Friday, 13 February 2009

Neolithic art, part 3: New directions for art

The Neolithic Revolution meant that people had to organise their lives in completely new ways. We began spending our entire lives in one place. We had to organise our lives around an agricultural rhythm and calendar, taking long-term care of our crops and animals. We needed more sophisticated social organisation to divide labour, both of food production and of other emerging specialisms, to resolve internal disputes among large populations, and to defend our settlements against hostile tribes that coveted our new-found resources. The appearance of specialists such as priests meant that our lives were governed by more elaborate forms of mythology and ritual. The natural processes around us and upon which our new way of life depended — the seasons, floods, the stars — had to be understood in a new way.

These new social forms combined with new materials and ideas to change the direction of art.

New ideas

In Neolithic art we see a movement away from paleolithic naturalism towards abstraction, and an increased emphasis upon geometry and symbols. Here is Arnold Hauser:

Instead of representations true to nature, with loving and patient care devoted to the details of the object, from now on we find everywhere schematic and conventional signs, indicating rather than reproducing the object, like hieroglyphs. Instead of the concreteness of actual living experience, art now tries to hold fast the idea, the concept, the inner substance of things — to create symbols rather than likenesses of the object.[1]

Newgrange entrance stone5200-year old entrance stone featuring spiral patterns at the Neolithic site of Newgrange, Ireland.

Hauser’s generalisations can be too crude, and that is true of this dichotomy. There are plenty of geometric symbols in Paleolithic art, just as there are ‘representations true to nature’ in the Neolithic. Examples of the former are the abstract symbols engraved or painted onto rock surfaces; examples of the latter are the extraordinarily lifelike animal-head sculptures discovered at Çatalhöyük. There is no merit whatsoever in making one’s Marxism rigid and uncompromising, like a fan rooting for their football team. A theory is judged upon its ability to accommodate reality. Marxism allows for all the immense richness, contradictions and complexity of real life — we must never abandon dialectics by trying to force reality to ‘fit’ our theory.

What we can do, however, is look for broad patterns, and the change of style in the Neolithic shows a shift of emphasis. Where Paleolithic hunters depended upon their immediate sensuous world in order to survive, Neolithic cultivators depended upon organisation, natural rhythms and religion; as farmers they required stability from politics and predictability from nature, and tended to conservatism. In the Neolithic therefore, stylisation tended to be more systematic. Human experience now had to be interpreted through a sense of natural and social order. As Hauser put it:

The uniform conception of art of the period dominated by the geometric style corresponds to an equally uniform sociological characteristic, which exerts a determining influence on this whole age, despite individual variations, namely the tendency towards a homogeneous organisation of economy, towards an autocratic form of government and a hieratic outlook in the whole of society, an outlook dominated by cultus and religion.

Such ideological changes were accompanied by the advance of abstract thinking in daily life. In Paleolithic times one might not measure things at all, or do so according to some personally convenient scale such as the width of one’s hand. With the increasing socialisation of labour and tasks like the weighing out of grain, such variable measures were no longer enough. We needed standards of measurement, and these then supplied conventions for our awareness and handling of mass and space, much as writing would supply conventions for communicating ideas.

There are countless examples of this rationalised, conventionalised tendency, although it is only a tendency. It can be seen in petroglyphs (from the Greek petros meaning ‘stone’ and glyphein meaning ‘to carve’), symbols carved into rock that begin to appear on the border of the Upper Paleolithic and to proliferate in the Neolithic; in the geometric spiral patterns on European megaliths such as those of Newgrange or Gavrinis in Brittany; or on the world’s first known mural, the 11,000 year-old wall painting from the Neolithic settlement of Djade al-Mughara in modern-day Syria. Architecture, which massively rose in importance and sophistication with the advent of sedentary life, necessitated a more precise understanding of mathematics and geometry. Pictographs appeared that were the precursors of writing systems.

The conventionalised style was to persist throughout the early civilisations, most famously perhaps in the art of Egypt, and only subsided with the cultural maturity of ancient Greece.

