Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Last week I went to see an exhibition of Ice Age art at the British Museum:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ice_age_art.aspx

The subtitle of the exhibition was ‘Arrival of the modern mind’ but more or less as soon as I stepped inside I questioned this. The first of the pieces were also the oldest, some forty thousand years old

I found that my reactions were of awe at the sculptures and irritation at the explanations. The irritations were simply because the small snippet of text for each artefact used both simplistic ideas and simplistic expressions; none of which does justice to the artefacts.

The idea that suddenly there was a leap of massive proportions from brutish empty-minded cavemen to exquisite primal artists annoyed me. The concept that human beings had gone from no art to fully formed and finely tuned creations is ludicrous, but in essence that was what the text in the display cases suggested. To be fair, the multimedia guides one could pay to use, and also the book that accompanies the exhibition may well go into much greater and more subtle explanations, but the impression someone would garner solely from the explanatory labels is that ‘as if by magic’ human beings learned to create art overnight.

Art of any sort is a process of long hours of practise, on top of generations of other artists’ work. All art is derivative of earlier forms. So the Ice Age art here is not the first art at all, but the first art that has survived for us to see. I imagine a great deal of early human art was ephemeral: body art, drawings in the sand, patterns with flowers, dance, song and so on.

So what made the difference? Why do we have such tangible art remaining from artists whose bones have been dust for tens of thousands of years? The answer: enforced leisure time.

 

This remarkable sculpture is thought to have taken around 400 hours to change a mammoth tusk into a figure that even today holds immense numinous power and visual impact: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_man_of_the_Hohlenstein_Stadel

But it cannot have simply leapt into the mind of the artist one day when he or she picked up a piece of ivory. The figure existed within the mind first, perhaps borne of legends already ancient, of myths already lost in time and drawn back for the tribe by a clever carver. Perhaps it was a familiar face, drawn on the sand in front of shelters since time immemorial. We’ll doubtless never know, but whatever it was, it mattered enough for someone to spend hundreds of hours creating it from raw ivory.

The Ice Age was a time of enforced inactivity and stillness. Long winters around the fire, with the same people, with little to break the monotony, meant that, as the saying goes, people had to make their own entertainment. You had to keep busy in some way or go mad So a project that might take all winter would be something to treasure. A reason to keep going when the snows piled higher and higher and when it felt like spring would never come.

Art is what brings hope. Whether it’s art that you can see, or art that you experience in other ways, art is what keeps us going, whether we know it or not. It may also be something that is crucial in retaining our humanity during tough times both personally and tribally. Both the creation of art and the appreciation and participation in art lift us out of the mindless fog we can easily slip into when winters literal and figurative drag on and on.

One of the pieces that moved me the most was not a depiction of a person or an animal but rather a possession. A flute crafted from the leg bone of a griffon vulture drew my eyes. It held the fine patina of an instrument polished by continual use, by perhaps generations of fingers that played tunes for others to listen to, or kept a lonely wanderer ‘s spirits up during dark cold nights. It made me wonder about its maker and its owner. Was it buried when the owner died, did it fall out of a pocket on a journey? Was it passed from generation to generation.

Art is cumulative, tribal, personal and above all, vital. Without art in our midst, civilization itself begins to crumble and vanish.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ice_age_art/about_the_exhibition/the_female_gaze.aspx

I’d like to end with a snippet of a work in progress, currently entitled Tabula Rasa. It’s something quite different from other work I have done but hopefully you will enjoy it and find it interesting.

“The men make bold figures of reindeer, wolf and whale from their scraps of bone, antler and firewood, and I watch carefully their craft. They seem to be freeing the creature locked inside the solid substances, finding clues to what lies within, and then whittling and carving till the shape becomes evident to everyone. They must sharpen their knives at times for the bone and antler especially are harder than they look. My guardian’s son sees me watching and decides to show me how to carve, taking my hands and directing them. I am still weaker than I ought to be, but I learn the techniques and when I find a piece of knotted root among the firewood, I can see within it a shape.

