Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass

Art of Prehistory


Paleolithic Period
(30,000-10,000 B.C.E.)

The most famous cave paintings are those found within the Lascaux caves of France. Painted with earth pigments of red and yellow ochre and charcoal mixed with animal fat, they are extraordinary examples of the artistic capabilities of prehistoric men. The images combine their creator's understanding of the animal forms, an elegant sense of line, and vigorous gesture. It is a widely held belief among anthropologists that these paintings had a magical purpose for the tribal societies that created them. Painted deep within the caves, these caverns were sacred spaces. It is very possible that, within this earthly womb, the tribes performed magic rituals related to the hunt.

Carbon dating reveals that the Lascaux cave paintings were created sometime between 15,000 - 10,000 B.C.E (before the common era). For many years, scientists believed that these were some of the first artworks created by humankind. In 1994, however, paintings were discovered in another cave in France known as the Chauvet cave. These paintings date back to around 30,000 B.C.E, pushing back the history of art by several thousand years. It could be possible that some artworks were created even earlier than this. Anything that may have been created with less permanent materials are lost. The only way we can know anything about the earliest humans comes from study of their paintings, carvings, and tools. The carving at right looks like a lion's head combined with a human body. We can only guess what significance this may have had. Perhaps early man recognized that other animals were more powerful than they were, and wished to possess that power themselves.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Laussel


Prehistoric carvings which have inspired much speculation are those of women, known as "venus" figures. Above are two of the most famous examples, though hundreds of similar figures have been discovered throughout Europe.. The term actually has nothing to do with the goddess of love, but is used to identify these feminine figurines- which all exaggerate the reproductive features of large breasts, hips, and abdomen. It is unclear exactly what their significance was for early peoples. Very few,if any, figures were found in the shape of men, so we know that the choice of gender is significant. We can only guess that they may have served as a charm for bringing fertility. Most of them are very small (only several inches in height), and were possibly carried. The Laussel Venus is an exception, carved on a cliff site. The horn which she holds in her right hand suggests the idea of the "horn of plenty"... perhaps suggesting the bountiful reproduction not only of their own species, but of all things necessary for survival.


Many of the best artifacts of early humans exist in western Europe. The Lascaux, Chauvet, and many other cave paintings exist in southern and central France. Another well-known cave is the Altamira in northern Spain.

The Venus of Willendorf was found in Austria, and the Laussel Venus is close to the caves of Lascaux.

Stonehenge is located on the Salisbury Plain, in England. Many other similar structures have been found in that continent.




Neolithic Period
(10,000-4000 B.C.E)


The art of the paleolithic period is very naturalistic, especially when compared to the artwork created by Neolithic peoples. With the progress of the Agricultural Revolution, it was no longer necessary for tribes to follow the animals, but instead to breed herds and cultivate crops. The focus of their arts thus shifted from the magical purpose of bringing luck in the hunt to the domestic purpose of storing liquids and grains. Most of the art of this period serves a functional purpose, but the designs on their vessels show that they had a great concern for beauty as well as functionality. Decorations are generally geometric and abstract, with an interest in repeated patterns.


Stonehenge, circa 2000-1500 B.C.E. Salisbury Plains, England ... Height of stones approximately 13'6"


The megalithic site commonly known as Stonehenge is one of the most fascinating structures known to mankind. It has been the object of much serious study as well as wild speculation. Before the invention of the wheel, primitive people were somehow able to drag the huge stones over land and water. The first stone placed at the site was the heel stone, which is outside of the circular ditch circumscribing the monument. 200 years later, 80 blocks of bluestone were transported from a quarry nearly 200 miles away. Some of these stones weigh as much as 26 tons. The horizontal lintel stones were secured on top of the vertical posts with ball and socket joints. The last stone added was the altar stone, which was transported from South Wales.

It has long been theorized that Stonehenge was used as a giant calendar to study the heavens. In 1964, evidence of this was provided by an astronomer named Gerald Hawkins. Using a computer, he calculated the positions of the stars and planets during the Neolithic age, finding that the placement of key stones lined up precisely with solstices and equinoxes. He also proposed that the site was used to predict eclipses and other cosmic phenomena. Whether this was its true purpose is still a subject of debate. It is clear that the monument served a purpose of some importance for these stone age people to divest so much of their energy into it. Most likely, they were a nature-worshipping society, and their altar stone probably served the purpose of animal sacrifices.


Next: Mesopotamian Art