New materials, new forms

“A new artistic form,” wrote Trotsky, “taken in a large historic way, is born in reply to new needs.”[2] As well as new ideas, the economic advances of the Neolithic Revolution also meant the appearance both of new art forms and of new varieties of old ones. This was a great time of inventions: the axe (not to be confused with the Paleolithic ‘handaxe’), the mill-stone, the loom, the plough, bricks, spinning and much more. New materials such as pottery, metals, plaster and gems were introduced into the language of artists.

Pottery. One of the most ubiquitous new materials was pottery. The earliest known ceramic objects are figurines fired during the Paleolithic, but the first known pottery was created around the time of the transition to farming. Whereas mobile hunter-gatherers have no need for pottery, farmers who collect surpluses need to be able to store them; they also required jugs, kitchen dishes and a whole range of domestic objects that mobile hunter-gatherers simply did not need. The social surplus could support professional potters who, exempt from food production, could concentrate upon perfecting their skills. Once we were making pottery vessels, we immediately began to form and decorate them according to aesthetic as well as practical criteria.

The plasticity of clay enabled artists to create all manner of forms, both to suit particular uses and to satisfy their own imaginations, even moulding them into the shapes of animals. Neolithic pottery tends to be decorated with geometric forms such as spirals, zigzags and polygons.

Example of Jōmon pottery, JapanExample of Jōmon pottery, Japan, c. 10–8000 BCE. The markings left by cords around the top create a kind of abstract design, and give the culture its name.

The earliest known examples of pottery belong to the Jōmon culture in Japan, which arose around 10,000 BCE; it dates from the same time in China; but it was a major industry in most Neolithic cultures. Neolithic potters went beyond pinchpots by building up pots with clay coils, and advanced the art of pottery through the invention, at uncertain time and place, of the potter’s wheel.

Pottery is a fine example of human beings taking a naturally occurring material — in this case, clay dug from the earth — and transforming it through creative labour. In Neolithic hands, clay is changed through skilled handling, mixing with other materials, knowledge of temperatures, natural laws and properties, and the technology of oven-firing into a product both utilitarian and aesthetic.

So significant was this form to Neolithic culture that archaeologists have defined many societies by their pottery, attaching to them dry names like the ‘Funnelbeaker Culture’ and the ‘Linearbandkeramik’. Childe waxes downright lyrical about the art:

Building up a pot was a supreme instance of creation by man. The lump of clay was perfectly plastic; man could mould it as he would. In making a tool of stone or bone he was always limited by the shape and size of the original material; he could only take bits away from it. No such limitations restrict the activity of the potter. She can form her lump as she wishes; she can go on adding to it without any doubts as to the solidity of the joins. In thinking of ‘creation’, the free activity of the potter in ‘making form where there was no form’ constantly recurs to man’s mind; the similes of the Bible taken from the potter’s craft illustrate the point.[3]

Architecture. Another form taken in a new direction was architecture. Structures were built in the Paleolithic, but they were mostly limited to the shelters that tribes carried with them as they travelled — the mammoth-bone houses like those at Mezhirich in the Ukraine were exceptional. Permanently settled communities however have different needs and capabilities, and developed the architectural skills to build complex structures in wood, wattle and daub, stone and brick. Every dwelling tended to follow the same conventions of design.

The remains of the Neolithic town of MehrgarhThe remains of the Neolithic town of Mehrgarh in present-day Pakistan, dated to around 7000 BCE. Mehrgarh is the earliest Neolithic site in southern Asia, and is seen as a precursor to the later Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation. It has a striking geometric layout.

Houses in these early towns were packed tightly together, and usually had flat roofs because heavy rainfall in the Near East was uncommon. When these houses fell into disuse or disrepair, they were levelled and new houses were built on top, creating high mounds known as tells (from the Arabic for ‘mound’ or ‘hill’). Archaeologists can dig down into these tells and discover layer after layer of village history.

