What is Art For? Part 7

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 3: Neolithic art and the rise of civilization

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art, on ‘What is Art for?’.

Natufian foragers in the Fertile Crescent were forming settled communities well before the Agricultural Revolution, which marks the end of the Epipalaeolithic and the start of the Neolithic, characterised by cultivation of domesticated crops and, later, domestic animals. Fired clay was used in the Ice Age, but purely to make ceramic figurines, not pots for cooking or storage – it is a general rule that play and art come before utility. But by about 9 kya, Neolithic farmers, who were already using high temperatures to make lime plaster, had learned to use fired clay to make decorated pottery vessels. Neolithic people also made beautifully polished stone tools showing a distinct aesthetic sense. Many of these, like the Malone hoard, show no signs of use and presumably served as objects of wealth and prestige in markedly hierarchic societies. Whether or not you consider such objects as “art”, they share one of the functions of art that is still dominant today – wealth display.

It has been claimed that polished axes are stronger than the chipped, unpolished kind. But the enormous labour involved in polishing stone against a wet grinding stone seems hardly worth the effort for purely utilitarian ends. Polished axes made in Ireland, Wales, and England were traded across the whole of the British Isles, indicating broad networks of exchange, and they were not just used for chopping wood. Polished greenstone axes were used by New Zealand Māoris for gift exchange. They were also highly valued wealth objects. The stone from which they were made possessed mana, or spiritual power, prestige, and authority, as did the finished object.

The enormous labour involved in polishing added to the value, and no doubt the mana, of the finished implement. To polish a weapon such as the famous mere of the Heu-heu family often required two generations to complete. Caches of Māori axes have been found buried just like the Malone hoard in Ireland. In one case the captured Māori chief Tuhuru was ransomed for a single mere (a polished greenstone weapon shaped like a tear drop)  –  which was literally worth a “king’s ransom”.

Polished greenstone adze heads, Baliem valley, West Papua, length 15 to 23 cm.
Pare Watene holding a greenstone mere (portrait by Gottfried Lindauer, 1878)

The exchange of gifts is spiritually important to stone age people. The Māori have a term hau taonga which roughly translates as “the spirit in relation to valuables”. Just as we cannot sense the air unless there is a wind, so we cannot sense the spirit unless it moves (cf. John 3:8 “The wind bloweth where it listeth…so is every one that is born of the Spirit”), and gift exchange involves “movement of spirit”, creating social bonds between giver and receiver. For animistic people all things – humans, animals, plants, artefacts, and natural objects – are imbued with intelligent spirit and bound with relations of kinship: what indigenous Americans mean when they say “All my relations”. It seems likely that Neolithic axes were objects of wealth, prestige, and spiritual power, and used to cement bonds of kinship and alliance. Although works of art in the western art market also are treated as prestigious, they are not generally regarded as “power objects”, and only shared in the sense that they may be displayed in public galleries. They are rarely given away, and owning them serves as a mark of social distinction rather than social bonding. They have lost their “spiritual” functions.

Çatal Höyük, one of the earliest urban settlements of the Neolithic, 9.4-8 kya.

Settlement, farming, and social hierarchy were the essential preconditions for the rise of civilization.

 “Civilization” literally implies a society with one or more cities. The Turkish Tourist Board claims that Çatal Höyük is “the oldest city in the world”, but if a village-sized collection of houses with minimal civic planning is a “city” then Jericho, in Palestine, has a better claim. There are fresh water springs feeding an oasis around Jericho (the name may derive from the Canaanite word reaẖ, meaning “fragrant”, as does its Arabic name Ārīḥā), which attracted Natufian foragers to camp there, and after the Younger Dryas glaciation, around 11.6 kya (thousand years ago) they established a permanent settlement, shortly before the building of Göbekli Tepe (see Part 6).

By 10.3 kya, in the Neolithic period, Jericho consisted of a cluster of round houses surrounded by a massive wall 3.6 metres (12 ft) tall and 1.8 metres (6 ft) thick, perhaps to keep out thieves or predatory animals since there is no evidence of warfare here at this time. Just inside the western wall was a conical tower 8.5 m (28 ft) tall and almost 9 metres (30 ft) in diameter at the base, decreasing to 7 metres (23 ft) at the top. Inside was a staircase with 22 steps. Its function is unknown, but massive works of this kind, as I have previously noted, usually implicate social hierarchy and class politics. The houses, however, show few signs of distinction, and archaeologists have inferred a relatively egalitarian society at Jericho. The same is true for Çatal Höyük, together with evidence that men and women were equally well-nourished. However there were differences between houses. For example, some houses have multiple burials beneath their floors – ranging from ten to 62 bodies – whereas others have none.

