(P040)
Art and Material Culture in Prehistoric Europe
Location SOAS Senate House - S312
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 4

Convenors

  • Chris Gosden (University of Oxford) email
  • John Robb (Cambridge University) email

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Short abstract

We aim to introduce the full range of art forms from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age in Europe, placing them in broader material contexts. We will also consider issues of history, continuity and change in aesthetic forms and styles linked to their changing cultural roles over 30,000 years.

Long abstract

We aim to introduce the range of material considered as art from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age in Europe (and indeed links with Asia), some of which will be familiar to a broader audience and some less so; to use this material, which spans almost 30,000 years, to think about issues of history, continuity and changes in aesthetic forms, to probe questions of style and to look at the changing roles art may have had in the cultural process over this long period. We are arguing for art as a specialized form of material culture and for the need to embed items seen as art in a broader material context. More specifically, we argue for the notion of style as a technology, which has particular effects on human senses and emotions. All technologies hold implicitly within them a model of causality, but also a dialectical relationship with human desire, being both shaped by it and shaping of desire. The material from Europe provides one of the richest sources for probing ideas of this type.

The artistic traditions of prehistoric Europe have rarely been thought of as a whole and we will present an argument for doing so.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The Problem of Prehistoric Art in Europe: creating and mobilising models of causality

Authors: Chris Gosden (University of Oxford) email
John Robb (Cambridge University) email

Short abstract

We introduce the session looking at art in Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age. We ask what insights can be gained from an holistic approach. We argue that style can be seen as a form of technology, so that strongly stylised objects attempt to instantiate and mobilise models of causality.

Long abstract

We will briefly introduce the session and the corpus of material to be considered: art in Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age. We are argue for art as a specialized form of material culture and for the need to embed material seen as art in a broader material context. More specifically, we argue for the notion of style as a technology, which has particular effects on human senses and emotions. All technologies hold implicitly within them a model of causality, but also a dialectical relationship with human desire, being both shaped by it and shaping of desire. The material from Europe provides one of the richest sources for probing ideas of this type.

Later prehistoric rock art in Europe: places and processes

Authors: Richard Bradley (Department of Archaeology) email
Courtney Nimura (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

This paper asks how ancient rock art in Europe compares with the treatment of portable objects. At the decorated outcrops several features were important, including the surfaces on which images were made and the ways in which features like mineral veins or running water brought them to life.

Long abstract

This paper is concerned with the rock art created in ancient Europe from the first adoption of farming. It draws on the results of archaeological fieldwork in Britain and South Scandinavia and is chiefly concerned with the pecked motifs created on outcrops and similar landforms during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. It begins by considering how and why these 'designs' differ from those applied to portable artefacts during the same periods.

Two features appear to be particularly important. By their very nature the locations of the decorated surfaces are fixed. Except when fragments were removed for use elsewhere, their relationship to the natural topography remains the same as it was when they were made. That remains the case even where the local environment has changed. At the same time the choice of surfaces for making rock art was by no means arbitrary and sometimes the designs incorporated features of purely geological origin: cracks and mineral veins, areas of quartz or other materials with unusual properties, running water, sunlight, moonlight and shadow. None has many equivalents among the decorated artefacts of the same periods, and, taken together, these elements brought the images to life at particular times of day, or particular seasons of the year. It is clear that they were addressed to a living audience (although that does not exclude other possibilities). New fieldwork is shedding light on how these places were used and the activities that took place there.

Creating bodies: Technologies of transformation in later prehistoric Eurasia

Authors: Helen Chittock (AOC Archaeology) email
Chris Gosden (University of Oxford) email
Peter Hommel (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

As a technology of transformation, art provides a means of moving between categories in the material world and altering ontologies. In the context of prehistoric Eurasia, an analysis of human and animal imagery shows that objects were routinely used to reposition individuals within a social world.

Long abstract

Art, as a broad material category, encompassing both parietal and portable objects, plays a key role in understandings of the world. In the context of later prehistoric Eurasia its role as a technology of transformation seems particularly clear.

