1 Prehistory: Art before the Written Record

Photograph of Stonehenge, a neolithic stone monument constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Identify key works of art and differentiate between the arts of Prehistoric Europe.
  • Describe the changes in prehistoric art and architecture that resulted from the social and cultural changes of the Neolithic Period.

Looking Forward

The term Prehistory refers to all of human history that precedes the invention of writing systems (c. 3100 B.C.E.) and the keeping of written records, and it is an immensely long period of time, some ten million years according to current theories. For the purposes of an art history survey, we split our study of Prehistory into two camps: Paleolithic and Neolithic (from the Greek “palaios” (old) / “neos” (new) and “lithos” (stone), as these peoples worked with stone tools).
The timeline covered in this area of the survey is vast—c. 32,000 B.C.E. (Chauvet Caves) to 7,000 B.C.E. (Neolithic settlements)—but the question that unites this vast chronology is simple and compelling: what can we find out about objects from so long ago, and how do they connect to our contemporary experiences today?

Common questions about dates

B.C. or B.C.E.?

Many people use the abbreviations B.C. and A.D. with a year (for example, A.D. 2012). B.C. refers to “Before Christ,” and the initials, A.D., stand for Anno Domini, which is Latin for “In the year of our Lord.” This system was devised by a monk in the year 525.

A more recent system uses B.C.E. which stands for “Before the Common Era” and C.E. for “Common Era.” This newer system is now widely used as a way of expressing the same periods as B.C. and A.D., but without the Christian reference. According to these systems, we count time backwards Before the Common Era (B.C.E.) and forwards in the Common Era (C.E.).


Often dates will be preceded with a “c.” or a “ca.” These are abbreviations of the Latin word “circa” which means around, or approximately. We use this before a date to indicate that we do not know exactly when something happened, so c. 400 B.C.E. means approximately 400 years Before the Common Era.

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Paleolithic Art

To describe the global origins of humans’ artistic achievement, upon which the succeeding history of art may be laid, is an encyclopedic enterprise. The account of the origins of art is a very long one marked less by change than consistency. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C.E. in African rock art. This chronology may be more an artifact of the limitations of archaeological evidence than a true picture of when humans first created art. However, with new technologies, research methods, and archaeological discoveries, we are able to view the history of human artistic achievement in a greater focus than ever before.

To describe the global origins of humans’ artistic achievement, upon which the succeeding history of art may be laid, is an encyclopedic enterprise. The account of the origins of art is a very long one marked less by change than consistency. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C.E. in African rock art. This chronology may be more an artifact of the limitations of archaeological evidence than a true picture of when humans first created art. However, with new technologies, research methods, and archaeological discoveries, we are able to view the history of human artistic achievement in a greater focus than ever before.

Art, as the product of human creativity and imagination, includes poetry, music, dance, and the material arts such as painting, sculpture, drawing, pottery, and bodily adornment. The diverse examples of prehistoric objects and archaeological sites from across the globe were all created in the period before the invention of formal writing when human populations were migrating and expanding across the world. The earliest human (homo sapiens) occupation occurs in Africa, and it is there that we assume art to have originated. African rock art from the Apollo 11 and Wonderwerk Caves in modern-day Namibia and South Africa contain examples of geometric and animal representations engraved and painted on stone. By 20,000 B.C.E., humans had settled on every continent except Antarctica. In Europe, the record of Paleolithic art is beautifully illustrated with the magnificent painted caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, both in France. Scores of painted caves exist in western Europe, mostly in France and Spain, and hundreds of sculptures and engravings depicting humans, animals, and fantastic creatures have been found across Europe and Asia alike. Rock art in Australia represents the longest continuously practiced artistic tradition in the world[1]. The site of Ubirr in northern Australia contains exceptional examples of Aboriginal rock art repainted for millennia beginning perhaps as early as 40,000 B.C.E.

Humans make art. We do this for many reasons and with whatever technologies are available to us. Extremely old, non-representational ornamentation has been found across Africa. The oldest firmly-dated example is a collection of 82,000 year old Nassarius snail shells found in Morocco that are pierced and covered with red ochre. Wear patterns suggest that they may have been strung beads. Nassarius shell beads found in Israel may be more than 100,000 years old and in the Blombos cave in South Africa, pierced shells and small pieces of ochre (red Haematite) etched with simple geometric patterns have been found in a 75,000-year-old layer of sediment.