It takes me some weeks to free that figure from within the hard old root, and once I have found that shape and refined the lines, the sight of it brings a whistle of admiration from both the men.

You have the right sight, girl,” says the younger man. “That came out well. Now you must polish and finish it.”

They show me how to smooth the wood by rubbing it with sand, finer and finer until the grain begins to gleam. Then I must rub it with a mixture of fat and charcoal to darken it so that the wood appears ebony black and shines slightly. The figure is small enough to hold and almost cover with one hand, a kneeling woman, her head bowed and her hair falling in an arc over half her face. When it is completely finished, and every inch is polished to a soft black shine, the family admire it.

That is beautiful,” sighs my guardian.

I place it in her hands, and I bow my head so that my hair falls as that of the statue does.

It is yours then, Mother,” I say and when I lift my head again I see the glitter of falling tears.

I will cherish it,” she says and after an awkward moment of throat clearing, we all begin with our tasks of settling down for the night. There are dogs to let out, reindeer to be tended. But as I climb into my sleeping skins, I see that the figurine has been placed in the niche at the back of the cave where my guardian keeps a light burning even when we all sleep. The light dances on the soft sheen of the burnished wood and as I fall asleep I see that somehow out of that unnoticed root I had carved a facsimile of my own form.”

 

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Boudica and St Helen ~ two women who hoped to change the world.

Boudica and St Helen ~ two women who hoped to change the world.

Separated by about three hundred years, there is little that connects these two women beyond the town of Colchester, or the fact that they were both women fighting to achieve something in what was mostly a man’s world.

Boudica (or Boudicca or even Boudicea; the spelling varies) was the Iceni queen who took on the might of the Roman empire in the Iceni revolt of AD60. Outraged (and rightly so) by the Roman’s welching on the deal her late husband made with them to allow her to retain half his lands after his death, and by their punishing of her presumption by publicly flogging her and having her two daughters raped, the warrior queen swept across southern Britain burning and slaughtering all in her path. Britons were not spared; if they had not joined her army, they were considered collaborators and their deaths were horrific. In Colchester, then the capital of Roman Britain, hundreds of scared people huddled into the newly built temple to Claudius, hoping they would be spared. She had the temple barred and set fire to it, burning it to the ground with every soul inside. St Alban’s and London met the same fate before she was finally bested in battle, and she is thought to have taken poison to avoid capture. The clash of cultures that was the meeting of Roman and Celtic worlds had only one end, the destruction of the Celtic. Boudica was a liberated woman by Roman standards, as her society allowed much greater freedoms to women than the Romans did. With her died the spirit of resistance and until the Romans got as far as Northumberland they met with little concerted resistance.  

I stood outside Colchester castle a few days ago, built on the foundations of the temple, and using many Roman materials recycled and I felt a wash of sadness for that vibrant, independent woman  and for the thousands of innocent people she had killed. Given the might of the Roman war machine, the outcome was inevitable but she tried to hold it back, hold back the darkness a little longer and save her people’s ways.

Less than a hundred yards away stands a small blocky building built also from recycled tiles and dressed stone salvaged from Roman ruins. The precise date is obscure but certainly a building stood here from the late 4th century. The plain chapel is probably Saxon, standing on the site of an earlier church. This is the chapel of St Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great and finder of the cross of Christ according to legend. I walked in expecting nothing, and found myself in a place that seemed to be scented with peace. Icons lined the walls and a fragrance of incense persisted. One single hand-dipped taper flickered in the quiet. The few high small windows admitted little light and it felt like a cave belonging to a hermit. St Helen is the patron saint of Colchester, traditionally thought to be the daughter of King Coel, ruler of Colchester in the 4th century, and her statue tops the town hall, holding a cross. Below her other dignitaries portrayed in typical Victorian style stare blindly down; Boudica clutches a spear, poised to hurl it.

Like Boudica, Helen was a woman in a man’s world. She’d be remembered more as the wife of one emperor and the mother of another had it not been her determination to make a difference. Her discovery of the cross of Christ enabled her to build churches all over the world.

