AP Art History: Global Prehistory, Part 2
Updated: Mar 3
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m continuing my series on the 250 images of the AP Art History test. I’ve already covered the first half of the global prehistory unit, click here for that blog post. So, this post is going to cover images 6-11 on the list! Remember, this video is meant as an introduction or quick review to the unit, not a comprehensive coverage. I can’t wait to wrap up this unit, so let’s get started!
Upon first glance, this stele doesn’t look like much. Standing at about 3 feet tall, this stone object is made of geometric shapes that come together to form a human face and body. It is from Saudi Arabia and dates from between 4,000 - 3,000 BCE! This piece is actually part of a small collection of steles that were discovered by archaeologists in the region. Despite it covering a rather large geographic distance, they seem to share many of the same, abstract/geometric characteristics. This is a great example of how early trade routes developed. They were not only used for commercial purposes! In addition, these routes allowed for ideas and creativity to spread throughout the region. It is a remarkable testament to the desire to create, even millennia ago!
It is important to note that this stele predates Islam by nearly 5000 years. In that religion, depictions of the human form is forbidden because it could lead to the creation of idols, a practice that is strictly forbidden. But, we still see many works showing people from before the rise of Islam from this region.
This next piece takes us all the way to China! It is made of jade and is called a cong. Along the outside, there are symbols and images carved into the hard stone. Congs have been found in graves and are believed to have served some sort of ritual purpose. However, we have yet to find sufficient evidence to tell us exactly what that purpose was.
But, we can gather some information from the material itself. Jade is an incredibly hard stone
and can’t be carved in a traditional manner. Instead, sand must be used to erode its surface into the desired shape and to make the designs. The amount of labor that went into carving a cong is extraordinary. Especially in a time where expending calories could be a matter of life and death. This indicates that the person buried with the cong was important within the society and worth taking the time to carve such a precious, ritual object for.
Stonehenge is, without a doubt, the most famous entry in the Global Prehistory Unit. It is a megalithic or “great stones” monument. It is easily recognizable, but the reason for the creation of Stonehenge has been contested by historians for hundreds of years.
Stonehenge is located about 90 miles west of London in Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. The structure dates from the Bronze Age, between 3000-2000 BCE. The large stones are constructed of Sarsan (sandstone), a local stone from a natural deposit about 20 miles away. On average, each stone weighs about 25 tons, but The largest stone, the heel stone, weighs an astonishing 30 tons. There are small stones, called blue stones. These are actually various volcanic rocks whose origins have been traced to Wales about 155 miles away from the site.
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Stonehenge is how it was built. Regardless of which methods were used, it is clear that it was a massive effort requiring hundreds, if not thousands, of people. There are two main theories for how the stones were moved to the location: Wooden sleds for moving across land and Boats or rafts for moving the blue stones from the Welsh coast.
Archaeologists have determined that that Stonehenge was built in three stages:
Phase 1: Started about 3100 BCE. A circular trench was dug. It measures 360 feet in diameter and is about 6 feet deep. Two entrances were included. A smaller, interior ring of dirt bank was also added. This is what makes it a “henge”. 56 pits, spaced about 3 feet apart, were also dug. There isn’t evidence of what was put in the holes, but it is believed that they were either wooden beams or the blue stones.
Phase 2: Started about 100-200 years after Phase 1. Wooden structures, including a roof, in the center of the henge. Some of the original post holes were used as burials. (To be discussed later in the notes).
Phase 3: Started about 400-500 years after Phase 2. This was the longest phase. The holes were once again used to form foundations for the large stones to be placed in. They were then capped with other stones, using the post and lintel technique.
Stonehenge is constructed using a simple post and lintel design. Think of a doorframe. There are two vertical pieces, or the posts. Then, a long horizontal lintel is attached on the top. Although deceivingly simple, it is effective!
There are a couple of theories about the purpose of Stonehenge. As there were no written records, we only have historical speculation.
Theory 1: Giant, Astronomical Calendar
In the 18th century, it was discovered that the sunrise on the summer and winter solstices perfectly aligned with the horseshoe stones.
These dates are the longest and shortest days of the year, respectively. They were important dates because it signaled the shift in seasons. By marking them with such a large monument, it would help local people calibrate their crops and hunting expeditions. It could have also been used to mark celebrations.
Theory 2: Sacred Burial Site
Archaeologists have discovered about 25 cremation burials in former post holes. A further 30 burials surrounded the site.
Analysis of the remains show that the majority of individuals were between the ages of 25-40. The bones showed little sign of hard labor, so it is likely that these people were in the top levels of the Bronze Age society that built Stonehenge. This indicates that Stonehenge was a sacred place.
So what can Stonehenge teach us? It is a magnificent example of human ingenuity and strength. By using teamwork and only the most basic of tools, Bronze Age people were able to create a monument that still resonates with the modern era. It also shows a clear connection to nature and the afterlife. Although we may not know the true meaning, we do know that it was and still is an incredibly important site.
This next work was discovered in Papua New Guinea and dates from around 1500 BCE. This makes it the oldest sculpture ever discovered in Oceania! Astonishingly, when it was discovered, it was still being used as a ritual object! There is a shiny patina on this stone, created from thousands of years of human hands holding it.
The Ambum Stone is made from a hard stone that is native to PNG. It seems likely that the ancient artists saw the natural shape of the stone and decided it looked similar to a local animal and added the details. Archaeologists believe that it is an image of an extinct marsupial, likely an ancestor of the echidna.
Sadly, the Ambum Stone was bought by missionaries and transported to a Western museum for "safe keeping". It has been studied extensively but not used as a ritual object. Papua New Guinea has tried to get the Ambum stone back in the country, but unfortunately, it is still in Australia. This brings about the discussion of global artwork and ownership.
The Tlatilco Figurines are small figurines from Central Mexico. They date from about 1200-900 BCE and stand at about 9.5 cm tall. These figurines are marked by their small waist, wide hips, and thick thighs. There has been speculation that this represented the ideal body shape for people at the time. This is compounded by the fact that the majority of these figurines are of women. It is actually quite rare to see male figures in Pre-Columbian art.
The most carved detail of this figure is the elaborate hairstyle. This likely means that hair was important to these people. Another unusual detail is the fact that the figure has two heads but only one body. The meaning for this is unknown. Archaeologists have theorized that the Tlatilco people focused a lot on duality, so this could be an indication of this.
Terracotta fragments, Lapita people
The final image of this unit is this terracotta fragment from the Solomon Islands. Dating from about 1000 BCE, this red slip earthenware fragment is decorated with incised lines. To create it, the clay was mixed with sand to help increase its durability. By studying these fragments, we can trace how people moved from island to island to follow supplies and food sources!
The Lapita people were seafaring people with sophisticated navigation techniques, examples of pottery found across many of the Micronesian Islands. However, this fragment was not used for cooking because there are no carbon marks from a fire. Therefore, it was most likely used as serving or storage vessels.
The decorations are very formal stylized patterns. White lime was rubbed in the lines to make them stand out against the red clay. In the 1970s an archaeologist categorized all the symbols and traced the route from the Solomon Islands to Hawaii to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). How amazing is that?!
Although not often included in the APAH test, the global prehistory unit is fascinating because it shows just how long people have been driven to create!
Next, I’ll be covering the cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean, the second unit of AP Art History. Make sure to keep an eye out for the posts!
Gardner’s Art through the Ages