an essentialist awareness of the body, which has been shown to be intuitive in children. 

If we are seeing some recovery of that intuitive sense of body in the Neolithic, this may imply some loss of spirituality. What this might indicate is a shift from animism to a new pantheism. The spiritual world, perhaps, is beginning to coalesce into gods and goddesses, with shamans morphing into priests – a privileged caste with exclusive access to the divine. It has been shown that egalitarian societies tend to experience conscious and voluntary trance states in ritual, whereas more structured and hierarchic societies have unconscious and involuntary “possession trance”. Whereas, in shamanic trance, the trancer’s spirit leaves his or her body to visit other realms, in possession trance an alien spirit shuts down the trancer’s consciousness and takes over the control of his or her body. Spiritual experience is replaced by spiritual non-experience. Where animistic rituals are experientially intense, priestly rituals tend to be more formal – liturgical, repetitive, habituated – more about form than content.

Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in prehistoric Europe. 37 metres high and 160 metres wide. Made mostly of chalk the original mound would have been white. The surrounding water-filled moat and lake is also artificial but is usually dry today. Completed around 4.4 kya and part of the Avebury complex, just north of Stonehenge.

As agriculture spread further west there were cultural changes. The most iconic monument of the Neolithic is undoubtedly Stonehenge, a product of the megalithic culture that began in France then spread along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, from Portugal to the Orkneys, and eventually Scandinavia and the Mediterranean coast. Some of the most spectacular achievements of this culture are concentrated in the landscape surrounding Stonehenge, on Salisbury plain in Wiltshire.

About fifteen miles north of Stonehenge is Silbury Hill, the largest human-made mound in prehistoric Europe. It is part of the Avebury complex which includes two avenues of standing stones converging on the Avebury henge. This is the largest henge monument in Europe, roughly one mile (1.6 km) in circumference, comprising a deep ditch within a massive bank, a large stone circle surrounding the enclosed area, and two smaller circles and other megalithic structures within that. It also encloses part of the modern village of Avebury.

The labour involved in creating these monuments was enormous. The bank, ditch, and sarsen stones of Avebury required an estimated 1.5 million man-hours to construct; the final stage of Stonehenge about 1.75 million man-hours; and Silbury Hill much longer – estimates range up to 18 million man-hours, equivalent to 500 men working for 15 years. The Stonehenge bluestones were also transported from Waun Mawn – a former circle of equal size to the original arrangement at Stonehenge – in the Preseli Mountains in west Wales, a distance of 280 kilometres (174 miles).

Such massive powers of organisation cannot be explained by a small-scale tribal structure. More likely would be an authoritarian theocratic elite with wide-ranging control across southern Britain or even wider political influence. Bones of cattle eaten at midwinter feasts in the vicinity of Stonehenge came from as far afield as Scotland and west Wales.

Although many megalithic structures were no doubt designed with aesthetic intent, there is very little graphic art or sculpture surviving from megalithic cultures. Some of the finest comes from Irish passage tombs such as Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, where many of the passage and kerb stones were richly engraved with curvilinear and rectilinear designs. One of the most famous is the entrance stone at Newgrange, whilst Knowth has over 200 decorated stones, amounting to one quarter of all the megalithic art in western Europe. Some of these engravings are buried underground or carved on the backs of the stones where they cannot be seen – visible, perhaps, only to the dead.

Megalithic people were interested in astronomy and calendrical measurement. The alignment of Stonehenge with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset appears to coincide with a similar alignment at the original Waun Mawn bluestone circle in Preseli. The passageway into Newgrange is so oriented that the rising sun for a few days around the winter solstice shines through the “roofbox” to flood the inner chamber with light. Knowth has two passages facing east and west. They align with sunrise and sunset six days after the vernal equinox and six days before the autumnal equinox, which could be coincidental, though Martin Brennan has suggested that lunar alignments may have been intended. At Dowth, one of the two chambers inside the passage tomb is lit by the setting sun at winter solstice, marking the longest night of the year.

Entrance to Newgrange, showing the entrance stone and the “roofbox” which allows the rising sun around the winter solstice to illuminate the inner chamber.
Drawing of the entrance stone. Note the triskelion – three interlocking spirals – a device that is still used today as a sign of Irish or Celtic culture, though it is common also in Mediterranean countries. The stone is 3 metres long and 1.2 metres high (10¼ × 4¼ feet).

Lionel Simms, Emeritus Head of Anthropology at the University of East London, has theorised that the builders of Stonehenge and Avebury were intending to transfer the sacred power associated with the moon and the lunar calendar (central to hunting beliefs) to the solar calendar (essential to farming). This is not just a pragmatic matter – it is crucial to legitimising the political and theocratic authority of the ruling class. Evidence for this is probably stronger in Ireland than England; several engravings at the Irish passage tombs appear to be correlating lunar and solar calendars.

