Marja-Leena Rathje
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Chauvet. Owl, engraved in mud. (c. 28-30,000 BC)
Photo © Chauvet, J-M., Brunel Deschamps, E., and Hillaire, C. (1995). Dawn of Art, The Chauvet Cave: The Oldest Known Paintings in the World. New York: Abrams.

Reader Bill, knowing my interest in prehistoric art, recently sent me a link to a very informative website. OriginsNet is about "Researching the Origins of Art, Religion, & Mind". The oldest period, predating early Paleolithic, is called Oldowan, a new term for me (an interested amateur). There's a great deal of research material presented, but naturally the photographs interested me the most. In particular, the gallery of Upper Paleolithic Art is stunning with its exceptional quality photos of pictographs from famous sites like Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira and others. The above image, which I've borrowed, struck me for NOT being a pictograph, but instead it's engraved in mud.

James Harrod, the site manager, is "a scholar specializing in prehistoric art, religion and semiotics". He argues that "by the time of the Magdalenian, there appears to be a religious symbol system in which four animal symbols, horse, bison, ibex and deer, are structured in a complementarity relationship or 'quaternion'. Once utilized in such a semiotic system, the animal symbols can function as a complex, multi-leveled mnemonic device, an 'encyclopedia' of Magdalenian social and naturalist knowledge and spiritual values."

Fascinating. Thanks, Bill!

Marja-Leena | 21/02/2007 | 6 comments
themes: History, Rock Art & Archaeology



Thanks for bringing something of interest to me to fruition on your weblog that I may reconsider it through your point of view. I am also flattered to make the blogosphere by means of this abstract rendition--by any rendition--and on your elegant site no less.

My path to this subject was through Bill Bryson's "History of Everything". In discussing protohumans he covered the Oldowan pebble culture of Homo Ergaster, or Habilis (or...) who in the same place, for over a MILLION years performed an unchanging practice of knapping flakes from round cores gather six miles away. Talk about obsessive compulsive! I feel so much better about my limited mental capacities after reading about the Oldowans. Harrod makes available his fascinating essay on a possible birth of art and soul where he conjectures about the aesthetics of the remaindered cores. The cores certainly deliver a live aesthetic charge to my supposedly modern mind. It's enlivening to get this glimpse into the deep time heritage of my love for stonework.

That complicated semiotics of the Magdalenian age of which you quote? TOO COMPLICATED for this Oldowanian pebble-head. but I'm glad the site covered graphic art of interest to you in a satisfying way, as I didn't really investigate that area which was announced to me only by its header.

The 'Oldowanian' Owl makes me want to head to the beach and do sand sculpture.

Of course, I wouldn't refuse finger paints and a huge canvas of 'butcher paper'.

Something 'Oldowanian' persists in some of us: a primal urge to play in the mud.

Thanks Marja-Leena for the reminder to get out and play!

Bill, thank you for your informed and interesting comment, expanding on this subject. To be honest, I haven't had time to read all the essays, so it's fascinating to think that art was born out of the Oldowan's toolmaking. And how that thought impacts you! Isn't it interesting how we gravitated to different material on this website!?

Charles, thanks for your comment! Indeed this does inspire creativity or that "primal urge". One small thing though, for the sake of accuracy and the author, the Owl is not Oldowian, but of the much later Upper Paleolithic era. Though Oldowian Owl sounds much better!

I love this owl - it gives me a vertigo to think of anything from the paleolithic period, it's such a huge leap back from what we're normally accustomed to thinking of as ancient... and then a million years of flint chipping before that!

Lucy, exactly! That is one of the reasons that I'm so enthralled by all this prehistoric art. And to realize that these people were quite intelligent, hard-working and artistic, unlike some assertions that they were not humans.