Paleolithic figurine of a nude woman, carved from mammoth ivory
Venus of Hohle Fels, unknown artist, 35,000 – 40,000 BP, mammoth ivory, 6 cm, Urgeschichtliches Museum, Blaubeuren, Germany

The oldest known representational imagery comes from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period[2]. Archeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially Southern France, Northern Spain, and Swabia, in Germany) include over two hundred caves with spectacular Aurignacian paintings, drawings and sculpture that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. The oldest of these is a 2.4-inch tall female figure carved out of mammoth ivory that was found in six fragments in the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen in southern Germany. It dates to 35,000 B.C.E.

What can we really know about the creators of these objects and what they originally meant? These are questions that are difficult enough when we study art made only 500 years ago. It is much more perilous to assert meaning for the art of people who shared our anatomy but had not yet developed the cultures or linguistic structures that shaped who we have become. Do the tools of art history even apply? Here is evidence of a visual language that collapses the more than 1,000 generations that separate us, but we must be cautious. This is especially so if we want to understand the people that made this art as a way to understand ourselves. The desire to speculate based on what we see is wildly seductive, but we must remain cautious.

Replica of the painting from the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France depicting rhinoceros, aurochs, and horses.
Replica of the painting from the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France (Anthropos museum, Brno)

What does it even mean to be a work of art? The Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the authority on the English language, defines the word “art” as

the application of skill to the arts of imitation and design, painting, engraving, sculpture, architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice, and results; the skillful production of the beautiful in visible forms.

Some of the words and phrases that stand out within this definition include “application of skill,” “imitation,” and “beautiful.” By this definition, the concept of “art” involves the use of skill to create an object that contains some appreciation of aesthetics. The object is not only made, but it is made with an attempt of creating something that contains elements of beauty.

In contrast, the same Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “artifact” as, “anything made by human art and workmanship, an artificial product. In Archaeology applied to the rude products of aboriginal workmanship as distinguished from natural remains.” Again, some key words and phrases are important: “anything made by human art,” and “rude products.” Clearly, an artifact is any object created by humankind regardless of the “skill” of its creator or the absence of “beauty.”

An artifact, then, is anything created by humankind, and art is a particular kind of artifact, a group of objects under the broad umbrella of artifact, in which beauty has been achieved through the application of skills. Think of the average plastic spoon: a uniform white color, mass produced, and unremarkable in just about every way. While it serves a function—say, for example, to stir your hot chocolate—the person who designed it likely did so without any real dedication or commitment to making this utilitarian object beautiful. You have likely never lovingly gazed at a plastic spoon and remarked, “Wow! Now that’s a beautiful spoon!” This is in contrast to a silver spoon you might purchase at Tiffany & Co. While their spoon could just as well stir cream into your morning coffee, it was skillfully designed by a person who attempted to make it aesthetically pleasing; note the elegant bend of the handle, the gentle luster of the metal, the graceful slope of the bowl.

These terms are important to bear in mind when analyzing prehistoric art. While it is unlikely people from the Upper Paleolithic period cared to conceptualize what it meant to make art or to be an artist, it cannot be denied that the objects they created were made with skill, were often made as a way of imitating the world around them and were made with a particular care to create something beautiful. They likely represent, for the Paleolithic peoples who created them, objects made with great competence and with a particular interest in aesthetics.

Lascaux Cave

Two main types of Upper Paleolithic art have survived. The first we can classify as permanently located works found on the walls within caves, or parietal art. Mostly unknown prior to the final decades of the nineteenth century, many such sites have now been discovered throughout much of southern Europe and have provided historians and archaeologists new insights into humankind millennia prior to the creation of writing. The subjects of these works vary: we may observe a variety of geometric motifs, many types of flora and fauna, and the occasional human figure. They also fluctuate in size; ranging from several inches to large-scale compositions that span many feet in length.

We are as likely to communicate using easily interpretable pictures as we are text. Portable handheld devices enable us to tell others via social media what we are doing and thinking. Approximately 15,000 years ago, we also communicated in pictures—but with no written language.