It’s hard after almost two millennia to really know who these women were, really. Warrior queen and cross-finding Empress they couldn’t be more different, yet I think they have much in common. They were both subject to the rule of men and yet they tried to achieve massive change. Boudica did so by taking up weapons and going to war. Helen took up the challenge of finding a symbol that would unite all the different factions of the new faith.

No one knows where Boudica http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica is buried or if she has a resting place. I’d visit and shed a few tears for her and for her lost dreams at the hands of the Romans.

Buried in Rome, St Helen  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_(Empress is considered the patron saint of new discoveries (something I am keen to espouse, considering myself an explorer). A relic of her is housed somewhere in that small chapel.

Two women who tried to change the world. They both succeeded to some degree, though it is debatable how much difference either of them made. Yet to know that in history, strong women have existed and have fought the status quo in their own fashion must have given heart to secretly rebellious girls and women of all ages, nurturing their hopes of finding a better way for all.

Stepping into the past ~ the Painted Church in Poitiers

 

Stepping back in time ~ The painted church at Poitiers.

 

The air in the square outside the church is filled with the scents of fish from the market stalls now dismantled and gone in the heat of the afternoon, and of soap from the soap-maker’s stall, still with his wares laid out. I buy Alep soap and pure Arabic kohl, and pass the time of day discussing the properties of bay oil and the power of ancient remedies like kohl to restore sight and clear the vision. The stall holder is swarthy, from the far south of France or maybe from the territories of the Moors; he is delighted to discuss his wares and seems free of the habitual disdain many French people have for the English. This far south, this coolness seems to have slowly warmed into something friendlier. Perhaps while he can tell I’m not French, he’s probably not certain I am English. I walk away, drawn by the music that plays now in the area in front of the main frontage of the church.

 www.myspace.com/keening

 

I stand mesmerised as the drone of small-pipes mingles with the guitar and drums beats, and a shiver passes down me. It’s thirty degrees and the sun on my bare arms is reminding me that I’m going to burn soon if I don’t seek shelter. Yet the sound of the music is unearthly and makes me want to dance. Me, dance? Yes, to swirl and twist and stamp in this bright public square, trailing long sleeves along the ground as I spin like a slow Dervish, and feel the swish of silken skirts as they brush the dusty stones.

Looking down, I see my navy blue combat trousers and my arms in white cotton to the elbow and wonder for a second where my gown has vanished to. The neat satin slippers are not there, and my feet are encased in sturdy walking shoes.

Dizzy and a little disorientated I seek shade and make my way into the beautiful Romanesque porch and see that the heavy wooden door to the church stands open and with the music still pulsing in the hot air, I step inside.

A scent of old libraries fills my nose. Parchment and pigment and a hint of mildew, this is how I imagine the Great Library at Alexandria to smell. A faint trace of incense tops the whole aroma off and I take a moment to breath it in, a fragrance of lost centuries and secrets vanished now into the abyss of time.

I gasp, as I glance around now my eyes have become accustomed to the dimmer light. Pillars and walls and ceiling are all painted in intricate patterns of colour and form that defy capture. They’re faded a little now, but for a spilt second I can see them still moist from the paintbrushes of the townspeople and the colour is vivid and startling. Blues like polished lapis-lazuli, crimsons and scarlets like blood and poppies, ochre and white, and greens like slices of malachite and jade. Then the vision fades and like a great old lady whose face holds the memory of the beauty of her youth, the church seems to simply smile at me, and tells me that true beauty is eternal. While paint and rosy cheeks may fade, the loveliness beneath them cannot be touched by time; for those who can still see them, both the realities stand sentinel over this moment in my life.

Talking slow steps that seem to mimic the tread of the processions of the faithful from the last centuries, I walk round, taking pictures to try and capture the feeling and the power. And yet, when I see the photos later, much like the paintwork, the power is faded. You had to be there, to feel and see it.

