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Prehistoric Art

Prehistoric Art

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will provide an overview of the prehistoric period.

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Tutorial

An introduction to art of the prehistoric era.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about prehistoric art. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain the role that abstraction had in prehistoric art, and explain the possible purposes for the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Brassempouy. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow.

The first key term is "archaeology"-- the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and analysis of artifacts. Artifacts are an object made by a human being, in particular, an object of historical or cultural importance. Paleolithic was an early stage of prehistory characterized by the development of stone tools, sculpted figures, and paintings on cave walls. And sculpture in the round is a type of sculpture that's completely freestanding, not attached to a flat surface.

Key terms continued-- relief sculpture-- a sculpture technique that uses a process of cutting into a flat surface, i.e., wood, stone, or material, by chiseling or gouging. A memory image is an image that remains in the mind of something previously experienced. And abstraction is the process of extracting parts of an idea or concept not specific or detailed.

Big idea for today is that the Paleolithic era is a period in human history when humans first demonstrated the ability to craft tools and works of art out of stone. And before we begin today, be aware that there are required works of art in this lesson, which are labeled in purple. So to begin, let's take a look at what period of time we're looking at. For a reference point, I've highlighted 0 AD, which is not a year but rather a single point in time.

BC is Before Christ, and AD is Anno Domini, which means "in the year of our Lord." And remember, there is no year 0. So the year 1 AD is exactly one year after 1 BC. The entire Paleolithic era covers roughly 2.5 million years and is the longest period of time, by far, in terms of human history. We'll be narrowing our focus to around 25,000 BC, which takes place during the Upper Paleolithic period.

Now the word "prehistory" may seem a bit strange. After all, how can something come before history? But what it actually means is pre written history, or the period of time before humans began recording events using a system of writing.

And "Paleolithic" comes from the word "paleo," which means "old," and "lithic," which means "stone." And the Paleolithic era is the period of time that marks the emergence of the first stone tools by humans, like the stone hand ax on the right, and is the longest defined period of human history. The emergence of stone tools is important, because it corresponds to an evolutionary shift in the brain development of human beings. And the ability to problem-solve by creating tools specific to a task likely corresponds with the advent of true creativity, which is where our interest as art historians comes in.

Now it's important to point out that our conception of what art is today has, itself, evolved over time and that the prehistoric artifacts we discovered today, while viewed as art in our present-day context, may have had a very different purpose or function in its time. We can begin by identifying these prehistoric objects as artifacts or objects made by humans. It's here that the line between art history and archaeology is really blurred. Because we can only evaluate these artifacts using our understanding of these people, which itself is based purely on archaeological evidence.

There is no written record to go by. And so this introduces a lot of speculation. So a good question to ask would be was it considered art as we understand art to be in its time? Or what was the purpose of these images?

Well, using what we know of the people who lived at this time, we can come to some reasonable conclusions. The lifestyle was nomadic, as people moved depending upon the migratory patterns of their food sources, as well as climatic changes. As there was no formal way to document historical events, historical traditions were likely committed to memory and passed along orally. The memory image refers to the artist creating an image based upon what they remember, rather than having a physical reference. This reliance upon memory may account for the large degree of abstraction present in these images.

Notice how the physical features of the Venus of Brassempouy, on the right, are very generalized. And individual characteristics are missing altogether. This trait of abstraction is repeatedly found in prehistoric works of art scattered around the world.

So the next artifact is a great example of sculpture in the round. It's an object that is free-standing, in that it isn't attached to any other surface, even though this particular sculpture can't technically stand on its own. But it was probably never designed to.

Now this is one of the most, if not the most, famous examples of prehistoric sculpture in the round. It's called the Venus of Willendorf, based upon the location of its discovery in Austria. It's one of the earliest examples of human sculpture, dated to around 24,000 BC.

Now what's really interesting about it is its high degree of abstraction. And notice the female physical features, like the breasts, buttocks, belly, and sexual organs are grossly exaggerated, while the head, face, and arms are much less prominent or missing altogether. But it's led some scholars to believe that this was created as a personal fertility idol, due to its depiction and size-- it's about 4 inches tall-- which may give us some insight into the society that produced it, such as the possible status of women, their nomadic lifestyle, as all these images are rather small and portable. Other possible explanations that have been tossed around the academic community include that it is an artistic self-interpretation or that it was created simply for the sake of creating something aesthetically valuable. Ultimately though, the truth is that no one knows for sure, as the lack of any written accounts can only lead to educated speculation.

So that brings us to the end of the lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms?

Can you explain the role that abstraction had in prehistoric art? And can you explain the possible purposes for the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Brasempouy? And once again, the big idea for today is that the Paleolithic era is a period in human history when humans first demonstrated the ability to craft tools and works of art out of stone.

Well, that's it. Thanks for joining me. And I'll see you next time.

Citations

 

Image of Hand Axe Public Domain  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Hand_axe_spanish.gif; Image of "Venus" Creative Commons for Commercial Use, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Venus_von_Willendorf_01.jpg; Image of Woman from Brassempouy, France Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Venus_de_Brassempouy.jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Archaeology

    The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and analysis of artifacts.

  • Artifacts

    An object made by a human being, in particular an object of historical or cultural importance.

  • Paleolithic

    Early stage of prehistory characterized by the development of stone tools, sculpted figures, and paintings on cave walls.

  • Sculpture in the Round

    A type of sculpture that is completely free-standing, not attached to a flat surface.

  • Relief Sculpture

    A sculpture technique that uses a process of cutting into a flat surface i.e. wood, stone or material, by chiseling or gouging.

  • Memory Image

    An image that remains in the mind of something previously experienced.

  • Abstraction

    The process of extracting parts of an idea or concept not specific or detailed.