I managed to get a ticket for the very last day of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum on Sunday.
At one level, the works are extraordinary. To stand in front of a 40,000 year old Lion Man carved in ivory; to see a flute from the same period made from the bone of a griffon vulture, with six carefully spaced holes waiting to be fingered; to pass from one exhibition case to the next, a succession of statues, figurines, etchings, carvings, tools, weapons, most of them with some form of figurative imagery, thousands and thousands of years old. And to think that for some reason it was in this period in Europe that figurative art first developed.
At another level, it’s extraordinarily ordinary. These are images and carvings that could have been created yesterday, in the local art college, or even the local school. They clearly have a huge and unknown symbolic value, but as examples of figurative art they are simply very graceful and well-kept examples of the human urge to represent what is real.
This is what the human mind does. It produces images of what is out there in the real world (an etching of a lion jumping). It forms imaginary creations by playing with these images mentally and combining and recreating them (the head of a lion on the body of a man). It makes tools (a carefully carved stone core), weapons (a small pouch to launch an arrow), and musical instruments (the vulture bone flute). The mind or imagination works symbolically, and this is what allows us to transform the world, because the symbols don’t just stay in the mind – they change how we relate to the world and what we do in and with it.
It’s the lack of distance between then and now that is so extraordinary. If we could meet these ancestors of ours, and have just a few weeks of contact, perhaps just a few days, we would have learnt their language, and they ours, and we would be communicating as neighbours, as brothers and sisters. And yes, we would be working out whether they were friends or enemies, and the whole of human history would unfold once more…