Stone Age Art


Table Summary

Table Summary of Stone Age Art
Upper Paleolithic painting rock painting (notably Lascaux and Altamira)
sculpture figurines (notably Venus figurines)
Neolithic painting and sculpture new forms of painting/sculpture (pottery, architectural)
architecture megalithic architecture (tombs, buildings, monuments)

The Birth of Art

The first phase of human existence was the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), which spanned ca. 2,500,000-10,000 BC (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages). From the very beginning of this period, humans made stone tools. If one counts these tools as works of art, the history of art begins with the evolution of humans.

Tools, however, serve a physical purpose. Based on current evidence, humans did not begin to make things that lack a physical purpose (e.g. cave paintings, sculpted figures) until the Upper Paleolithic (the last phase of the Paleolithic), which spanned ca. 50,000-10,000 BC; these works are often considered the world's earliest forms of art.C4,G32,H26 The very oldest examples have been discovered in Africa, Australia, and Europe.D16

Paleolithic art was not created simply for aesthetic experience, however. Like much of the world's traditional art, stone age sculptures and paintings were probably believed to have supernatural effects.E4 Female figurines, for instance, may been sculpted in hopes of improving a tribe's fertility, while animals may have been painted on cave walls to assist hunting efforts.

Painting and sculpture are the world's oldest art forms, both dating to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. Surviving works of stone age painting are found upon natural rock surfaces, while stone age sculpture is represented mainly by small carvings in stone, bone, ivory, and clay. In the Neolithic period, with the invention of architecture and pottery, painting and sculpture expanded to these media (i.e. painted and sculpted pottery, and paintings and sculptures upon architectural surfaces).

Main Article

Upper Paleolithic Painting

Rock paintings (paintings on natural rock surfaces) have been discovered throughout the world; common motifs include abstract patterns, stick figures, and handprints. (Handprints were created either by pressing a paint-coated hand against the rock, or by blowing paint over the hand.) Detailed human and animal figures are relatively uncommon.D18-D20

Stone age painting is generally quite flat (i.e. lacking in three-dimensional shading), and figures are usually depicted from one of three views: frontal, profile, or composite. In frontal view, the figure faces the observer; in profile view, the figure is drawn side-on; and in composite view (aka "composite perspective" or "twisted perspective"), different views are mixed in the same figure (e.g. a human with a frontally-viewed torso, but head and limbs in profile). These simple views allow for immediately recognizable shapes; the outline of the human leg, for instance, is much more easily recognized from the side than from the front.

In summation: stone age painting is typically flat (rather than three-dimensional) and renders figures in three simple views (frontal, profile, or both). These qualities, far from being limited to the stone age, characterize most of the world's traditional art. Throughout history, most cultures have placed little emphasis on physical realism as a means of aesthetic expression; only in Europe (starting with Classical Greece) did a sustained preoccupation with physical realism develop.

The two fundamental ingredients of paint are pigment (a coloured powder) and binder (a liquid). For stone age painters, pigment took the form of mineral powders (e.g. iron oxide for red paint) and charcoal, while oils from plants or animals served as binder.2 Paint was typically applied by rubbing (with fingers or animal-hair brushes) or blowing (through hollow stems or bones).E4

The most famous collections of stone age painting are those of Altamira (Spain) and Lascaux (France), both cave systems filled with renderings of large game animals. Social and/or religious ceremonies may have been conducted among these works; in some cases, surface damage indicates that the paintings were attacked, possibly in the belief that harming the image would wound a real-life animal. This sort of belief (that manipulation of an artwork has corresponding effects in the real world) emerged in many cultures across the world.D16,H28

Altamira Mural
Altamira Mural
Altamira Mural
Lascaux Mural
Lascaux Mural
Lascaux Mural

Many stone age paintings have been found deep within cave networks, far from any source of natural light. Paleolithic artists achieved this with torches or animal-fat lamps.H27

Upper Paleolithic Sculpture

Upper Paleolithic peoples created both relief sculpture (in which an image is carved into a flat surface) and in-the-round sculpture (fully three-dimensional sculpture). In-the-round sculpture includes small figurines (humans and animals) and jewellery (e.g. pendants, beads) carved from stone, bone, ivory, and clay. Relief carvings were executed upon both portable objects and natural rock surfaces.G32,H30,8

Figurines comprise the most varied and expressive body of Upper Paleolithic sculpture. Though examples have been discovered throughout the world, Europe has yielded the richest concentration.8 The most famous examples may be the Venus figurines, distinctive for their swollen hips and breasts.

Venus Figurine
Venus Figurine
Hyena Figurine
Lion-man Figurine
Bison Figurine
Cave Relief in France

Neolithic Painting and Sculpture

The stone age can be divided into two phases: Paleolithic (old stone age) and Neolithic (new stone age). During the Paleolithic, humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. During the Neolithic, humans adopted settled agricultural life.

