Review: Ice Age Art – Arrival Of The Modern Mind

Review: Ice Age Art – Arrival Of The Modern Mind

This one is slightly better than my surreptitious phone photos.

This one is slightly better than my surreptitious phone photos.

“The artistic light that emanates from Greece is the light of broad day.

This early light of artistic dawn is less certain… but early morning light is the most dazzling of all.” 

- George Bataille (1897 – 1962). Writing about Lascaux Cave.

My first impression is awe. The Lion Man is just stunning.

It’s all well and good to talk about therianthropes appearing at the very beginning of humanity’s artistic efforts.

It really is quite something else to be confronted by one.

It’s wise.

And it is stoic in its wisdom. Whatever spirit of god living in this figurine is still teaching us damned dirty apes 30,000 years after first appearing. (Granted, he took a rather long lunch break.)

My second impression is… familiarity. I visit a lot of megalithic sites and their original purpose remains utterly opaque. Whatever the Rollright Stones mean is completely lost on me.

But the artefacts in this exhibit -up to six times older- make me feel comfortable, at ease. Here’s a better way to put it:

Forty thousand years ago sounds like a long reach of time, but immediately one enters the exhibition at the British Museum time dissolves. Perhaps because we were Paleolithic for such an age, the artworks we see before us are deeply, if strangely, familiar. We peer, and half-remember. It can make one feel a bit homesick.

For some reason, I was genuinely expecting The Neighbours to feel more alien. Perhaps this is because I am inherently suspicious of the motive behind a race of beings suddenly appearing in our head one day and demanding we pay attention to them. Why arrive then? Why come at all? But there is no demanding here. Lion Man’s presence feels devoid of the creepy -and potentially genuinely alien- diktats of much later arrivals in Sumer. Lion Man is a wise companion. For the first time in this honky’s life, I grokk on a visceral level why ‘grandfather’ is such a widespread title for spirits in indigenous cultures.

My next impression, as I look around the exhibit, is what can best be described as curatorial dismay. The objects are stunning, the exhibition is exquisite, but it begins to occur to me there is a strange politics in their grouping which conceals the actual story.

Phone photo. Probs don't need to tell you that.

Phone photo. Probs don’t need to tell you that.

Take this case. It’s a collection of female forms collected from all over Europe between Russia and Germany. The timescale for the ‘female form’ area stretches over 15,000 years. It starts around 25,000 years ago. You see what they did there? They missed the beginning. Isn’t that the entire point of the show?

As you move through the exhibit, the next area you encounter is devoted to animals and hunting. It has an even longer scale.


Can you pick up the implied progression they’re shooting for here? If you start with the female figures and then move into hunting and animals before ending with some ice age high tech (which they did), the casual observer will leave with the false idea of the art progressing from least to most sophisticated. But everything in the exhibit is spread across time and geography.

And you know what? I get it. Grouping by theme rather than location or chronology is fine but spell it out. On the back wall there is a painted paragraph that holds the only reference to the Neolithic Renaissance which happened due to “a changing climate”. It’s the fashionable go-to explanation du jour. Remember how in the early twentieth century when it used to be war? What was going on in the early twentieth century? And what’s going on with the climate today? Oh, right.

I’m not saying the scholarship was shoddy -this is the BM, after all. Indeed, a lot of the speculative analysis was extremely thoughtful. There were two speculobombs that had particular magical resonance:

  • The motivation for carving such tiny figurines of snow leopards or mammoth may have been a magical/psychological attempt to ‘make them smaller’, to grasp and thus control an issue outside of our control. What else is a poppet, then? For that matter, what else is a sigil?
  • The preponderance of the ibis and the crane -neither of which appear to have been eaten- may have something to do with its ability to move between the three worlds. Think about it… it flies to the upper realm, it walks on land (Midgard), it floats on water/stalks the tidal flats (the Underworld). My mind leapt instantly to Thoth. Thoth who lives on the moon, appears at the beginning of civilisation, gives mankind writing and is present in the hall of Osiris. (The ibis appears several times at Gobekli-Tepe, too… thus bridging the ice age and our current age.) Consider how he syncretised in the classical age, re-emerged in the Renaissance and then again today. Unlike Lion Man, Thoth appears to have worked through his lunch break.


In some ways, I’m okay with their avoidance of the what were the main contributors to the Neolithic Renaissance because we don’t actually know. I mean, I think I do but this is my damned blog. However, it seems like a missed opportunity to at least come clean that we have no fucking idea how all this started. Of course, answering it gets into wizardly territory which the BM seems keen to avoid these days. (All those Golden Dawn curators and volunteers of yore must be spinning in their graves!)