At both ends of Eurasia, sculptural depictions of humans appear to be dominated by the objects they wear or carry, which are depicted in great detail while human features are left stylised and simplified. Animals and humans, in both representations and reality, are given supernatural features or transformed to create caricatures, distorted or hybridised versions, which no longer fit into the categories of the physical world.

In this paper we explore this later prehistoric obsession with transformation, visible most clearly in the fixation of the moment of transformation in art, and the manipulation of art as a tool for repositioning individuals within their social world.

Sound and cosmological efficacy in rock art landscapes

Authors: Margarita Díaz-Andreu (Universitat de Barcelona) email
Tommaso Mattioli (Universitat de Barcelona) email
Leslie F. Zubieta (Universitat de Barcelona) email

Short abstract

Prehistoric rock art sites in Europe can be seen as locales where prehistoric people incorporated sensory experience as a form of cosmological knowledge. In them sound contributed to the understanding of the sacred at rock art sites and to the understanding of ensouled landscapes

Long abstract

It has been claimed that a holistic approach to landscape history is needed, for the separation between the economic, the cultural and the cosmological did not exist in the pre-modern past. Yet, there are places in the landscape that seem to indicate that the holistic approach needs nuancing. One such type of places is prehistoric rock art sites in Europe. They can be seen as locales where prehistoric people incorporated sensory experience as a form of cosmological knowledge. To their lack of apparent functional use, and the high degree of symbolism of the depictions produced in them, we can add their peculiar sonorous nature. In the last few years we have undertaken a series of systematic acoustics measurements in a number of rock art landscapes in Mediterranean Europe. Results have pointed to the selection of places with the best acoustic properties in their area, although there are nuances from one area to another implying agency and transformation. Anthropologists have noted that sound and music are systematically present in ritual (even if in the form of silence) and it is our contention that sound contributed to the understanding of the sacred at rock art sites and to the understanding of ensouled landscapes by the hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies that produced the art. In this paper we will discuss these ideas providing new, specific examples derived from our work in archaeoacoustics.

Portable Art and ornaments of the Moravian gravettian - a complex local style?

Author: Martina Galetová (Moravian Museum) email

Short abstract

In Moravia (Czech Republic), in the period around 30-20,000 years ago, prehistoric people created art artefacts and ornaments from different materials. It is possible to detect a specific local style as part of this artefacts characteristic of the mammoth hunting culture of the Gravettian?

Long abstract

In Moravia (Czech Republic), in the period around 30-20,000 years ago, open-air sites (Dolní Věstonice, Pavlov, Předmostí) have been discovered where prehistoric people created art artefacts and ornaments from different materials - ivory, bone, antler, fired clay, shell, stone. These are non-utilitarian artifacts without visible adjustment for the function, but also artefacts that have a recognizable adaptation - which permits to detect the original function - for example personal ornaments for body wear. These finished objects and their fragments which have been preserved until today could have been completed by the same quantity of objects in other non-durable materials in which these latter materials could have been part of the final form. The set of ornaments found is characterized by a large variability, but also by the standartisation of the concrete forms. Likewise for the portable art objects and engravings. It is possible to detect a specific local style as part of this set? To what extent will this style be characteristic of the mammoth hunting culture of the Gravettian?

Conceptualizing the Art of Prehistoric Europe as a Whole

Author: Brecht Govaerts (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

How can one conceptualize the artistic traditions of Prehistoric Europe as a whole? By examining the nature of prehistoric European art as art, I put forward a definition of prehistoric art for Europe, which captures its distinctiveness as an artistic tradition.

Long abstract

This paper is concerned with the broader aim of the panel of how to envision the artistic traditions of Prehistoric Europe as a whole. This question is considered on three levels. (1) What defines the nature of these images/objects as art? If the unifying factor between the various objects and images from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age is their status as art, what defines this artistic status? I argue against a very broad notion of art and put forward a concept of art, which outlines the specificity of art in prehistory. By considering examples from the Palaeolithic up till the Iron Age I discuss how one can conceptualize the artistic traditions of Prehistoric Europe as a whole. (2) These artistic traditions are placed in their material/social context by considering art as a specific type of social agent. I consider the social role of art within prehistoric communities as an indicator of a specific type of social ontology, which specifies the current actor-network approach to prehistoric art. (3) How can one acknowledge the diversity of art throughout the 30,000 years of European prehistory alongside the consideration of these art traditions as a whole? I argue that in order to understand the art of Prehistoric Europe both as a whole and in its specificity, one should not distinguish between the unifying concepts (art and social ontology) and difference, but encapsulate difference within these concepts themselves.

