Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ice Age Art: A Culture Show Special

The Culture Show recently released a special episode on the new exhibition at the British Museum about Ice Age Art.  Andrew Graham-Dixon took us to a number of cave sites in Spain and France, and took a look at many of the items that will be at the exhibition, discussing cave art and prehistoric European portable art with notable people such as archaeologist Steve Mithen and anthropologist Camila Power.  It was an enjoyable look at pieces I hadn't seen before, especially more recent pieces from the end of the ice age.

My favourite guest was an experimental archaeologist from Germany - to be honest the whole programme could have focussed on him and the work he does because it was facinating!  It showed his mammoth ivory carvings made to be replicas of prehistoric pieces, fashioned with flint blades that must have taken so much more patience than I have when I'm sitting at a table with my malleable polymer clay which just pops into the oven for 10 minutes to be finished.

I enjoyed a class during my undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser in Canada, where archaeologist Brian Hayden led us in a number of experimental archaeology exercises.  In one, we all came to class with a shell - and out back in the sandbox/knapping pit, we went to work with clumsy obsidian tools to fashion a bead, including piercing a hole.  It took hours - and I cheated a bit by grinding my shell against the concrete side of the building.  My bead is still around somewhere as I used to carry it around in my purse, along with a little bone fish I also made in that class.  Good class!

In the programme, the host also spoke with art historians and artist Antony Gormley.  It was nice to have contributions from modern artists and people in the art world, but I think it might have lended some confusing speculation to the conversation.  Modern western art is its own beast, and while it may well have been similar in the past, we don't have any way of saying it was and I would have liked to see a bit more impartiality rather than the expected speculations about the prehistoric artists' motivations and intentions.

But still, speculation makes good and entertaining television, and I'm sure this programme will bring a lot of people to the BM and generate a lot of talk about art in the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe.  And anything promoting the Palaeolithic is good in my books - far too often I think people can forget that there is a past far beyond the Romans and Egyptians, illustrated by the bewildered looks and expresions of amazement from Graham-Dixon as he spoke about 'deep history'.

Which brings me to another problem I had with the programme - a few times he mentioned how these cave artists were all of our ancestors.  I don't mean to be pendantic, but they weren't.  They might be the ancestors of no one living today at all as well!  Without genetic evidence we can't be sure that these early European modern humans didn't die out and leave no genetic signature in modern populations today in modern Europeans.  And I resented how by 'everybody' he meant Europeans - which is a bit exclusionist.

But again, prehistoric publicity of any sort is good publicity and this exhibition looks to be one that shouldn't be missed!  It's running between now and late May, so get your tickets and enjoy if you can get to London!

Did you see the show?  What did you think?

Here's a link to the programme on BBC 2 (only available in the UK I presume!)


  1. Saw the program on Television. It is a pity that Europe is still so divided that we could not see this via Internet in other parts of the EU. Specially such a subject which concerns us all.
    Brilliant show, hope to see it again.

  2. Fantastic article and blog, I found the palaeolithic period one of the richest in our history, and it is my biggest artistic influence. Great writing and a great program by Andrew Graham Dixon.

    :) Chloe


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