Along the line of how and why, I was on the lookout for depictions of ectopic phenomena. There was less than I expected but then it’s more common in cave paintings rather than artefacts. It’s significant because of the main phases of ball tripping, as shown in this wavy scan from Inside The Neolithic Mind.

Little tip: Don't drop whatever this guy dropped.

Little tip: Don’t drop whatever this guy dropped.

Actually, the ornamentation on the artefacts is weirdly familiar to magicians. Some of the wavy lines on the tusks and other pointed objects could potentially be a representation of Stage 2/The Vortex but the card next to them suggested they may be depictions of the swirling eddies of a river. Which may have had spiritual significance or it may just have been a river.

As I read the card and looked back at the tusk, it feels resonantly true. Definitely a river. That is the abiding impression from behind the glass cases. Unlike some Renaissance artefacts which are still active, these ice age ones still work. It’s not like walking past a statue of Venus in the Uffizi that still had Venus installed in it, these objects felt like you could just pick them up and start enchanting with them.

Again, it comes back to that strange sense of familiarity, of approachability. These are my objects. These are your objects. Mathematically, they belong to all of our ancestors. It feels like a validation of that whole idea that magic’s true antiquity lies in the continuity of its practice rather than the handing down of specific concepts or gods. I am indescribably at home among these artefacts despite their lack of personal context.

I stare back in at Lion Man, hoping for a glimmer of that context. But he just stares back with benign patience.

Like a grandfather.





Add yours
  1. 2

    That’s a very interesting insight into the Ibis. It occurred to me several years ago that the Gods of communication, writing, wisdom, and often magic are always my favorites. Thoth included. That insight will have me digging for more information.

    It’s a shame that the magic and deeper mysteries are ignored by the exhibit.

    Great post!

  2. 3

    I have a wyrd feeling that the less human the environment, the more familial the gods/spirits are, even if they’re zoomorphic or abstract. The more humanized, anthropocentric a culture becomes, the more downright alien things are attracted/perceived, because there’s more human vs nonhuman – a sharper delineation if you like.

    When humans start thinking of themselves as Top Dog, as seperate from the psychogeograohical and spiritual ecosystem shit gets odd

  3. 4

    @Andrew till the end of May I think. Deets on the BM website.

    @Lonnie it’s a shame, yes. But then what would we otherwise do with our spare time? :)

    @VI There may be something in that.

  4. 5

    Thanks Gordon, great write-up. I’ve booked a day off to head to the capital and check this out. Also going to a couple of events there that day, one of which being “Seeking the spiritual: Ice Age image-makers”. I can’t remember the exact details and the events section on the BM website seems to be playing up but I remember that it seemed pretty interesting…

  5. 6

    Great post thanks. Love the diagram from the neolithic mind, that’s pretty much how I get to the astral. Meditate on the visual cortex until astral larvae, enter coloured bloblike gate, go through vortex, full sensory hallunication with beings of independent intelligence talking to you. Absolutely no drugs required these days, just focus and breathing.

  6. 7

    This is one of those wonderful exhibits that will never, ever make it across the Atlantic, isn’t it? A damned shame.

  7. 8

    Here’s scoop on the lecture that I’m going to catch:

    “A lecture on the suggestion that the making of late Ice Age cave art was in some ways akin to shamanistic rituals.

    Both a misunderstood and hotly debated topic, David Lewis-Williams, Professor Emeritus, Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, considers why people crawled deep underground to make images and what they might have experienced.”

  8. 9

    @Gareth neat! share the video if it’s recorded.

    @Lee then you’ll have to visit London. :) Seriously, you should. Things… they’re not great here. We could do with some tourist dollars!

  9. 10

    A subject close to my heart.

    Have you seen Herzog’s “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”?

    I watched it for a class on Shamanism about a year ago and it really touched my heart. Amazing work.

    On a related note, theriomorphs have become markedly popular subjects for illustration at the art school I’m attending. I have heard tales of certain instructors threatening to fail out students who bring in work depicting “More damn animal-headed humans!”

    There seems to be a visual trend at work here, at least where I’m at here in northern California. I see it in art and in grafitti as well. Has anyone else picked up on this?


  10. 11

    @kephret: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is also being shown a number of times, and yes incredible stuff.

    The other event I am going to the day I visit is a lecture on those very same Chauvet caves –

    @Gordon: will do!

  11. 12

    I also get a strange sense of familiarity with this lion therianthrope figure. I think I’ll try to contact him, after I finish one of my planned evocations. Lately I’ve been interested in more “shamanic”, for the lack of better word, working with spirits. Especially those who don’t come filtered with tons of cultural content.
    Why not start at the beginning?

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