Socio-Creativity and the Neolithic

Author: Eloise Govier (University of Wales Trinity St David) email

Short abstract

What role did creative practice play in social life at the Neolithic tell Çatalhöyük, and what evidence is there to suggest that making informed the maintenance of the 'social bond'?

Long abstract

What role did creative practice play in social life at the Neolithic tell Çatalhöyük, and what evidence is there to suggest that making informed the maintenance of the 'social bond'? Socio-creativity is an undeveloped but important area of research for archaeological approaches to the Neolithic, and offers a unique opportunity to consider both individual and community dynamics, tensions and changing social values from the residues of material interactions. Utilising the work of Bennett (2010a), Barad (2003, 2007, 2012), and Gell (1998) I formulate a critically-informed but practically embedded methodology that finds material "phenomena" (Barad 2003) at the settlement. Çatalhöyük offers a particularly unique example of social organisation as it is believed to have been an egalitarian settlement (Hodder 2014a,c). Furthermore, the material culture provides us with a rich dataset that contains the traces of highly creative and materially-engaged individuals who routinely made and re-made things, such as sun-baked clay figurines, basketry, and beads. I focus on Neolithic interactions with colourful or brilliant materials, substances, and spaces, and explore how these material interactions, as phenomena, reveal certain sensorial dynamics in-action at the Neolithic town. I outline how creative practices can create certain sensory dispositions - ways of seeing, feeling and doing - and I argue that the senses can be profiled during making events (cf. Howes and Classen 1991).

Dangerous Art: Shields in the British Iron Age

Author: Matthew Hitchcock (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

This paper will examine shields and shield fittings from the British Iron Age through a series of different lenses to explore the intersections between art, power, conflict. martial performance and identity.

Long abstract

The intricately decorated bronze shield cover discovered in the Thames at Battersea in 1857 was the principal object in the recent British Museum and National Museums Scotland exhibitions entitled 'Celts: art and identity', and also adorns the cover of the associated publication (Farley and Hunter 2015). A striking yet enigmatic icon of British Celtic art, the 'Battersea shield' represents the ambiguity with which Iron Age shields have become associated. They have been caught in the gulf between contrasting ideas surrounding power and protection - viewed as defensive, but often excluded from catalogues of weapons, weapons burials and weapons caches.

This thesis will challenge that assumption by arguing for the central role of the shield as a richly symbolic yet dangerous object with both protective and offensive intent. It will be examined through a series of different lenses - as a typological class, as Celtic art, as an Iron Age weapon, and as a museum object; but the ways in which these different concepts intersect will also be considered. This will allow the shield to become more integrated into the wider body of interdisciplinary work on 'martial culture' in which the wearing of weapons is caught up in wider discourses of gendered power, bellicose performance, skill and status. The paper will also briefly consider the impact of historic attitudes to shields and other Iron Age weaponry from portrayals in Roman classical sculpture to modern educational comics and video game titles.

Neolithic art in Italy: the representation of human figure on vase

Authors: Monica Bersani (University of Trento) email
Annaluisa Pedrotti (University of Trento) email

Short abstract

The purpose of the report is to present the results of a research on the vase decorated with anthropomorphic figure and anthropoid pot, during the Neolithic period, in the Italian peninsula and in Sicily.

Long abstract

Recent research has been done on about 300 anthropomorphic representations on Neolithic vases found in 90 archaeological sites in Italy dating from middle VI to the end of the V millennium cal BC. The study analysis the individual contexts of discovery of the artifacts, in order to determine the date and the method of their diffusion in the Italian peninsula and to understand the use of the vases. The report sets out to present the results of the research.

Aesthetic Experience, Art and Material Engagement

Author: Lambros Malafouris (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

This paper adopts the perspective of Material Engagement Theory to articulate the inseparable links between enactive cognition, affect and materiality. Using different examples of creative material engagement I will be exploring the nature of aesthetic consciousness as a situated process.