The Neolithic age was first reached ca. 10,000 BC, by Mesopotamia. By ca. 3000 BC, most of Eurasia had made the transition to Neolithic life (agricultural life), while most of Africa and the Americas reached the Neolithic age by ca. 0. Thus, the dating of the "Neolithic age" varies considerably by region (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages).

Neolithic life revolutionized every aspect of human experience and endeavour, including art. Settled life enabled the development of pottery and permanent architecture, spurring painters to shift their attention away from caves to the surfaces of pottery and the walls of buildings (which were often plastered, thus providing an excellent painting surface). Likewise, sculptors turned their attention to sculpted pottery and architectural sculpture.H37,11

Given that wall paintings are prone to fading and crumbling, only traces of Neolithic works have survived. Pottery painting, on the other hand, is extremely durable, as the paint is baked into the vessel surface. Many examples of Neolithic pottery painting have been recovered; designs are typically geometric and relatively simple.G36

Neolithic Pottery (Bulgaria)
Neolithic Pottery (Syria)
Neolithic Pottery (Czech Republic)
Neolithic Pottery (Czech Republic)
Neolithic Pottery (Germany)

With the adoption of settled life, sculpture flourished in unprecedented abundance and scale. The construction of permanent buildings gave rise to architectural sculpture, though little of this has survived. Fortunately, pottery was also sculpted, either with incised relief decoration (which, like pottery painting, was typically simple and geometric), or by moulding vessels into three-dimensional works.

Neolithic Architecture

While the history of painting and sculpture begins with the Upper Paleolithic period, the history of permanent architecture (e.g. houses, temples, defensive walls and towers) only dates to the Neolithic. Upper Paleolithic humans often did, however, build temporary shelters with whatever natural materials they could find. Perhaps the most interesting are mammoth-bone shelters covered with earth and animal skins, remains of which have been discovered in Eastern Europe.G34

Most Neolithic architecture has either disappeared entirely, or survives only in traces. One type, however, is unusually hardy: megalithic architecture, which denotes structures composed of large, roughly-hewn stones. (Megalithic architecture may be contrasted with civilized stone architecture, in which stone blocks are typically smaller and more neatly dressed.) Thousands of megalithic structures have been discovered throughout the world.K40-41

Types of Megalithic Architecture
tombs often covered with earth, sometimes included passages
buildings e.g. houses, temples, towers
monuments e.g. monoliths, lines, circles

Megalithic architects employed post-and-beam construction (in which vertical stones serve as columns for horizontal stones) and corbelled construction (in which arches are formed with overlapping stones; see Corbelling). Both types were used for tombs, the most common form of megalithic architecture. A megalithic tomb was often covered with a mound of earth; sometimes, a passage was constructed through the mound to allow access to the tomb after burial.7 (A mound raised over a tomb is known as a barrow.)

Post-and-beam Megalithic Tomb
Post-and-beam Megalithic Tomb
Corbelled Megalithic Tomb
Corbelled Megalithic Tomb (with burial mound and passages)

Apart from tombs, megalithic architecture can be divided into two types: buildings and monuments. Megalithic buildings include houses, temples, and towers. A monument may consist of a single stone standing on end (known as a monolith or menhir) or an arrangement of stones (e.g. lines, circles). Megalithic monuments, often found near burial sites, are typically classified as architecture even though they are really a sort of sculpture (since they do not form enclosed spaces).K40-41

Megalithic Houses
Megalithic Temple
Megalithic Tower

The oldest discovered megalithic sites, which lie in eastern Turkey, date to ca. 9000 BC.9 The highest concentration of megalithic architecture is found in Western Europe, where thousands of works have been discovered, constructed mainly during the period ca. 5000-1000 BC. Two of these works are especially famous.

An enormous collection of megalithic tombs and monuments, known as the Carnac stones, graces the countryside around the village of Carnac, France. While many of the standing stones at Carnac are found alone, others form lines, some of which stretch for thousands of stones.H38,7,10

The most famous of all megalithic works, Stonehenge, lies in England. This monument, which features a circle of upright stones, includes several examples of the trilith: three stones in a post-and-beam configuration. Stonehenge is the most complex of various megalithic circles discovered in Western Europe.G40

Carnac Stones (lines of standing stones)
Carnac Stones (lines of standing stones)
Carnac Stones (tomb)
Carnac Stones (lone standing stone)
1 - "Neolithic art", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Paleolithic art", Encarta 2004.
3 - "Rock carvings and paintings", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
4 - "Writing", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
5 - "Megalithic monument", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
6 - "Western architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
7 - "Megalithic monuments", Encarta 2004.
8 - "Paleolithic period", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
9 - "Göbekli Tepe", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
10 - "Carnac stones", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
11 - "Western painting", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.