There may be no one single “function” for these works—they changed over generations, over many thousands of years, so while some of their functions may have been passed down orally, these changed and mutated too over time. We can’t even be sure if the works are about the act of painting, or the finished images. Even within one generation, or a short period of a few generations, the cave paintings would mean different things to different people depending on their age, experience, and, perhaps, their gender. We can only make educated guesses about what they were used for. However, the difficulty and time required to make the works meant they weren’t just for aesthetic pleasure alone. They could have been used for clan rites, as an initiation for younger (male) clan members. They may have believed to have had magical powers (i.e., showing a successful hunt could prefigure that happening in real life), the precursor to modern systems of belief and religion. However, as some art historians have noted, this theory has since been somewhat dismissed as further archaeological evidence suggests that the animals portrayed are not the ones that were hunted.

The cave of Lascaux, France is one of almost 350 similar sites that are known to exist—most of which are isolated to a region of southern France and northern Spain. Both Neanderthals (named after the site in which their bones were first discovered—the Neander Valley in Germany) and Modern Humans (early Homo sapiens) coexisted in this region 30,000 years ago. Life was short and very difficult; resources were scarce, and the climate was very cold.

It was in the valley of Vèzére in southwestern France, approximately 15,000 years later, where modern humans lived and witnessed the migratory patterns of a vast range of wildlife. They discovered a cave in a tall hill overlooking the valley. Inside, an unknown number of these people drew and painted images that, once discovered in 1940, have excited the imaginations of both researchers and the general public.

After struggling through small openings and narrow passages to access the larger rooms beyond, prehistoric people discovered that the cave wall surfaces functioned as the perfect, blank “canvas” upon which to draw and paint[3]. White calcite, roofed by nonporous rock, provides a uniquely dry place to feature art. To paint, these early artists used charcoal and ocher. We find images of horses, deer, bison, elk, a few lions, a rhinoceros and a bear—almost as an encyclopedia of the area’s large prehistoric wildlife. Among these images are abstract marks—dots and lines in a variety of configurations.

Left wall of the Hall of Bulls, depicting polychrome aurochs and horses
Hall of Bulls, unknown artist(s), Lascaux II (replica of the original cave, which is closed to the public), c. 16,000-14,000 B.C.E. (original cave), charcoal and ochre, 350.52 cm long

The animals are rendered in what has come to be called twisted perspective, in which their bodies are depicted in profile while we see the horns from a more frontal viewpoint. The images are sometimes entirely linear — line drawn to define the animal’s contour. In many other cases, the animals are described in solid and blended colors blown by mouth onto the wall. Given the large scale of many of the animal images, we can presume that the artists worked deliberately—carefully plotting out a particular form before completing outlines and adding color. Some researchers believe that “master” artists enlisted the help of assistants who mixed pigments and held animal fat lamps to illuminate the space. Alternatively, in the case of the “rooms” containing mostly engraved and overlapping forms, it seems that the pure process of drawing and repetitive re-drawing held serious (perhaps ritual) significance for the makers.

Many scholars have speculated about why prehistoric people painted and engraved the walls at Lascaux and other caves like it. Perhaps the most famous theory was put forth by a priest named Henri Breuil, who spent considerable time in many of the caves meticulously recording the images in drawings when the paintings were too challenging to photograph. Relying primarily on a field of study known as ethnography, Breuil believed that the images played a role in “hunting magic.” The theory suggests that the prehistoric people who used the cave may have believed that a way to overpower their prey involved creating images of it during rituals designed to ensure a successful hunt. This seems plausible when we remember that survival was entirely dependent on successful foraging and hunting though it is also important to remember how little we actually know about these people.

Hunting Magic Hypothesis and Lascaux Caves

The hunting magic hypothesis, (also known as sympathetic magic) in the archaeology of rock art, is one of the functionalist approaches to explaining why rock art was created in ancient cultures. It originated from ethnographies of modern hunter-gatherers, who used their rock art in the hopes that it would improve their prowess on the hunt. Henri Breuil interpreted the Paleolithic cave paintings as hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.

The theory is that the paintings were made by magic practitioners, who could potentially be described as shamans, who would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. This goes some way towards explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human hand-prints).

However, as with all prehistory, it is impossible to be certain due to the limited evidence and the many pitfalls associated with trying to understand the prehistoric mindset with a modern mind.

Another theory suggests that the images communicate narrative content. While a number of the depictions can be seen to do this, one particular image in Lascaux more directly supports this theory. A bison, drawn in strong, black lines, bristles with energy, as the fur on the back of its neck stands up and the head is radically turned to face us.