The music swirls on, little dulled by the heavy walls of the church and as I step back out into the sunshine, I am filled with the desire to capture and retain some of the music. I ask one of the crew if there is a CD I can buy and am brought over to meet the musicians as the finish their set. I tell them their music has touched my soul and that they are like the ancient troubadours who lived in this town in the fifteenth century. They light up with real delight and give me a web address to find their music, and I wander away, thwarted in some way of my desire to bottle this feeling, this moment so that I may uncork it and relive the memory.

Rejoining my group, I sit in the baking sun and drink lemonade and listen now to hip-hop and watch the dancers in the square and the contrast to the grace of the dancers in my vision could not be more obvious nor the centuries gone by more distant from me now. The harsh modern lyrics and the skilled but disturbingly graceless movements remind me that every era has its iconic markers. Perhaps the future will look at this era with the same visionary nostalgia that I felt for the music and the art of the time when this church and town stood as important places.

Too soon, it’s time to leave and I shepherd my charges back to the coach and we drive away, back to our very modern hotel. As I go into my impersonal room, I have a sense of something being very close to me, and I turn to see what is there.

 A breeze touches my face and is gone and the moment passes and I go inside to wash and change for dinner. Yet the distant memory of music and of lights and of dance and devotion haunt me all evening, and onwards into the future.

The Hero-an analysis

This is an article I posted a good eighteen months ago but bears reposting. I’m too tired and unwell still to write anything new just yet. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

The hero

Once upon a time- that’s how fairytales begin. Or it might begin, in a kingdom far, far away. In days of old when knights were bold… but how old is old in a time when last season’s clothes are absurd antiques and doubts are cast not just on the courage of those bold knights but on everything else as well? The jury is out but the evidence is that they were anything but gentle, and the average modern football hooligan probably has more courtesy and honour. After all, even in today’s allegedly lawless times, it’s not considered honourable or even legal to strike the head from another man’s shoulders. There are some, I admit who practically beg for such treatment but I doubt politicians have ever been popular; the high king’s advisors have ever been known as lickspittles and toadies, and are so today whatever names they bear.

The age of chivalry was in fact a brutal one but pictures are painted and poems penned that portray it in the glowing pink light of artificial nostalgia. But that romantic world has grown brighter than the shadowy one that was real. We don’t want to know about the sweat and the dung, the short brutish nasty lives; we want mysterious ladies in gowns of floating silks. We want a hero whose armour shines and whose sword is never red with the blood of the innocent or of the incidental casualty. We want those rules that can never be kept, to have been kept: a code of impossible honour, a world of justices and joys. And we seek it not in our world now for we know deep down it can never be. So we seek it in the past: an ancient shining past where our dreams might once have been true. Atlantis and Camelot are both children of the same yearning dreams.

There is a Jewish proverb, better a live dog than a dead lion, and it sums up the kind of practicality we have deep down and yet are somehow ashamed of. Running from a defeat is never seen as sensible, practical or even right; we prefer death-or-glory stands to the canny retreat. In cinema, literature and in our view of history, our preference is always for the glorious defeat, the captain going down with the sinking ship, the king dying on a bloody battlefield surrounded by the slaughtered heaps of his faithful bodyguard. We don’t laud those who saw which way the wind was blowing and left before disaster struck; it’s not memorable, it’s not honourable and it certainly isn’t romantic! History and literature are littered with the bodies of lovers who said, “If I can’t have you, then I shall have nothing.” A myriad Miss Havishams wander the corridors of our consciousness, clad in wedding rags and one silk slipper like an elderly Cinderella who never got to go to the ball in the first place. We don’t applaud those who survived, moved on, thrived and found new love. The star-crossed lovers are not Darby and Joan, celebrating sixty years of happy marriage. No, they are the teenage Romeo and Juliet who died at their own hands rather than lose that one bright moment of perfection.