It is possible that the spread of agriculture assimilated relatively egalitarian societies – Çatal Höyük and Jericho are outliers in the Fertile Crescent. But if women were well-fed that is probably because they did the cooking. Victorian women were generally as well-fed as men, but lived in a very patriarchal society where men “protected” the “weaker sex” and women were essentially wards of men. Whether Çatal Höyük was truly egalitarian is an open question.

Archaeologists have found some artworks from Jericho, including clay anthropomorphic and therianthropic figures, some almost life-size, and ten skulls plastered to resemble human faces, with skin and hair applied to the rest of the skull. Stones or cowry shells were inserted as eyes. As at many sites in the Fertile Crescent, including Çatal Höyük, people buried their dead under the floors of their houses. Once all the flesh had rotted away, skulls were removed and plastered in this way – possibly the oldest form of portraiture.

From an art point of view, Çatal Höyük is much more interesting than Jericho, yielding a treasure trove of wall paintings, plastered skulls, and hundreds of figurines. The settlement developed about a thousand years after Göbekli Tepe was abandoned. Unlike the round and domed houses of Jericho, buildings at Çatal Höyük were rectangular with flat roofs. There were no continuous gaps or footpaths between the houses, so the flat rooftops served as “streets” – access to houses was through a hole in the roof, the only source of ventilation and the only way that smoke from the open hearths and ovens could escape. Rooms were scrupulously clean, smoothly plastered, and decorated with painted murals, moulded plaques, bulls’ heads, and woven mats.

Reconstruction showing a typical interior of a house in Çatal Höyük

The plastering of skulls suggests a “cult of the head”, probably related to ancestor worship. In one house, dubbed “the Vulture Shrine”, headless human figures are associated with vultures. Similar imagery was present at Göbekli Tepe, where there were also deliberately beheaded sculptures. Two beheaded sculptures were also found at Çatal Höyük. Perhaps the head was seen as the seat of the soul, and bodies may have been exposed before burial so that vultures could consume the flesh and carry the souls of the dead up to a heavenly sky world, the land of the ancestors.

Bull skulls, plastered to resemble the living heads, are very common at Çatal Höyük and the bull most likely had a sacred significance. Horns, claws, and talons were also frequently plastered into the house walls. One impressive fresco shows a giant bull surrounded by diminutive figures of animals and humans – some of whom are carrying bows. One archaeologist suggests that the bows are musical instruments and the people are dancing rather than hunting. Some of the figures are orange and others dark red – suggesting a “dual moiety” kinship system – i.e. a community divided into two halves, each regarded as a single family or “clan”. Incest and exogamous marriage rules would require members of one clan to marry partners from the other clan. Çatal Höyük was divided into two halves by a gap along its major axis, suggesting that two complementary clans lived in opposite sides of the settlement.

Fresco showing a giant bull surrounded by a hunting (or dancing?) scene. Ca. 9-7 kya.

Another key image from Çatal Höyük is the leopard which seems to have had cultic significance. Several painted plaster reliefs show two leopards facing each other with what, to a modern eye, look like “stars” inside the spots. Some of the houses were periodically demolished and replaced with new buildings. One house, with the plaster relief of “star leopards” shown below, was replaced with a new build that included a second plaster relief similar to the first. The image clearly had importance to the residents of that house – an expression of their family identity perhaps. In later phases of the town, leopards also appear on pots and clay seals used for stamping designs onto a surface – maybe human skin, leather, or even bread baked by a particular family. Curiously, no leopard body parts, other than a single claw pierced for use as a pendant, have been found at the site, though some human figures in wall paintings are wearing leopard hides. It may have been taboo to keep leopard meat in or near the residential area.

Drawing of a similar image from a wall painting.
Painted plaster wall plaque of two “star leopards”.
Leopard stamp seal
Human figure riding a leopard and wearing a leopard skin.