In particular, the Calendar Stone at Knowth (pictured above, right) suggests that the people of the Neolithic were proficient astronomers who made observations over great periods of time and were able to pass on their knowledge to subsequent generations. The Calendar Stone can be used to track the synodic month (the period from one full moon to the next), and to calculate the large subunits of the 19-year Metonic Cycle (the period after which phases of the moon recur on the same days of the solar calendar). Many of the stones show apparent lunar and solar imagery – even what may be the world’s oldest map of the moon’s surface.

Other stones cannot be so interpreted, and their complex designs remain a mystery, But if they appear esoteric to us, that may have been the intention of their creators – giving the false impression that a theocratic class possessed even greater esoteric knowledge than they really had.

DNA analyses have provided new insights into megalithic culture. One man, whose bones were laid in the central chamber of Newgrange, was born of first degree incest (i.e. parent-child or brother-sister incest) – as were the god kings of the Mayas and the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. It has also been shown that those buried in the prestigious passage tombs across Ireland were close kin, implying a powerful dynastic rule over a wide area. Those buried in lesser tombs – portal and court tombs – were not so related. Isotope analysis further proved that the ruling class ate a lot more meat than the commoners.

Dowth (Dubad in Irish, meaning “darkness”) is associated with a myth involving incest. The king of Erin, Bresal Bó-Dibad, called all the men of Ireland to build, in a single day, a tower that would reach up to heaven. Bresal’s sister, a powerful sorceress, cast a spell to halt the sun at its highest, so that day would not end until the work was finished. But Bresal, overcome by lust, committed incest with his sister, breaking the spell, and the sun set. The men therefore abandoned their work, and the sister proclaimed that “Dubad (darkness) shall be the name of this place for ever.”

Incest is viewed with abhorrence in all known human societies, with rare exceptions such as the ones mentioned above. What is taboo in everyday life, however, can become a sacrament in sacred rituals (search my MA talk “Religious experience and the theory of anti-structure”). For example, actual cannibalism occurred in ritual headhunting expeditions by the Avatip, whilst make-believe cannibalism forms the central sacrament of Eucharist in Christian liturgy. Obligatory “incest” (based on classificatory, not uterine, kinship) also occurred during the ritual season (winter) among the Iglulik Eskimos. For the ancient Greeks, only the gods committed incest, and this seems to be what was happening in megalithic Ireland.

Politically and economically, incestuous marriage is an effective way of keeping power and wealth within a single family. Theocratically, it implies that only immediate kin are worthy of marriage to a divinity. The DNA evidence suggests a society ruled by a god king and a divine dynasty. Such an extreme form of idealised hierarchy meets one of the preconditions for the rise of civilization. A second precondition is an agricultural surplus, yielding enough food to feed a population of specialised workers engaged in activities other than food production, such as building megalithic monuments and serving the needs of an unproductive priestly and aristocratic class. Megalithic societies certainly met those conditions, but others are equally necessary, and the peoples of northern and western Europe remained essentially pastoral even into the Iron Age. They built nations, but they did not build cities.

Irish families in the Iron Age lived in scattered raths – fortified farmsteads. Their menfolk were well-trained and ferocious warriors whose favourite sports were cattle raiding and killing off their rivals. Which raises a third prerequisite of civilization – security from attack. The necessary surplus production creates a parallel need for surplus security.

The fourth requirement for the dawn of civilization is water control. Hence the cradles of western civilizations lie along the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile. These rivers flowed through areas with low rainfall, but periodic flooding provided alluvial soil ideal for agriculture. Secure settlement and farming, however, required water management – the building of flood defences and irrigation systems. These led to the development of a centralised bureaucracy – not only to organise the necessary engineering, but also to monitor production, stock, trade, and all the other functions of the first city states. The rise of bureaucracy led to the development of both literacy and numeracy – the essential means of recording and measuring. 

The earliest civilizations were Sumer (6 kya) in Lower Mesopotamia (meaning “the land between the rivers”, i.e. the Tigris and Euphrates), and Egypt (5.5 kya). Other river valley civilizations developed for the same reasons, along the Indus River in India (2.5 kya) and Yellow River in China (3.6 kya). The burgeoning wealth of Egypt enjoyed protection by the surrounding desert, but as warfare developed in Mesopotamia, cities acquired defensive walls and armies. Cities were built around a central temple, often atop a massive ziggurat. Sumer also saw the invention of the wheel, the division of the day into hours and minutes, and sophisticated astronomy – including the apparent realization that the planets orbited the sun, thousands of years before Copernicus published his “Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”.

A major feature of the first civilizations is their commitment to spectacular feats of engineering – some of them unmatched in scale by any more recent civilizations. The pyramids of Egypt are a familiar example. But, unlike in Egypt, stone was scarce in Mesopotamia, where ziggurats and palaces were built with bricks of mud and straw. Though their exteriors were protected by fired bricks or glazed tiles, they are badly eroded today. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, once counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, has now vanished without any known trace.