Other important sites yielding evidence of Neolithic building include the lakeside village at Obermeilen in Switzerland, Vinča in the Balkans, and Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands.

As has been discussed, Paleolithic parietal art is highly unlikely to have been decorative in purpose. By contrast, Neolithic houses like those at Çatalhöyük were often decorated with murals. These would have had symbolic content, but they would not have been as intimately concerned with the social life of the group as we suspect Paleolithic parietal art to have been. In societies with surplus resources, art was being used to a greater extent for ornamentation and decoration.

Architecture also provided fixed centres of attraction for religion and a rich combination of artifacts, ritual, music, etc. At Çatalhöyük were found beads, carpets, pottery, jewellery, textiles, carvings, plastered and painted heads, and more — towns and their complex social life concentrated cultural objects like never before. At its peak, Çatalhöyük had 7000 inhabitants. Today we think of a town of 7000 inhabitants as tiny, but in its time a settlement of hundreds of mud-brick dwellings and temples with plastered interiors and painted walls, teeming with herders and farmers, and trading in new goods like obsidian, would have been extraordinary [4]. The social and material wealth of Çatalhöyük fed into an artistic wealth.

A striking feature of Neolithic construction was the appearance of megaliths (from the Ancient Greek megas meaning great, and lithos meaning stone).

Carnac standing stonesStanding stones from the megalithic site at Carnac in France, probably erected around 3300 BCE. Photo: Snjeschok.

These were structures or monuments made from interlocking large stones without any use of mortar, ranging from standing stones or menhir to burial chambers. This tradition continued until the Bronze Age, giving us such sites as Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge in England. The creation of such structures required collective effort, organisation and ideological conviction on a scale probably unattainable by hunter-gatherers: the tombs in particular imply a ritual and respectful approach to the dead characteristic of organised religion. The stones are often carved with stylised or geometric designs like zigzags and spirals, whose meaning is now lost.

In North America, we see the building of mounds by pre-Columbian Native Americans, in an area ranging from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys and Mexico. These were made of earth and took a variety of sizes and shapes, often with buildings on top, and their range of purposes included burials, temples and fortifications — the purpose of many remains unclear. They were created by agricultural, complex societies that flourished centuries before the arrival of Europeans. One of the most significant sites is Cahokia in Illinois.

Sculpture. The characteristic sculptures of the Neolithic are, as in the Paleolithic, stylised female figures — male figures are rare — although other objects and animals also occur. They were made from clay or carved from stone, and were often incised or painted. Archaeologists generally explain them in a context of fertility and childbirth because the great majority of human figurines are female, with a strong emphasis on the breasts, hips and genitals. A figure of a woman flanked by two lionesses from Çatalhöyük was found in a grain bin, inviting speculation that she was intended to encourage or protect the harvest; the presence of such figurines in temples such as Ħaġar Qim also suggests they had a magical or ritual purpose. Although we can infer this from their form and location, it is actually very difficult to prove conclusively: after the reductive interpretations of the past, modern archaeology tries to remain open to a multiplicity of meanings.

A variation on the religious theme can be seen in the remarkable skulls found at ancient Jericho dated to around 7–6000 BCE — the oldest known images of the dead. These are actual human skulls that have been remodelled after death with another Neolithic invention, plaster, and their eyes restored with cowrie shells. This invites speculation they were a response to a conception of the afterlife: an attempt to restore or preserve some aspect of the dead.

However, in the Neolithic a new kind of sculpture also appears.

Neolithic figurines created by the Hamangian cultureNeolithic figurines found at Cernavoda in Romania, created by the Hamangian culture in very roughly 4000 BCE. The left-hand figure, known as ‘The Thinker’, is male, the right-hand is a ‘Sitting Woman’.

Figures such as the Hamangian ‘Thinker’, one of the finest sculptures known to us from the period, can less obviously be connected to ritual. And the same culture even produced model houses with miniature occupants, which we suspect were, quite simply, toys.

