Portable Art - 100,000 Years of Ancient Artistic Expression

Why Did Archaeologists Change the Definition of Portable Art?

Lion Figurine from Vogelherd Cave
Lion sculpture from Vogelherd-cave near Heidenheim; location: Vogelherdhöhle near Stetten, Heidenheim, Germany; age: ca 33.000 years; era: Paleolithic; mammoth ivory; 9,2 cm;. Walter Geiersperger / Getty Images

Portable art (known as mobiliary art or art mobilier in French) typically refers to objects carved during the European Upper Paleolithic period (40,000-20,000 years ago) that can be moved or carried as personal objects. The oldest example of portable art, however, is from Africa nearly 100,000 years older than anything in Europe. Further, ancient art is found around the globe far from Europe: the category has had to expand to serve the data that have been collected.

Categories of Paleolithic Art

Traditionally, Upper Paleolithic art is divided into two broad categories--parietal (or cave) art, including the paintings at Lascaux, Chauvet, and Nawarla Gabarnmang; and mobiliary (or portable art), meaning art that can be carried, such as the famous Venus figurines.

Portable art consists of objects carved from stone, bone, or antler, and they take a wide variety of forms. Small, three-dimensional sculpted objects such as the widely known Venus figurines, carved animal bone tools, and two-dimensional relief carvings or plaques are all forms of portable art.

Figurative and Non-Figurative

Two classes of portable art are recognized today: figurative and non-figurative. Figurative portable art includes three-dimensional animal and human sculptures, but also figures carved, engraved, or painted on stones, ivory, bones, reindeer antlers, and other media. Non-figurative art includes abstract drawings carved, incised, pecked or painted in patterns of grids, parallel lines, dots, zigzag lines, curves, and filigrees.

Portable art objects are made by a wide variety of methods, including grooving, hammering, incising, pecking, scraping, polishing, painting, and staining. Evidence of these ancient art forms can be quite subtle, and one reason for the broadening of the category well beyond Europe is that with the advent of optical and scanning electron microscopy, many more examples of art have been discovered.

Oldest Portable Art

The oldest portable art discovered to date is from South Africa and made 134,000 years ago, consisting of a piece of scored ochre at Pinnacle Point Cave. Other pieces of ochre with engraved designs include one from Klasies River cave 1 at 100,000 years ago, and Blombos cave, where engraved designs on 17 pieces of ochre were retrieved, the oldest dated to 100,000-72,000 years ago. Ostrich eggshell was first known to have been used as a medium for engraved portable art in southern Africa at Diepkloof Rockshelter and Klipdrift Shelter in South Africa and Apollo 11 cave in Namibia between 85-52,000.

The earliest figurative portable art in South Africa is from the Apollo 11 cave, where seven portable stone (schist) plaques were recovered, made approximately 30,000 years ago. These plaques include drawings of rhinoceros, zebras, and humans, and possibly human-animal beings (called therianthropes). These images are painted with brown, white, black and red pigments made of a wide variety of substances, including red ochre, carbon, white clay, black manganese, white ostrich eggshell, hematite, and gypsum.

Oldest in Eurasia

The oldest figurines in Eurasia are ivory figurines dated to the Aurignacian period between 35,000-30,000 years ago in the Lone and Ach valleys in Swabian alps.

Excavations at the Vogelherd Cave recovered several small ivory figurines of several animals; Geissenklösterle cave contained more than 40 pieces of ivory. Ivory figurines are widespread in the Upper Paleolithic, extending well into central Eurasia and Siberia.

The earliest portable art object recognized by archaeologists was the Neschers antler, a 12,500-year-old reindeer antler with a stylized partial figure of a horse carved in the surface in left profile. This object was found at Neschers, an open-air Magdalenian settlement in Auvergne region of France and recently discovered within the British Museum collections. It was likely part of the archaeological materials excavated from the site between 1830 and 1848.

Why Portable Art?

Why our ancient ancestors made portable art so very long ago is unknown and unknowable if we're honest about it.

However, there are plenty of possibilities that are interesting to contemplate.

During the mid-twentieth century, archaeologists and art historians explicitly connected portable art to shamanism. Scholars compared the use of portable art by modern and historical groups and recognized that portable art, specifically figural sculpture, was often related to folklore and religious practices. In ethnographic terms, portable art objects could be considered "amulets" or "totems": for a while, even terms like "rock art" were dropped from the literature, because it was considered dismissive of the spiritual component that was attributed to the objects.

In a fascinating set of studies beginning in the late 1990s, David Lewis-Williams made the explicit connection between ancient art and shamanism when he suggested that abstract elements on rock art are similar to those images seen by people in visions during altered states of consciousness.

Other Interpretations

A spiritual element may well have been involved with some portable art objects, but wider possibilities have since been put forward by archaeologists and art historians, such as portable art as personal ornamentation, toys for children, teaching tools, or objects expressing personal, ethnic, social, and cultural identity.

For example, in an attempt to look for cultural patterns and regional similarities, Rivero and Sauvet looked at a large set of representations of horses on portable art made from bone, antler, and stone during the Magdalenian period in northern Spain and southern France. Their research revealed a handful of traits that seem to be particular to regional groups, including the use of double manes and prominent crests, traits that persist through time and space.

Recent Studies

Other recent studies include that of Danae Fiore, who studied the rate of decoration used on bone harpoon heads and other artifacts from Tierra del Fuego, during three periods dated between 6400-100 BP. She found that the decoration of harpoon heads increased when sea mammals (pinnipeds) were a key prey for the people; and decreased when there was an increase in consumption of other resources (fish, birds, guanacos).

Harpoon design during this time was widely variable, which Fiore suggests were created through a free cultural context or fostered through a social requirement of individual expression.

Lemke and colleagues reported more than 100 incised stones at the Clovis-Early Archaic layers of the Gault site in Texas, dated 13,000-9,000 cal BP. They are among the earliest art objects from a secure context in North America. The nonfigurative decorations include geometric parallel and perpendicular lines inscribed on limestone tablets, chert flakes, and cobbles.

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