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Ice Age Ceramics

By Dr. Jayne Shatz

Oldest Kiln Now Dates to 27, 000 B.C.

The world's first art movement occurred during the upper Paleolithic period of the great Stone Age, around 30,000 years ago. It flourished during the last period of widespread glaciation, until all the glaciers finally retreated by 11,000 B.C.

The climate was harsh then, by our standards, with temperatures ranging from -I0°F in the winter to 55°F in the summer. Ice lay a mile and a half thick in some places, with snow and ice accumulating into mountainous peaks, creating low sea levels and large land masses.

In Continental Europe, there existed a temperate corridor between the large ice sheet to the North and the snow covered mountains of the Alps. This warmer tundra of gently rolling hills stretched from Czechoslovakia through Poland into the Ukraine and Siberia. Whereas the cold-loving reindeer, wooly rhinoceros and ibex dwelled in the icy parts of Europe, these warmer regions saw roaming herds of mammoth and the communal tribes of the mammoth hunters-early Homo sapiens.

The Upper Paleolithic, or Ice Age was a time of spontaneous revolution in the development of art, music and tool technology. Similar times of cultural blossomings occurred in 13th-century Sung-dynasty China and 15th-century Renaissance Europe.

What is amazing about the art of the Ice Age is that it seems to have suddenly appeared on the horizon without any precedent. The earlier Neanderthal culture did have tool kits, with some objects carved smooth to comfortably fit the hand, and some displaying deliberate scratch marks. But nothing of any artistic value has been discovered that can explain the explosion in art that was to follow. With a fervent burst of sophisticated artistic aptitude, Ice Age artists crawled into caves to carve and paint in the deep recesses of the earth with only a simple oil lamp to guide their way.

These caves were places of ceremonial rituals where art was incorporated in people's mystical beliefs. Many of their paintings were executed to ensure a profitable hunt. Alongside the art have been found evidences of musical instruments, completing the picture of the ceremonial significance of art, music, dance and song.

Part of the mystic belief system was the reverence for fertility statuettes, or Venus figures. The uncovering of the Dolni Vestonice "Venus" in Czechoslovakia is of particular interest to ceramists. In that ice-free corridor was discovered a grouping of three huts in close proximity to one another that dated from 27,000 B.C. These dwellings reflected the warmer climate where caves were not lived in (as in the icy regions), but rather were used for ceremonial rites and artistic expression.

The huts were situated alongside a stream, with their main wood posts set into the ground. The remaining framework for the walls and roofs was of large mammoth bones and tusks. A surrounding wall of bone, brush and dirt provided shelter from animals and cold winds. The floor was laid with a limestone grit. Hearths were shallow depressions ringed with flat stones. The two larger huts had five hearths each, and it is believed they were the communal lodges of a hunting clan.Primitive kiln

The smaller hut was similar, but entirely enclosed in a wall of clay and limestone. The hearth in the floor's middle provided a spectacular discovery in ceramic history-a prehistoric kiln in the shape of a beehive. It was surrounded by thousands of clay pellets, fragments of the heads of two bears and a fox, and some unfinished figures. Archaeologists believe this oldest kiln yet discovered was in the home of a Paleolithic shaman who produced, then fired figures of women and beasts. Before this finding, historians had believed the first kiln firing had occurred l5,000 years later.

Venus figure from Dolni Vestonice 37,000 BCA small, black figure modeled from clay and bone ash was found intact at the Dolni Vestonice kiln site. It is one of the earliest "Venus" figures, with large breasts, angular shoulders, and legs tapering down to small, rounded points. The top of the head has four holes made to hold flowers, leaves or feathers, symbolizing the successful changing of the seasons, which were attributed to the goddesses' fertility.

The female figure predominates Paleolithic small sculpture. She personifies the species' continuity, the magical invocation of the survival of the race. The severity of form is due to its minimal representation of womanhood abundant with life. Later figures displayed a vulva, which became known as the "mound of Venus", the universal archetype of fertility.


Another treasure trove in prehistoric ceramics was found in France. Inside a small cave hidden in the hills of the Pyrenees were two bison, 24 inches and 25 inches long, dating from 15,000 B.C. These unfired, relief sculptures display a vitality of form, beautifully executed in detail.cave paintings of bison

They were modeled from an existing mound of clay, and due to the protected circumstances of this cave, remained intact for thousands of years. In fact, their surfaces still reveal the decisive, spontaneous and amazingly adept movement of the artist's fingers across the clay.

How many more sculptures were produced in caves such as these just to melt away in ground water? It can only be assumed that this was not a singular occurrence.

Why did art of such brilliance emerge from a society concerned with the ferocity of everyday living? Perhaps it is because of a desire to control natural forces, align themselves with spiritual beliefs, and integrate with the nature/god/human cycle. It appears they saw themselves as a part of nature, and realized that they could influence the outcome of events.

Ice Age artists' lives were affected strongly by wild animals and the changing of seasons. Their paintings, engravings and sculptures express a spiritual quest. They began to socialize with other tribes, and learned to cooperate with one another for a successful hunt. They used ritual and belief to assure themselves a better future. Their tools were efficient, their homes secure. They ceased being nomads, and food became plentiful. As living grew easier, they found time to concentrate on spirituality and one of its manifestations: art.

Imagining a person modeling a clay figure almost 30,000 years ago enables us to feel kinship to these early people. Their art emphasizes that our art is part of human development-a part so powerful that when we discover it, kept safe through time for us to view and touch, we are linked through the ages.

Note: This article first appeared in Ceramics Monthly and appears here with their permission and the permission of the author.


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