Other forms. Further examples of new forms included weaving, furniture and household utensils (carving), urns for preserving the remains of the dead, mirrors of polished obsidian, and tools of ivory, stone and flint with highly wrought carved handles. More developed religions led to the building of temples, images of household gods, ritual song and dance, and more — we will discuss religious forms in the next article.


Agricultural societies, with their food surpluses, specialist labour and more sophisticated products now had a modest capacity to produce goods for trade. Exchange of items took place in the Paleolithic too, but the new productive forces increased its scale. The Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel noted:

With the neolithic revolution, the development of agriculture and the formation of permanent surpluses create the possibility of permanent exchange with peoples who have not yet acquired such surpluses, and exchange enters a new phase. Exchanges are no longer restricted to a few rare products which are the specialities of certain regions. They henceforth embrace all the products of a whole region; local markets make their appearance. Each tribe or each village continues to provide for its own needs to a large extent, but none is any longer entirely independent of a supply of foreign products.[5]

To handle exchange, a particular group of specialists gradually arose — merchants. One popular commodity was obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock which can be used to make blades as sharp as scalpels. Obsidian could be quarried at the Hasan Dag volcano and was found in Jericho a thousand miles away. Such finds provide evidence for the existence of long-distance trade.

As well as providing new materials for art, trade performed another significant cultural function — it exposed societies to alternative cultural forms. Childe observed:

Complete economic self-sufficiency was nowhere attained. Everywhere intercourse between adjacent social groups is attested to the archaeologist by an interchange of objects. Such might result from accidental contacts between herdsmen and hunters… from formal visits, from the practice of seeking a wife outside one’s own village (exogamy), and so on. It might lead up to a sort of irregular trade through which objects might travel great distances…

The point is that such trade was not an integral part of the community’s economic life; the articles it brought were in some sense luxuries, non-essentials. Yet the intercourse thus attested was of vital importance to human progress; it provided channels whereby ideas from one society might reach another, whereby foreign materials might be compared; whereby, in fact, culture itself might be diffused.[6]

Human societies are very rarely isolated or monolithic. They exist in relationships, in a constant state of movement. One of the reasons why cultures can be difficult to define is that they overlap one another, influence one another, borrow where it pleases them. Even societies that may appear to be in stasis, like the Aborigines who continue a hunter-gatherer lifestyle 60,000 years after humans first reached Australia, are in a constant development of some kind. This is why modern Aborigines, as has been noted before, are unable to explain the meanings of the art of their prehistoric forebears, despite a virtually unchanging mode of production.

Fluid interchanges between societies are feared by some, especially by the political right, but they are an inevitable fact of human existence, and we would be wiser to celebrate them.


Readers may notice that I have not referred here to the artist’s ‘personal vision’. A Marxist analysis must accept the totality of a work of art, and this includes highly personal, subjective factors as well as social-historical ones. The difficulty in the Neolithic period is that the subjective factors are simply unknown to us. There is no record of how particular Neolithic artists felt about their work or how their personal experiences influenced it. There are not even records of their names, or whether they were male or female.

At the same time, art was surely not conceived by Neolithic people as an individualist pursuit. The remains of Neolithic towns show us, with their almost identical dwellings, that there was not yet a drastic shift from egalitarianism. In Neolithic communities, the arts of pottery-making, mural painting and so on are collective activities — the work created is stylistically extremely similar, because the artists would have worked together to long-established cultural conventions, not in the inspired isolation beloved of the Romantics. This is why archaeologists can talk in terms of ‘cultures’: defined by assemblages of material with common style in a particular time and place.

[1] Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[2] Leon Trotsky, Chapter 5 of Literature and Revolution (1924).
[3] Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[4] And yet the residents of Çatalhöyük felt no need for streets. Over the centuries the dwellings became so tightly-packed that one had to enter through the roofs.
[5] Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (1962). Mandel was a leader of the Fourth International. His book Late Capitalism (1976) was a major contribution to the updating of Marxist economics to modern conditions.
[6] Childe, op. cit.

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