Cave drawing showing a disemboweled bison and bird-headed human figure
Disemboweled bison and bird-headed human figure? Cave at Lascaux, c. 16,000–14,000 B.C.E.

A form drawn under the bison’s abdomen is interpreted as internal organs, spilling out from a wound. A more crudely drawn form, positioned below and to the left of the bison, may represent a humanoid figure with the head of a bird. Nearby, a thin line is topped with another bird and there is also an arrow with barbs. Further below and to the far left the partial outline of a rhinoceros can be identified.

Interpreters of this image tend to agree that some sort of interaction has taken place among these animals and the bird-headed human figure—in which the bison has sustained injury either from a weapon or from the horn of the rhinoceros. Why the person in the image has the rudimentary head of a bird, and why a bird form sits atop a stick very close to him is a mystery. Some suggest that the person is a shaman. Regardless, this image appears to depict action and reaction, although many aspects of it are difficult to piece together. Many mysteries continue to surround Lascaux, but there is one certainty. The very human need to communicate in the form of pictures—for whatever purpose—has persisted since our earliest beginnings.

The Woman of Willendorf

The second category of Paleolithic art may be called portable since these works are generally of a small-scale—a logical size given the nomadic nature of Paleolithic peoples. Despite their often-diminutive size, the creation of these portable objects signifies a remarkable allocation of time and effort. As such, these figurines were significant enough to take along during the nomadic wanderings of their Paleolithic creators.

Carved figurine depicting a nude woman
Venus of Willendorf, unknown artist, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Venus of Willendorf is a perfect example of this. Josef Szombathy, an Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, discovered this work in 1908 outside the small Austrian village of Willendorf. Although generally projected in art history classrooms to be several feet tall, this limestone figurine is petite in size—measuring just under 4½-inches high and able fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.

Clearly, the Paleolithic sculptor who made this small figurine would never have named it the Venus of Willendorf. Venus was the name of the Roman goddess of love and ideal beauty. When discovered outside the Austrian village of Willendorf, scholars mistakenly assumed that this figure was likewise a goddess of love and beauty, but there is absolutely no evidence though that the Venus of Willendorf shared a function similar to its classically inspired namesake. However incorrect the name may be, it has endured, and tells us more about those who found her than those who made her.

Dating the object (and others like it) can be a problem, especially since Prehistoric art, by definition, has no written record. Stone artifacts present a special problem since we are interested in the date that the stone was carved, not the date of the material itself. Despite these hurdles, art historians and archaeologist attempt to establish dates for prehistoric finds through two processes.

The first method, known as relative dating, involves stylistically comparing an object whose date is uncertain to other objects whose dates have been firmly established. By correctly fitting the unknown object into this stylistic chronology, scholars can find a very general chronological date for an object.

The second way scholars that date the Venus of Willendorf is through an analysis of where it was found. Generally, the deeper an object is recovered from the earth, the longer that object has been buried. Because of the depth at which these objects are found, we can infer that they are very old indeed.

In the absence of writing, art historians rely on the objects themselves to learn about ancient peoples. The form of the Venus of Willendorf may inform what it originally meant. The most conspicuous elements of her anatomy are those that deal with the process of reproduction and child rearing. The artist took particular care to emphasize her breasts, which some scholars suggest indicates that she is able to nurse a child. The artist also brought deliberate attention to her pubic region. Traces of a pigment—red ochre—can still be seen on parts of the figurine.

Detailed image of the Venus of Willendorf statuette
Detail, Unknown artist, Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., limestone 11.1 cm high, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

In contrast, the sculptor placed little attention on the non-reproductive parts of her body. This is particularly noticeable in the figure’s limbs, where there is little emphasis placed on musculature or anatomical accuracy. We may also infer from the small size of her feet that she was not meant to be free-standing and was either meant to be carried or placed lying down. The artist carved the figure’s upper arms along her upper torso, and her lower arms are only barely visible resting upon the top of her breasts. As enigmatic as the lack of attention to her limbs is, the absence of attention to the face is even more striking. No eyes, nose, ears, or mouth remain visible. Instead, our attention is drawn to seven horizontal bands that wrap in concentric circles from the crown of her head. Some scholars have suggested her head is obscured by a knit cap pulled downward, others suggest that these forms may represent braided or beaded hair and that her face, perhaps once painted, is angled downward.