Let’s face it, when it isn’t us, we adore tragedy. I hesitate to say it but that’s why piles of flowers and teddies materialise at the site of an untimely death. That’s why Diana will always hold a place that Camilla never can. Live fast, die young- one way to achieve a kind of cheap immortality. Surviving, moving on, rebuilding simply don’t hold the same glamour. Rags to riches stories only really appeal because secretly we all hope for an equally meteoric fall back to rags. We say. “Oh how nice,” but I’m not sure how often we mean it. There’s almost always a secret shiver of spite and jealousy that quibbles, “Why them? Why not me? I’m as good as they are.” It feels better when we can say from a safe distance from a tragedy, “What a shame! Oh how sad!”

Arthur lies sleeping, our once-and-future king, but we should take great care we never wake him. There’s too much blood-and-guts reality in the true Arthur for us to stomach these days. We’ve grown beyond true monarchy. I’d rather we had our rough approximation of democracy than have the tyranny of the old kings back and tarnish and fray our romantic visions of the past.

But we need heroes- no I shall go further and say we are desperate for heroes. And so we try and create them out of what material we think best: film stars, models, TV celebrities, pop and rock stars, and God forgive us all, footballers. And they fail us and we vilify them for merely being ordinary fallible venial human beings. They disappoint us and yet we create more.

Are there any real heroes left? Any lantern-jawed Lancelots left to charm and enthral us, fallible enough to be likeable but heroic enough to still command our respect and even our love? There are worthy men and women, heroic ones even but they lack that certain something, that magic ingredient that makes them special like Arthur, Gawain, Percival and dear old Lancelot. So I shall have to create my own heroes, spinning them out of my own yearnings and dreams like gold from spun straw. Arthur can live again, a modern Arthur born of this our real world but with some of the glitter and glamour of the Round Table, and his knights and ladies can dance their graceful steps around him. We all need heroes, but these days I prefer to make my own. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a pattern. It isn’t like painting by numbers or knitting. It’s more like freestyle climbing- massive risk taking, surges of adrenaline that might rocket fuel an elephant and the sense when you’ve completed it that you have done something hardly anyone else can do. I admit that failure doesn’t result in a plummet to the death but emotionally it can feel a little like that. And at the end of that creation process, there stands blinking in the sunshine a shiny newborn hero, fresh for a new world but with ancient genes that stretch back into the oldest memory, the oldest stories. We’ve all changed since our first ancestors told tales round the fire at night-so why not the hero too? Because there is something eternal and unchanging about an archetype- the hero simply adapts and grows with the generations but remains in all essentials the dream we all dream: the Hero.

“I have lived before….”

If you heard someone say this, what would you think? That they were deluded, mad or just a bit strange?

I used to be quite agnostic about the idea of Past Lives until I visited a healer to try and get at some of the causes of my persistent and life long depression. I took a friend with me, and was pretty unconcerned about the whole deal really. I’ve worked with various healing systems over the years; indeed, I have worked as a healer myself. I do firmly believe that it is possible to transmit healing using the hands and by prayer.

However, I really wasn’t prepared for what happened.

Without warning or without any sort of suggestion from the healer (he’s actualy quite a famous chap, in this field, and well-respected) I began to relive a previous death. It was as spontaneous as that. One minute I am sitting relaxing on the couch, my friend Claire sitting with me and holding my hand. The next, I am in a filthy dugout amid the trenches circa 1916; I can feel the rough serge of my uniform trousers rubbing as I run for the doorway. I can hear the pounding of distant guns and I know that there’s a shell heading this way. Other soldiers are standing and sitting around, faces pale and blank and scared, but I don’t make it to the door before the shell hits.

I lose consciousness and wake to darkness and intolerable pain. I’m lying pinned to the mud, a beam or something from the roof holding me down. I can’t feel my legs any more, and my head is a mess. I can just about move one arm and I bring it to my head. It feels all wrong. Parts of my skull are missing. I can feel my own brain. I vomit. I know I am dying. I can hear groans in the darkness. Others are lying there injured and dying too. I have a thought I should speak to them but the words won’t come. Then I dip in and out of consciousness, wanting to be rescued, but knowing I won’t be and that’s it for me. I’m half conscious when the final shell hits and blows us into the mud.

