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Art History I: Introduction
The Ancient World, Prehistoric Art, Art
of the Ancient Near East
Every person looks at art every day. It may be something you see at your
home, an advertisement that you see on the phone, on TV, on a sign, or even
a nicely designed website. Most of the time, we passively look at these
examples. If we thoughtfully considered everything we saw in one day, we
would not have time to do anything else.
When we look at images in this course, we will actively look at them. Take
some time to consider what you are looking at. Don’t just look at the central
figures, but allow your eyes to roam through the painting or image and look for
little details that may give clues to the meaning of the work and add to your
enjoyment of looking at the piece.
As we move through the course, you will probably find that just looking at an
image will give you some information but may not be sufficient in
understanding the work. As you study images as yourself the following:
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How does this work fit into the history of art? Have I seen other works
similar, and in what way? What connections can I make to other pieces I
have seen?
Who is the artist, and what do I know about them? Is there something
about this artist that may influence my thoughts on their work?
When was this work made? Where was this work completed? What other
events were happening in the world at this time? What culture did this
work come from?
Does this artwork tell a particular story? Depict a specific person? Place?
Event?
How is this work made? What materials were used in its creation? Are the
materials essential to the understanding of the piece?
How does this work make me feel? How do I relate to the piece, subject,
or artist?
Many other considerations may come into play as you view art. These are
just a few to break the ice when looking at a new image.
Unit 1:
For his film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), Werner Herzog gained
unprecedented access to Chauvet Cave in southeastern France, a place
where experts believe the very first known works of art were
produced. Discovered in 1994 by amateur speleologists, the find was quickly
assessed to be enormously significant, causing the French government to
step in and designate it “off-limits” to all but the most respected scientists and
art historians. The ecosystem was way too fragile to permit mass visitation.
What makes Chauvet more special than the other two hundred or so known
caves that contain works by prehistoric persons? Scientists believe that the
drawings found at Chauvet are twice as old as any previously seen
elsewhere, over 30,000 years. What’s more, they have also determined that
Chauvet is a living time capsule, having been covered over by a 20,000-yearold rock slide that sealed off the original entrance. The cave’s unique
contents were perfectly preserved until its “rediscovery” in the late 20th
century.
Chapter 1: Prehistoric Art
In Chapter 1, many examples of prehistoric art are presented. What we know
of the sculptures and wall drawings is, unfortunately, relatively small. Science
has radiocarbon dated and examined the mineral content of the pigments
used. Still, art history must be relied upon to give meaning to images that are
mysterious to this day.
Researchers argue over which came first— visual or oral
communication. One thing is sure: both predate writing, which is the top
invention separating prehistory from history. Studying prehistoric art is
frustrating for this reason. We cannot know for sure the exact reasons why
things were done in a particular way. We must make educated guesses
based upon work for which we do have actual written accounts.
Paleolithic Art
Key Images
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Wounded Bison, Altamira, 1.1
Bear, Chauvet Cave, 1.2
Chinese Horse, Lascaux Caves, 1.3
Rhinoceros, Wounded Man, and Bison, Lascaux Cave, 1.4
Spotted Horses and Human Hands, Pech-Merle Cave, 1.6
Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux Cave, 1.8
Hybrid figure with a human body and feline head, 1.9
Horse, Vogelherd Cave, 1.10
Spear Thrower with Interlocking Ibexes, Grotte d’Enlène, 1.11
Two Bison, Le Tuc d’Audoubert Cave, 1.12
Woman from Brassempouy, 1.13
Woman of Willendorf, 1.14
Upper Paleolithic painting, drawing, and sculpture appeared over a wide area
of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia between 40,000 and 10,000 BCE. The Lower
and Middle Paleolithic periods extend back as far as 2 million years
ago. While these earlier cultures made patterned stone tools that were
sometimes decorated with abstract patterns, they did not make
representational imagery of any kind. The most striking images of Paleolithic
art are the painted, incised, or sculpted animals on the rock surfaces of caves,
many of which are very naturalistic. Most of the images are renderings of
animal forms, and when the human form is depicted, it is much more
abstract. Scholars initially assigned dates to cave paintings based on stylistic
analysis, with naturalism considered the most advanced form of
representation. Still, radiocarbon dating has since shown this approach to be
flawed. The use of composite and optical images suggests that the artist may
not have had naturalism as a goal.
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Major cave sites include those at Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet.