These mighty works could not have been accomplished without forced labour, and we know these societies kept slaves. Monumental architecture also reflects the extraordinary ambition of early kings, who were either regarded as gods, like the Egyptian Pharaohs, or were allegedly raised to power by the gods, to rule by divine right.

These early Mesopotamian kings sought to continually increase their power partly through trade with India, Egypt, and elsewhere, but also through armed colonial expansion. They built monuments to celebrate their victories and proclaim their divinely ordained power and glory. And of course colonialism led to their ultimate downfall, provoking rebellions and the rise of competing states beyond or even within their borders. The Sumerian civilization (from 6 kya/4000 BC) endured for almost 1700 years but eventually succumbed to the northern Akkadians whose empire lasted from 2334 to 2154 BC – a mere 180 years. The subsequent Assyrian empire extended from Egypt and Cyprus in the west to the borders of Persia in the east, and lasted from 2000 to 600 BC.

Babylon was a minor city state until its sixth king, Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC, overthrew Assyrian control and conquered the whole of southern Mesopotamia. Babylon was absorbed into the Persian empire in 539 BC and then  the empire of Alexander the Great in 335 BC.

Although these early kings were dedicated to their own power, they may well have also had a sense of responsibility towards their people. Indeed their power probably depended on it. A notable achievement of Hammurabi was his major improvement over previous legal systems – laws were essential to the complexities of civilized society. The Hammurabi Code was engraved in cuneiform script on a basalt stele in 1754 BC. The head of the stele shows Hammurabi receiving his royal insignia from a senior god –  Shamash or Marduk – and the prologue to the laws extols the honours and blessings he has received from many deities, asserting his divine right to rule, and ensuring that Babylon was established on a strong and enduring foundation (it rapidly fell apart after his death). But it also asserts that Hammurabi established the laws to protect the weak from abuse by the strong, and to ensure “the betterment of mankind”. Historians have expressed surprise at just how fair these laws were – introducing the idea that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and establishing the requirement for witnesses and proofs. 

But many of the punishments were draconian. Of around 282 clauses (the text is run on and it is not always clear where a clause ends), some 32 carried a death penalty, and others mutilation – cutting out the tongue, gouging out an eye, cutting off the hands, etc. Several follow the principle of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. Others deal with the rights and obligations of husbands and wives, physicians, soldiers, merchants, sailors, landlords, tailors, builders, etc. Civilization created a multitude of specialised trades and professions.

Since Ice Age societies were egalitarian, it follows that the “human revolution” overthrew the power of the alpha male – characteristic of all non-human ape societies. For maybe 200 thousand years or more, our ancestors were able to maintain this state of affairs, until it began to break down in the Mesolithic. With the accumulation of wealth and power in the Neolithic and early civilizations, the heady mix of secular and sacred power allowed the old dominating instincts to re-emerge in an entirely new and collective form – a dynastic rule over a strictly hierarchic society that was far more extensive and elaborate than any primate troop.

In sum, the art of the first civilizations asserts a new kind of political and theocratic power. The “Guennol Lioness”, so called because of the absence of male genitalia and “feminine curves of the thighs”, looks more like an expression of the new obsession with power. It came from a private collection (hence its provenance is uncertain), and sold for $57.2 million at Sotheby’s in December 2007 – at the time, the highest price ever paid for a sculpture sold at auction, and almost double the previous record of Pablo Picasso’s Tete de femme (Dora Maar) ($29.1 million, less than a month earlier). Such is the nature of the current art market, motivated by wealth display and investment, and just as politically driven as the art of ancient Mesopotamia.

So far what I have described is a series of major steps – or “revolutions” – away from a primordial way of life. The first was the advent of ritual-based culture in Africa (possibly 200 kya); the second was the development of perspectival beliefs in Europe and Asia (ca. 40 kya); the third was a shift from nomadic to settled living and social hierarchy, with harvesting of wild grains (in the Levant, 23 kya); fourth was the Agricultural Revolution (ca. 10 kya in the Levant); fifth was the rise of civilization, nation states, and imperialism in Mesopotamia (from 6 kya) and Egypt (5.5 kya). The last three of these transitions placed more or less onerous burdens on the majority of the populations involved.

All of these transitions must have involved profound shifts in consciousness – by which I mean self-consciousness and the way people perceive themselves, each other, and the world they live in. In my next blog I will discuss a sixth transition – the so-called “Axial Age” or “Moral Revolution”, which cultural historians and cultural philosophers regard as the only or the single major shift in human consciousness, that still shapes our world to this day. But there were subsequent transitions – including the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, associated with Modernism and Postmodernism.

What I think is becoming clear is that “art”, in its many forms, can act as a window on the story of what we have gained and what we have lost as consciousness evolved from a perspectival to a physicalist worldview.

Part 8 to follow soon.