Bulls, leopards, and bears appear to make up a trinity of cult animals at Çatal Höyük. These are all dangerous wild animals – cattle were not domesticated until late in the occupation of the site. Large plaques of figures with upturned limbs were initially interpreted as “mother goddesses” until the stamp seal of a bear in identical pose was found (below, right). It was impossible to identify the plaque figures because the heads and paws were broken off when the houses were abandoned, as if to “kill” the figure before it could be safely buried. The plaque figures below have a prominent circled navel so maybe they were “mother bears” or even therianthropic goddesses. The navel is marked on the seal also. As with leopards, bear body parts are extremely rare at Çatal Höyük, again suggesting a taboo related to bear meat.

Among Hindus today the cow is a taboo animal, being the earthly embodiment of the cow goddess Kamadhenu, also referred to as Gou Mata (“Cow Mother”). The goddess literally dwells within all cows. Perhaps the people of Çatal Höyük believed that deities lived within their taboo animals. 

Two wall plaques interpreted as bears with upturned limbs. The bear stamp seal (right) has an identical pose.

The strongest evidence for a mother goddess at Çatal Höyük is a clay figurine depicting a seated woman flanked by two felines (below). Since Çatal Höyük is centrally placed in southern Anatolia, it is difficult to resist seeing this figure as a precursor, or even the origin, of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. Her cult eventually spread to Greece and Rome where she was regularly depicted with lions, and wearing a “mural crown” representing city walls. Cybele was the “Great Mother” and mother of all the gods. She ruled wild nature, represented by lions, but also protected the city, represented by her mural crown. In Greece and Rome she was served by mendicant eunuch priests who castrated themselves in honour of Attis, her son or grandson. Cybele fell in love with Attis, but drove him mad in a fit of jealousy when he tried to marry a princess. The crazed Attis castrated himself, and where his blood spilled, violets sprang from the ground.

Left: “Mother goddess” enthroned between two felines, resembling the Anatolian goddess Cybele.
Right: “Twin goddess” with two heads and four breasts but only two arms. 8-7.5 kya

Hundreds of figurines have been found at Çatal Höyük, including steatopygous females reminiscent of the Venus figurines of the Ice Age. There are also animals, humans, therianthropes, and sexually ambivalent figures. The latter two suggest shape-shifting beliefs and the ritual template “wrong gender, wrong species, wrong time” – which originally forced men to provision women in exchange for sexual access. Sexually ambivalent figures – notably females with phallic heads – are very common across the Levant and south eastern Europe. A few examples are illustrated below.

At one time, this kind of Neolithic art would have been described as “primitive”, as was the art of New Caledonia (see Part 4), as though people had not yet “learned” how to portray things realistically. But we know that in the Upper Palaeolithic artists were painting animals, often with beautiful and seemingly effortless naturalism (Part 5). It makes little sense to say that people in the Ice Age were “less primitive” than those who followed them, and who developed more sophisticated technology.

In fact, the opposite contrast can be made regarding the human figure. There are few representations of people in Ice Age art, and they are either part animal, incomplete, or very sketchy, and almost never naturalistic. But in the Neolithic those who created the geometric distortions of the “mother goddess” figurines above also created figures that are much more naturalistic than anything from the Upper Palaeolithic. Most famous of these is “The Thinker of Cernavoda” from the necropolis at that site (7.2-6.5 kya). This comes from the same Hamangia culture as (C) and (E) above. It has been claimed to be the oldest known sculpture showing human introspection, rather than the usual themes of hunting or fertility. Hailed as one of the “great masterpieces” of Neolithic art, it has also been described as a striking example of the earliest “art for art’s sake”. 

Of course I don’t believe there is any such thing as “art for art’s sake”, otherwise I would not be writing about what art is for. “Art for art’s sake” is circular. These figures were presumably made to serve as grave goods. “The Thinker” is not unique – there is a similar figure carved in limestone, suggesting that this is a conventional pose. Like Malangans in New Ireland (see Part 4) they may have been intended to aid the passage of the dead into the realm of the ancestors.

To a modern eye many of these figures have a satisfying sense of form and a sculptural quality reminiscent of modern artists like Henry Moore. As a result many get appropriated by dealers and collectors, and so are lost to archaeology – their provenance and context are seldom recorded and dating is difficult. The stone figure of a reclining woman below, which is imposing despite its small size (8.4 cm/3.25 inches long), sold for $134,500 at Sotheby’s, New York, in December 2003. She has traces of red ochre – she was originally painted red. Naturalism in art would seem to be more a matter of need and intention rather than ability. The distortions of other Neolithic figures must be intentional, and these also were often painted red. “Wrong plus red” is another way of expressing the time-resistant template of ritual and spirituality.

To be continued…