There is much speculation about the interpretation and function of art in
prehistoric societies. The inaccessibility of many of the images suggests that
they did not serve a purely decorative function. Instead, these images may
have served some ritual purpose (help in the hunt) or religious function
(shamanism). Recent interpretations suggest that one explanation may not
apply to all times and places.
In addition to cave paintings, Paleolithic artists produced carved and modeled
sculptures and reliefs. Women were frequent subjects in prehistoric
sculpture, especially in the Gravettian period. The abundance of female
images compared to males could be evidence of a matrilineal social structure.
Many of these sculptures were fertility objects. One feminist view suggests
that these figures might have been obstetric aids. Women might have also
created these images. In the Paleolithic period, small huts and caves were
used for shelter and ritual purposes. Some evidence suggests that these huts
might have been used as seasonal residences for mobile groups.
Neolithic Art
Key Images
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Neolithic plastered skull, Jericho, 1.16
Jericho, p. 12, 1.17
Human figures, Ain Ghazal, 1.18
View of Town and Volcano, Çatal Hüyük, 1.20
Female and male figures, Cernavoda, 1.22
House at Skara Brae, Orkney, 1.23
Menhir alignments at Ménec, Carnac, 1.24
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 1.25
The Old Stone Age gradually gave way to a period known as the Neolithic or
New Stone Age, dating from about 8000 BCE in the Near East and Asia and
about 5000 BCE in Europe. At Jericho, the inhabitants buried skeletal
remains beneath the floors of homes. They displayed the skulls above
ground, reconstructing them with plaster made to resemble flesh and eyes
made of seashell fragments. This practice suggests a concept of an afterlife,
respect for the dead, or ancestor worship.
Neolithic peoples began to settle down in permanent villages and cultivate
regular food sources and the maintenance of herds of domesticated
animals. Pottery, weaving, spinning, and the architecture of stone, mud
bricks, and timber contributed to a new mode of life. Substantial remains of
Neolithic settlements have been excavated at Jericho, Ain Ghazal, and Çatal
Hüyük. Houses in the Early Neolithic city of Jericho were constructed of mudbrick with stone foundations. Jericho was heavily fortified with walls 5 feet
thick and 13 feet high and surrounded by a wide ditch. Several towers were
constructed in the wall, measuring 28 feet tall and 33 feet in diameter at the
base, with a staircase providing access to the summit.
At Ain Ghazal, near Amman, Jordan, the sculptural tradition appears to be
quite different from the one in Jericho. These figures are constructed from
reeds bound with cordage, covered in plaster, and then painted. Some are
bust-size, while others are much taller, with the tallest being 3 feet in
height. These statues represent the first known large-scale sculptures.
The Neolithic community of Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia (modern Turkey) dates
from ca. 7500 BCE. The town underwent at least 12 different building phases
between 6500 and 5700 BCE, which demonstrates the city’s growth. The
people of Çatal Hüyük lived in houses built of timber and mud bricks with
stone foundations. There were no streets, and people traveled from house to
house by ascending a ladder through the house’s roof and crossing on
rooftops. The lack of roads made the perimeter of the city more
defensible. As at Jericho, in Çatal Hüyük, burials were beneath the floors of
houses. One painting from a room in a building at Çatal Hüyük seems to
depict rows of irregular blocklike dwellings, which could represent Çatal
Hüyük. A bright red feature spotted with black is placed above the town,
representing a twin-peaked volcano in view of the town. If this is correct, then
this image represents the first known landscape painting.
During the Neolithic period, pottery, weaving, and some smelting of copper
and lead began to be developed. Clay was used to sculpt highly abstract
figurines. Neolithic dwellings were mainly constructed of wood with walls of
wattle and daub and thatch roofs. At Skara Brae, a group of ten houses made
of stone was discovered, each with a central hearth for cooking and built-in
furniture. A concern for ceremonial burial and ritual inspired the creation of
monumental stone architecture. While menhirs and dolmens were used to
mark burial sites, cromlechs often suggested a ritual function. The most
famous cromlech in Britain is Stonehenge.
While there are no written records of these early periods in human history to
explain the meanings behind the works, the techniques of painting, sculpting,
pottery making, and the development of monumental stone architecture were
developed during this period. Painted and sculptural works during these
periods were naturalistic and abstract.
Resources:
Lascaux: https://archeologie.culture.fr/lascaux/en (Links to an external site.)
Altamira: https://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/mnaltamira/en/home.html (Link
s to an external site.)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams: https://www.amazon.com/Cave-ForgottenDreams-Werner-Herzog/dp/B005EPFA8I

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