Accessible Art History
AP Art History: Global Prehistory Part 1
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For today’s post, I am continuing my AP Art History series with the first set of works from the Global Prehistory Unit. My goal for these posts are to provide a brief overview of each of the works that could serve as an intro to the unit or as a brief review! If you want more in depth content, I highly recommend checking out Smarthistory! They have amazing free content and even a free textbook! I’ve linked them here.
Today’s video will cover the works 1-5 on the AP Art History required 250 list. As mentioned in my introduction to Global Prehistory blog post, this period spans from about 30,000–500 B.C.E. So, to learn more about these works, keep on reading!
Work 1: Apollo 11 Stones
In 1969, archaeologists in Namibia found a broken piece of stone in a cave. At first glance, it might not be that exciting, but they quickly discovered that there was a charcoal drawing on it. Three years later, they would find the other half. The stones were named after the Apollo 11 spaceship that the United States sent to the moon. Using dating techniques, scientists determined that the stones date 25,500-25,300 YBP (Years Before Present). This makes it the oldest piece of figurative art ever found in Africa.
Although art historians and archaeologists have not been able to discern exactly what was painted on the Apollo 11 stones, they can tell that it is some sort of animal. The area where this cave is located has been continuously occupied since the early Stone age because of the animal migration routes. These stones also show that art was important to early people because it was a portable piece. Unlike most prehistoric art, it wasn't painted on cave walls, someone could take it with them from place to place. This indicates its importance and possible sacred nature.
Work 2: Hall of the Bulls
The Hall of the Bulls is a part of the famous Lascaux cave system. Discovered in 1940 by a young boy looking for his dog, this site completely changed our understanding of prehistoric art!
This “hall” is a long tunnel that then opens up into a large chamber. The area is about 66 feet long and 16 feet wide, which allows for about 50 people to fit in the space. (Though it is important to note that visitors are rarely allowed in the space and are instead shown a replica nearby).
The walls are covered in images of bulls, equines, cows, and even a bear! (in fact, it is the only bear in the entire cave system) They are a variety of sizes, the largest is the great bull that measures at 17 feet long! Some of the animals overlap each other, which might indicate they were painted at different times.
The reason that this space is so famous is because of the amount of information we have been able to gather from it. There are so many figures that archaeologists and anthropologists can draw conclusions about prehistoric art techniques by comparing them. One of the major points is the use of “twisted perspective”. This can most clearly be seen in the painting of the bull. Although the face is in profile (side view), the viewer’s can see both of his horns. This seems to indicate that this wasn’t necessarily a portrait of a bull, but more of a description: the elements of what makes a bull a bull. This could mean that prehistoric artists were thinking in a far more abstract way than previously thought!
If you would like to learn more about the Lascaux cave system, I do have an entire podcast episode dedicated to it, I’ve linked it here.
Work 3: Camelid sacrum in the shape of a canine
This next work has quite the mouthful of a name! It was discovered in Tequixquiac, Mexico (near Mexico City) and dates from about 14,000-7,000 BCE. The exact date is hard to determine because soil layer analysis was not done when it was discovered. It was in private hands from 1895-1956, so study was not possible for a long time.
Let’s break down each element of this piece’s name. A Camelid is a member of the Camelidae family (so animals like camels, llamas, and alpacas). The animal this one came from is now extinct. The Sacrum is the bone at the base of the spine. Archaeologists theorize that an ancient person discovered the sacrum and realized that it kind of looked like the head of a dog. So, they added some eyes and a nose to complete the look. According to reports, there are also symbols engraved in the bone. Unfortunately, we can’t read them, but it is possible that they indicate a ritualistic purpose. It is believed to have been a sacred object because in early Mesoamerican cultures, the sacrum is a sacred bone. It is also located next to reproductive organs, and fertility is important to many early cultures.
So, what does this tell us about prehistoric peoples and their art? Well, Prehistoric people saw potential for art everywhere, even in a bone. And that they would use that to their advantage when creating things.
Work 4: Running Horned Woman
Tassili n’Ajjer, now a national park, is a plateau in the Sahara desert. Even though it is remote, the site is filled with rock art, dating from the prehistoric era. One of the most captivating works is the “Running Horned Woman”. Dating from between 6,000 and 4,000 BCE, this work shows a large, female, figure in motion. One of her legs and both of her arms are stretched outwards, indicating that she is moving quickly. A cloud of dots, often interpreted to be grain, falls around her horns.
The site of this painting, like many other prehistoric works, is difficult to access. There are the remains of small shelters nearby, which has led art historians to theorize that this was a sanctuary to a goddess figure. If you look closely, there are small figures surrounding the running woman, but without her elaborate decoration. This also indicates that she was special, perhaps even divine.
Work 5: Bushel with ibex motifs
This bushel, or vase-like object, is a great example of prehistoric art that was not found in a cave. However, it shares many of the same characteristics. It was discovered in Iran and dates from 4200-3500 BCE. The artist used mineral pigment on the clay in order to depict animals and shapes. Although it is theorized to have been a grave good, we can’t say for sure.
At first glance, we can see the ibex and a few dogs on the bushel. However, closer inspection shows that all of the elements are actually made up of geometric shapes as opposed to more natural lines. Most prehistoric art is in fact made this way. Familiar shapes are pieced together, like a puzzle, to see what new forms could be made. This is yet another way that prehistoric artists used abstract methods to create concrete images of the world around them.
These five, prehistoric works of art are a fascinating example of how the world worked thousands of years ago. It is important to remember that art for art’s sake wasn’t a concept back then. Instead, these artists took time and used precious calories to create works for ritual or other important purposes! I’lll cover the remaining images in a follow up post, so make sure to keep an eye out for it!
Gardner’s Art through the Ages