If the face was purposefully obscured, the Paleolithic sculptor may have created, not a portrait of a particular person, but rather a representation of the reproductive and child rearing aspects of a woman. In combination with the emphasis on the breasts and pubic area, it seems likely that the Venus of Willendorf had a function that related to fertility.

Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf)

The Neolithic Revolution

The Neolithic followed the Paleolithic Era, and it began in the Ancient Near East about 10,000 B.C.E. Not long afterwards, Neolithic settlements appeared in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. During the next 3,500 years, men and women all over the world radically transformed their relationship to nature, from a dependent one to more independent one. This is a slow change—it didn’t happen overnight by any means. Human beings learned to manipulate nature, they invented agriculture which allowed production of a food surplus, they manufactured new types of tools, and they domesticated animals like dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and so on.

When people think of the Neolithic era, they often think of Stonehenge, the iconic image of this early era. Dating to approximately 3000 B.C.E. and set on Salisbury Plain in England, it is a structure larger and more complex than anything built before it in Europe.  Stonehenge is an example of the cultural advances brought about by the Neolithic revolution—the most important development in human history. The way we live today, settled in homes, close to other people in towns and cities, protected by laws, eating food grown on farms, and with leisure time to learn, explore and invent is all a result of the Neolithic revolution.

Before the Neolithic revolution, it’s likely you would have lived with your extended family as a nomad, never staying anywhere for more than a few months, always living in temporary shelters, always searching for food and never owning anything you couldn’t easily pack in a pocket or a sack. The change to the Neolithic way of life was huge and led to many of the pleasures (lots of food, friends and a comfortable home) that we still enjoy today.


Photograph of Stonehenge
Stonehenge, c. 2550-1600 B.C.E., Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England

The massive changes in the way people lived also changed the types of art they made. Neolithic sculpture became bigger, in part, because people didn’t have to carry it around anymore; pottery became more widespread and was used to store food harvested from farms. This is when megalithic architecture, and interior and exterior decoration, first appears.

Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites

​One of the most recognizable monuments of the Neolithic world, and one of the most popular with over one million visitors a year, Stonehenge is so impossibly big and so impossibly old. The people living in the fourth millennium BC who began work on Stonehenge were contemporary with the first dynasties of Ancient Egypt, and their efforts predate the building of the Pyramids. What they created has endured millennia and still intrigues us today.

The monument we see today is the result of at least three phases of construction, although there is still a lot of controversy among archaeologists about exactly how and when these phases occurred. It is generally agreed that the first phase of construction at Stonehenge occurred around 3100 B.C.E., when a great circular ditch about six feet deep was dug with a bank of dirt within it about 360 feet in diameter, with a large entrance to the northeast and a smaller one to the south—this circular ditch and bank is collectively called a henge.  Within the henge were dug 56 pits, each slightly more than three feet in diameter. These holes, it is thought, were either originally filled with upright bluestones (mined from the Preseli Hills, about 250 miles away in Wale) or upright wooden beams.

The second phase of work at Stonehenge occurred approximately 100-200 years later and involved the setting up of upright wooden posts, possibly of a roofed structure, in the center of the henge, as well as more upright posts near the northeast and southern entrances. Surprisingly, it is also during this second phase at Stonehenge that it was used for burial. At least 25 of the Aubrey holes were emptied and reused to hold cremation burials and another 30 cremation burial pits were dug into the ditch of the henge and in the eastern portion within the henge enclosure.

The third phase of construction at Stonehenge happened approximately 400-500 years later and likely lasted a long time. In this phase the remaining blue stones or wooden beams which had been placed in the Aubrey holes were pulled and a circle 108 feet in diameter of 30 huge and very hard sarsen stones were erected within the henge, quarried from nearby Marlborough Downs, and capped with 30 lintel stones.

Interior of the sarsen circle at Stonehenge with bluestones in the foreground
Interior of the sarsen circle and bluestones in the foreground, Stonehenge, c. 2550-1600 B.C.E., Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England

This ring of stones enclosed five sarsen trilithons (a pair of upright stones with a lintel stone spanning their tops) set up in a horseshoe shape 45 feet across. These huge stones, ten uprights and five lintels, weigh up to 50 tons each. Bluestones, either reinstalled or freshly quarried, were erected in a circle, half in the outer sarsen circle and half within the sarsen horseshoe. At the end of the phase there is some rearrangement of the bluestones as well as the construction of a long processional avenue, consisting of parallel banks with exterior ditches approximately 34 meters across, leading from the northeast entrance to Stonehenge, dipping to the south and eventually to the banks of the Avon river.