I wake sobbing on the couch. I’ve been narrating what’s happened as I saw it in my head. I am distraught. I feel I have failed my men; I should have shouted, got them out, anything. In the mud of the Somme, my bones and flesh mingle with theirs; we have no grave but the mud, like so many from that conflict.

The healer talks, his voice soothing. My friend holds my hand still as if she’ll never let go.

I move forward. I return to my 20th century body and come back properly, cried out and with a pounding headache. The healer tells me my ordeal is over, that that life is gone. I argue. The souls of the others are not at rest; I can’t rest till they do because I failed them. The fact that there was nothing I could ever have done is irrelevant to the man I once was(and inside I still am).

That night, I headed to bed and sat brushing my hair at the mirror and watched in astonishment as my face changed. I saw my last face, the young soldier, a junior officer, and watched as it melted into another and another and another. The faces melted and merged and changed, through centuries and millenia. I saw my face back into almost prehistory before I could take in how old my soul is.

That night I dreamed. I dreamed of a great swimming pool, filled with warm and healing waters. I swam in it and the others who swam there were my old comrades, and as they swam, they were restored. I looked at my body in the dream and saw it change as my face had changed, and knew I was becoming something else. I climbed reluctantly out and said goodbye to my old friends and woke in my own bed, feeling strange but cleansed and renewed.    

I know some will read and think, “She’s insane!” but I’ll tell you something more. That was a turning point for me. I still suffer from depression. But it no longer feels random. It feels as if it’s part of a long life and that those memories will always pop through. I’ve had other flashbacks to other lives. It makes some sort of sense of how I feel about a lot of things, including World War 1. I’ve always wept at the Two Minute silence even before this exeprience. I became hysterical when I first saw the fourth and final series of Blackadder(a comedy series set in the trenches of the Somme) which was before I had this past life recall. A couple of years ago I also discovered that my great uncle died on the Somme in 1916. However you choose to interpret my experience (genuine past life recall, or the product of a vivid or even deranged imagination) it had a powerful and lasting effect on me.

So, I say to you,

“I have lived before….”

(please take time to listen to the Youtube clip linked below; I usually cry when I hear this song)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knxR-Q2VoBE

How much does a Greek urn/earn?

PICT0857

 

OK, I confess. I did actually take this picture with the title words resounding on my lips at the time. I grew up with Eric and Ernie and their humour.

In all honesty, I can’t remember much about this urn, beyond that it’s over two thousand years old and is Greek. I do remember that I was blown away by the sheer size. Others like this one were used as coffins, but I am not sure if this one was; I struggle to imagine the funeral procession lugging along something that looks like it’s intended for the wake afterwards!

Anyway, it was really rather magnificent.

Truly ancient history

PICT1010

 

The photo above is of a district of the town where I live. Originally Pakefield was a village a short distance out of Lowestoft but for many years it’s been a sort of suburb and a part of the town itself.

It’s also the location of the oldest human made artefacts ever found in Europe. The cliffs you can see at the end had a minor collapse a few years ago and what turned up caused a major but very secret archaeological investigation. I have no real idea exactly where the cliff fall happened.

They found stone tools and worked animals bones dating not from 7,000 years ago, not 17,000 years ago, and not even 70,000 years ago, but from 700,000 years ago. This blows my mind. The humans who made the hand axes and so on were not our current species of human at all but either Homo Habilis(handy man!) or Homo Heidelbergensis, who co-existed at this time. It’s more likely to be Homo Heidelbergensis due to the fact that their remains have been found much further north, but as no human bones were found that could precisely pin down which species had been here, we’ll never know for sure.

When I walk along here, I can’t help dreaming about those early peoples, scavenging along the shore here(except it wasn’t shore then at all) and I can’t also stop myself hoping to find some sort of relic myself.

As I have said before, I do rather live in hope.