Long abstract

Humans are organisms of a creative sort. We make new things that scaffold the ecology of our minds, shape the boundaries of our consciousness and form new ways to engage and make sense of the world. This paper adopts the perspective of Material Engagement Theory and introduces the notion 'creative thinging' to articulate the inseparable link between enactive cognition, affect and materiality. Using different examples of creative material engagement I will be exploring the nature of aesthetic consciousness as a situated process.

Formerly "art": Powerful objects, social technologies, and material culture in European prehistory

Author: John Robb (Cambridge University) email

Short abstract

The objects we call "prehistoric art" are heterogeneous, and many need not have had special aesthetic, material or representational qualities. Exploring what kind of objects we are dealing with is a necessary prior question; different objects work within different semiotic/ interpretive frameworks.

Long abstract

Most archaeologists now generally acknowledge that applying a modern, Western definition of art to ancient objects does not work; indeed, it actively prevents us from understanding these objects. It imposes an inappropriate meaning-oriented framework, distorts interpretation, and biases how we create and publicise data about them. But we have paid much less attention to creating new ways for understanding them to take the place of "art", leaving the discussion stuck at the level of critique. This is in part because we have avoided the risky question of what ancient "art" was actually used for and what this implies about how to interpret it. In this paper, drawing upon a range of material culture theorists, I review the range of objects which archaeologists commonly consider "prehistoric art", focusing principally upon Holocene European examples. Using information from an object's contexts and design features to provide an idea of its social functionality, I suggest some ideas about how each kind was used and thence the semiotic framework we need to interpret it. Things we commonly consider "art" are mostly better understood as advertising, interior design, informational signs, ritual paraphernalia, and medical technologies. Only a few items, including some not normally considered "art" (such as axes) may have formed a category of special "powerful objects" which were innately potent and active - a category found in many societies, and the closest we are likely to get to "art" in prehistoric societies.

From Prehistoric Rock Art to Latin Inscriptions on stones: the continuity of a local cult of fertility in the middle of the Alps. Why the Goddess Isis landed in Valcamonica?

Author: Monica Pavese Rubins email

Short abstract

From female stelae of the Copper Age to Latin inscriptions dedicated to the Goddess Isis under Roman rule in Valcamonica, Italy, an evolving prehistoric artistic tradition seems to indicate the presence of a local cult of fertility that spans more than 3000 years.

Long abstract

The echoes of a local pre-Indo-European religion reverberated for millennia in the remote alpine valley of Valcamonica, the site of one of the world's greatest collection of Rock Drawings, located just north of Lake Iseo, in northern Italy. Recurrent contents were worshipped with new expressions in a continuous iconographic line from the Copper Age until the Roman Age. The most ancient alpine rock art engravings and stelae of Valcamonica find many similarities with the traditional iconography of Isis, the main honoured deity on the Latin Inscriptions of Cividate Camuno, the administrative centre of Valcamonica under Roman rule. In the 17th century, some local sources still recall the strong veneration of Isis in Valcamonica before Christianisation. In this context, Isis Regina - Great Mother, cosmic principle, goddess of fertility and healing - could be the Roman interpretation of a prehistoric female deity of fertility. Aesthetic forms and styles changed through time, but the social value of a local devotion to a goddess of fertility persisted. The solar disc of Isis could have inspired the syncretism in Valcamonica, where we find great evidence of an ancestral worship of the Sun. The female stelae in Valcamonica's rock art will be analysed taking also into account as comparative materials prehistoric figurative expressions of religious beliefs in other parts of Europe, like the Baltic States and Scandinavia, where the cult of Sun is linked to female deities of fertility and regeneration.

Transformations of visual material in Central Mediterranean prehistory

Author: Robin Skeates (Durham University) email

Short abstract

Drawing upon examples from Central Mediterranean prehistory (extending from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Bronze Age), this paper considers when, where, how and why producers and consumers transformed visual materials and associated ways of seeing and sensing.