All three phases of the construction of Stonehenge pose fascinating questions. The first phase of work required precise planning and a massive amount of labor. Who planned the henge and who organized whom to work together in its construction? Unfortunately, remains of Neolithic villages, which would provide information about who built Stonehenge, are few, possibly because so many lie underneath later Bronze Age, Roman, Medieval and modern cities. The few villages that have been explored show simple farming hamlets with very little evidence of widely differing social status. If there were leaders or a social class who convinced or forced people to work together to build the first phase of Stonehenge, we haven’t found them. It also probably means the first phase of Stonehenge’s construction was an egalitarian endeavor, highly unusual for the ancient world.

Who were the people buried at Stonehenge during its second phase? Recent analysis of these bones has revealed that nearly all the burials were of adult males, aged 25-40 years, in good health and with little sign of hard labor or disease. No doubt, to be interred at Stonehenge was a mark of elite status and show us that in this era, some means of social distinction must have been desirable.

Interior view of Stonehenge
Stonehenge, c. 2550-1600 B.C.E., Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England

The work achieved in the long third phase of Stonehenge’s construction, however, is the one which is most remarkable and enduring. Like the first phase of Stonehenge, except on a much larger scale, the third phase involved tremendous planning and organization of labor.  But it also entailed an entirely new level of technical sophistication, specifically in the working of very hard stone. For instance, the horizontal lintel stones which topped the exterior ring of sarsen stones were fitted to them using a tongue and groove joint and then fitted to each other using a mortise and tenon joint, methods used in modern woodworking.

Each of the upright sarsens were dressed differently on each side, with the inward facing side more smoothly finished than the outer. Moreover, the stones of the outer ring of sarsens were subtly modified to accommodate the way the human eye observes the massive stones against the bright shades of the Salisbury plain: upright stones were gently widened toward the top which makes their mass constant when viewed from the ground.

The lintel stones also curve slightly to echo the circular outer henge. The stones in the horseshoe of trilithons are arranged by size; the smallest pair of trilithons are around 20 feet tall, the next pair a little higher and the largest, single trilithon in the southwest corner would have been 24 feet tall. This effect creates a kind of pull inward to the monument, and dramatizes the outward Northeast facing of the horseshoe. Although there are many theories, it is still not known how or why these subtle refinements were made to Stonehenge, but their existence is sure proof of a sophisticated society with organized leadership and a lot of free time.

Of course, the most famous aspect of Stonehenge is its relationship with the solar and lunar calendar. This idea was first proposed by scholars in the 18th century, who noted that the sunrise of the midsummer solstice is exactly framed by the end of the horseshoe of trilithons at the interior of the monument, and exactly opposite that point, at the center of the bend of the horseshoe, at the midwinter sunset, the sun is also aligned. These dates, the longest and shortest days of the year, are the turning point of the two great seasonal episodes of the annual calendar. Since this discovery, several other theories about astronomical observation have been offered but few stand up to scrutiny together with the physical details of the monument.


Çatalhöyük following initial excavations
Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart and his team

Once a food surplus was produced, human beings began to live in fixed village settlements like Çatalhöyük, in Turkey (7400–6200 B.C.E.). Humans began to develop more lasting ties to specific sites and places. Innovations of the Neolithic era included a division and specialization of labor, the emergence of an artisan class, such as weavers or potters, the development of trade, the invention of private property, and the development of basic political and social institutions.

Çatalhöyük is not the oldest site of the Neolithic era or the largest, but it is extremely important to the beginning of art. Located near the modern city of Konya in south central Turkey, it was inhabited 9000 years ago by up to 8000 people who lived together in a large town. Çatalhöyük, across its history, witnesses the transition from exclusively hunting and gathering subsistence to increasing skill in plant and animal domestication. We might see Çatalhöyük as a site whose history is about one of man’s most important transformations: from nomad to settler. It is also a site at which we see art, both painting and sculpture, appear to play a newly important role in the lives of settled people.

