Art History 101: Neolithic Art

ca. 8000-3000 BC

Neolithic ivory bison
Neolithic ivory bison Located in Musee National de Prehistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, France. 10 cm. Discovery site: La Madeleine, France. Corbis / Getty Images

After the rather ho-hum art of the Mesolithic era, art in the Neolithic (literally: "new stone") age represents a spree of innovation. Humans were settling themselves down into agrarian societies, which left them enough spare time to explore some key concepts of civilization - namely, religion, measurement, the rudiments of architecture and writing and, yes, art.

What was going on in the world?

The big geological news was that the glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere concluded their long, slow retreat, thus freeing up a lot of real estate and stabilizing the climate. For the first time, humans living everywhere from the sub-tropics northward to the tundra could count on crops that appeared on schedule, and seasons that could be reliably tracked.

This newfound climatic stability (however relative it may seem to us in the present) was the one factor that allowed many tribes to abandon their wandering ways and begin to construct more-or-less permanent villages. No longer dependent, since the end of the Mesolithic era, on herd migration for food supplies, peoples of the Neolithic were becoming adept at refining farming techniques and building up domesticated herds of their own animals. With an ever-increasing, steady supply of grain and meat, we humans now had time to ponder the Big Picture and invent some radical technological advances.

    What kinds of art were created during this time?

    The "new" arts to emerge from this era were weaving, architecture, the construction of megaliths and increasingly stylized pictographs that were well on their way to becoming writing.

    The earlier arts of statuary, painting and pottery stuck (and still remain) with us. The Neolithic era saw many refinements to each.

    Statuary (primarily statuettes), made a big comeback after having been largely absent during the Mesolithic age. Its Neolithic theme dwelt primarily on the female/fertility, or "Mother Goddess" imagery (quite in keeping with agriculture). There were still animal statuettes, however these weren't lavished with the detail the goddesses enjoyed. They are often found broken into bits - perhaps indicating that they were used symbolically in hunting rituals.

    Additionally, sculpture was no longer created strictly by carving. In the Near East, in particular, figurines were now fashioned out of clay and baked. Archaeological digs at Jericho turned up a marvelous human skull (c. 7,000 BC) overlaid with delicate, sculpted plaster features.

    Painting, in Western Europe and the Near East, left the caves and cliffs for good, and became a purely decorative element. The finds of Çatal Hüyük, an ancient village in modern Turkey, show lovely wall paintings (including the world's earliest known landscape), dating from c. 6150 BC.

    As for pottery, it began replacing stone and wood utensils at a rapid pace, and also become more highly decorated.

      What are the key characteristics of Neolithic art?

      • It was still, almost without exception, created for some functional purpose.

      • There were more images of humans than animals, and the humans looked more, well, human.

      • It began to be used for ornamentation.

      • In the cases of architecture and megalithic constructions, art was now created in fixed locations. This was significant. Where temples, sanctuaries and stone rings were built, gods and goddesses were provided with known destinations. Additionally, the emergence of tombs provided unmoving resting places for the dearly departed that could be visited - another first.

        At this point, "art history" typically begins to follow a prescribed course: Iron and bronze are discovered. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt arise, make art, and are followed by art in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. After this, we hang out in Europe for the next thousand years, eventually moving on to the New World, which subsequently shares artistic honors with Europe. This route is commonly known as "Western Art", and is often the focus of any art history/art appreciation syllabus.

        However, the sort of art that has been described in this article as "Neolithic" (i.e.: Stone age; that of pre-literate peoples who hadn't yet discovered how to smelt metals) continued to flourish in the Americas, Africa, Australia and, in particular, Oceania. In some instances, it was still thriving in the previous (20th) century.