Long abstract

Exploring the long-term transformation of visual material with reference to its production and consumption in prehistoric societies, this paper models how successive generations of makers skilfully and selectively convert old and new ideas into material products, whilst working within culturally- and historically-specific technological and social constraints. These include a respect for convention and tradition, and a tendency to innovate, so as to avoid endless repetition and to respond to an ever-changing world, combining personal ability and inventiveness with external stimuli. Consumers also contribute to the renewal of visual material. They place demands on producers, and embed art-works within a variety of social and sensory processes and practices. These include circulation, accumulation, sacrifice, display, spectatorship and evaluation, both in daily life and within the context of repeated ritual performances. In these contexts, finished products are ascribed old and new functions, meanings and values, none of which are ever wholly accepted. Both producers and consumers, then, contribute to and negotiate artistic creativity and innovation. This process generally takes place very gradually. However, people can perceive innovation as particularly appropriate at times of profound socio-economic disruption, conflict and change. These tensions may be triggered, for example, by the immigration of new peoples, food shortages or the death of a relative, and are characterised by the break-up of old social connections, identities and attitudes and the re-establishment of new ones. In this way, visual culture can serve as a medium through which people re-present and re-construct themselves in response to these tensions.

Revealing European connections through art in Neolithic flint mines

Author: Anne Teather (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

A review of flint mine excavation archives has uncovered previously unrecognised similarities in art marks in chalk, from Neolithic sites across northern Europe. This paper discusses the similarities and suggests this unique style of art may indicate shared understandings and activity-specific art.

Long abstract

Recent archival research has discovered new forms of Neolithic art from flint mining sites, with similarities noted between Britain, Belgium and Denmark. Flint mining by the shaft and gallery method (dated to c. 4000-2000 cal BC) created complicated underground architecture, consisting of vertical shafts up to 16m deep and horizontal galleries carved out of the chalk bedrock. Historically, flint mines were thought to have been industrial sites where large quantities of flint were extracted for the manufacture of stone axes and other implements. Flint was certainly extracted in large quantities although other cultural activities, such as human burial, also took place within them. Abstract art marks, scratched into the walls of the mines, and on blocks of chalk within the mines, were initially discovered during excavations at Cissbury Neolithic flint mine in the 1870s, with parallels noted at other sites. However the art was not fully described, did not fit into contemporary dialogues of the time and has only limited affinities with other forms of Neolithic art styles such as rock art and pottery. The rediscovery of these images and new unrecorded examples during archival study, indicates that there was a greater ritual significance to flint mining than previously thought. This may have been particularly associated with mining activities. The similarities in the art across wide regions suggest both more extensive European contacts and connections during this time and shared cultural understandings. This paper will discuss the images and potential significance of site or activity-specific art in Neolithic Europe.

Prehistoric art as a transfer station: Technology and temporality of prehistoric art

Author: Silvia Tomaskova (UNC Chapel Hill) email

Short abstract

Recognizing the useful transfer point that "art" may be, I suggest we use it as a communicative device, a convergence that leads to other places. I rely on "prehistoric art" as a trade zone that allows us to speak about bodily temporal practices, unique markers of effort, skill and emotion.

Long abstract

In 1997 I argued for the limited analytic purchase of the term "art". I was primarily concerned with the relatively recent 19th century invention of the category; the lack of local specificity when "art" was discussed in broad classificatory lumps such as Ice Age figurines or cave paintings; and the minimal reflection on the geo-political ground of archaeological practice. My contribution to the debate was driven by interest in the history and politics of archaeology, particularly in Eastern Europe, an area with an abundance of Paleolithic sites, yet at the margins of theoretical conversations. My apprehensions have not abated over time. While I continue to find little analytic value in the term "art" to describe a broad range of prehistoric materials, I offer a defense of its transactional nature. The ease with which the word provokes questions forces archaeologists to defend the analytic ground. Art is discursively generative beyond other terms we use. Recognizing the useful transfer point that "art" may be, I suggest we use it as a communicative device, a convergence that leads to other places. I will rely on "prehistoric art" as a trade zone that allows us to speak about bodily temporal practices. It is a unique type of marker of effort, skill, technological knowledge and a measure of time. It is the temporal aspect of creativity that I focus on. It is one of the most salient characteristics of prehistoric art, one that allows us to discuss the relationship between technology, time and emotions.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.