Relief map of Turkey noting the location of Çatalhöyük
Relief map of Turkey noting the location of Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük had no streets or foot paths; the houses were built right up against each other and the people who lived in them traveled over the town’s rooftops and entered their homes through holes in the roofs, climbing down a ladder. Communal ovens were built above the homes of Çatalhöyük and we can assume group activities were performed in this elevated space as well.

Like at other Neolithic sites, the deceased were placed under the floors or platforms in houses and sometimes the skulls were removed and plastered to resemble live faces.  The burials at Çatalhöyük show no significant variations, either based on wealth or gender; the only bodies which were treated differently, decorated with beads and covered with ochre, were those of children. The excavator of Çatalhöyük believes that this special concern for youths at the site may be a reflection of the society becoming more sedentary and required larger numbers of children because of increased labor, exchange and inheritance needs.

Seated Woman of Catalhoyuk
Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük (head is a restoration), The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey

Art is everywhere among the remains of Çatalhöyük, geometric designs as well as representations of animals and people. Repeated lozenges and zigzags dance across smooth plaster walls, people are sculpted in clay, pairs of leopards are formed in relief facing one another at the sides of rooms, hunting parties are painted baiting a wild bull. The volume and variety of art at Çatalhöyük is immense and must be understood as a vital, functional part of the everyday lives of its ancient inhabitants.

Many figurines have been found at the site, the most famous of which illustrates a large woman seated on or between two large felines. The figurines, which illustrate both humans and animals, are made from a variety of materials but the largest proportion are quite small and made of barely fired clay. These casual figurines are found most frequently in garbage pits, but also in oven walls, house walls, floors and left in abandoned structures. The figurines often show evidence of having been poked, scratched or broken, and it is generally believed that they functioned as wish tokens or to ward off bad spirits.

Neolithic Wall Painting in Çatalhöyük
Neolithic Wall Painting in Building 80, Çatalhöyük

Nearly every house excavated at Çatalhöyük was found to contain decorations on its walls and platforms, most often in the main room of the house. Moreover, this work was constantly being renewed; the plaster of the main room of a house seems to have been redone as frequently as every month or season. Both geometric and figural images were popular in two-dimensional wall painting and the excavator of the site believes that geometric wall painting was particularly associated with adjacent buried youths. Figural paintings show the animal world alone, such as, for instance, two cranes facing each other standing behind a fox, or in interaction with people, such as a vulture pecking at a human corpse or hunting scenes. Wall reliefs are found at Çatalhöyük with some frequency, most often representing animals, such as pairs of animals facing each other and human-like creatures. These latter reliefs, alternatively thought to be bears, goddesses or regular humans, are always represented splayed, with their heads, hands and feet removed, presumably at the time the house was abandoned.

Bull bucrania corner installation in Çatalhöyük
Bull bucrania, corner installation in Building 77, Çatalhöyük

The most remarkable art found at Çatalhöyük, however, are the installation of animal remains and among these the most striking are the bull bucrania. In many houses the main room was decorated with several plastered skulls of bulls set into the walls (most common on East or West walls) or platforms, the pointed horns thrust out into the communal space. Often the bucrania would be painted ochre red. In addition to these, the remains of other animals’ skulls, teeth, beaks, tusks or horns were set into the walls and platforms, plastered and painted.  It would appear that the ancient residents of Çatalhöyük were only interested in taking the pointy parts of the animals back to their homes!

How can we possibly understand this practice of interior decoration with the remains of animals?  A clue might be in the types of creatures found and represented. Most of the animals represented in the art of Çatalhöyük were not domesticated; wild animals dominate the art at the site.  Interestingly, examination of bone refuse shows that the majority of the meat which was consumed was of wild animals, especially bulls. The excavator believes this selection in art and cuisine had to do with the contemporary era of increased domestication of animals and what is being celebrated are the animals which are part of the memory of the recent cultural past, when hunting was much more important for survival.

  1. The earliest known rock art in Australia predates European painted caves by as much as 10,000 years.
  2. The Paleolithic is the oldest of three stone-age periods (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic). The word itself is made of two parts: "paleo", which means old, and "lithic", which means stone. Upper Paleolithic refers to the period between approximately 40,000 and 10,000 years ago and is the most recent period of the old stone age ("Upper" is the most recent of three sub-divisions of the Paleolithic period: Lower, Middle, and Upper).
  3. To better visualize the layout of the passageways and scale of the artworks, please visit the Lascaux Cave website for a virtual tour and additional information.


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