Category: The Ancients

Sketchbook entry: Natufian culture

After a brief hiatus I’m back to working in my sketchbooks and art journals. It has been a strangely mild summer for south-east Queensland. Until the last few days. There isn’t much to do but find a cool place to read, research and render. My goal for this year is to finish a couple of sketchbooks I have going, especially the archaeology journal. The latest entry is dedicated to the Natufian culture.

Some facts about the Natufian culture from my sketchbook

The Natufian culture is a prehistoric culture which lived in the Levant from around 15,000 and 11,500 years ago and whose appearance heralds significant cultural, economic and technological changes. They are among the earliest (if not, the earliest) semi-sedentary and sedentary hunter-gatherers. The Natufian’s lived in semi-permanent villages across the region; they hunted wild game, and more importantly, gathered and processed wild grain. It is unknown if they invented farming practices or inspired later groups to development them.

Aotearoa: sketchbook page

Once again, one page doesn’t do justice to the history and past of the Māori people

This is going to sound more like a plug for New Zealand than an introduction to New Zealand archaeology, but here goes anyway . . .

Between the ages of four to almost sixteen years old I lived in Christchurch, New Zealand. One of my favourite places to go was the Canterbury museum, a beautiful building that seemed enormous to me at the time, which stands right beside Christchurch’s wondrous botanical gardens. Though not as substantial as some of the more famous museums round the world, it was good-sized museum for such a small city, with a diverse and well-displayed collection (at least to my young mind). I was most fascinated with the extinct flora and fauna of New Zealand, and especially quite enamoured with the cultural remains of her earliest settlers.

During the 1980s, as part of Māori recovery programmes, Māori language (known as te reo “the language”), music and art were beginning to be taught in school, at least it was at the primary school I went to. All children were given the opportunity to participate in the Māori choir (which I did and loved), take art lessons and learn te reo, albeit an elementary study of the language. Whenever we went on a school excursion or camp we were treated to traditional Māori folktales, which added a great deal to the history of the place. I can still remember a friend of mine telling me a story about the local dragon or tanewha (pronounced tanifa) during one school camp, whose ground we stood on. Such things have always left deep impressions on me. There’s a reason specific places and spaces are imbued with deeper meaning, why we talk of the essence or spirit of a place and why some spaces are described as sacred. All of New Zealand felt that way to me and the art and folklore of her first people only adds to the sense it is other-worldly.

Te reo has declined over the years, but efforts have been renewed to revive it. Māori is one of New Zealand’s three official languages – the other two being English and New Zealand Sign Language. In contrast, Australia has no official language. English is the language of the majority, with over 300 distinct languages spoken in Australian homes (information from the The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Census data).

New Zealand is a geographically beautiful country with deeply rooted Maori heritage and cultural influences from around the world.

New Guinea: sketchbook entry

The island of New Guinea is a biologically and culturally diverse landscape. With over 1000 languages spoken across the island and 60,000 years worth of occupation, it is difficult to do justice to its superb history with just one page in a sketchbook. New Guinea remains largely inaccessible and unexplored by scientists. In this ever-changing world I would love for it to remain largely a secret place, for the sake of its wildlife and its people, sadly there are many people who wish to cash in on the resources of the island.


In posting this I offer my deepest respect and wishes for peace and prosperity to all the peoples across New Guinea.

Rapa Nui, the navel of the world

Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, a volcanic island in the South Pacific Ocean, is one of the most isolated inhabited places on the planet. The nearest inhabited island is over 2,000 kilometres (1242 miles) away. To its inhabitants it is Te Pito te Henua, “the navel of the world”. Estimates of when the island was first inhabited vary widely; most estimates fall within the range of 300-800 CE*. Some recent estimates place the date of initial colonisation closer to 1200 CE. Whatever the date, the voyage to such a remote island is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever undertaken by a group of humans.

The Rapa Nui, now a population of under 8,000 people, face significant environmental and health challenges, and pressures from tourists who number around 100,000 each year. In recent years, poor behaviour from tourists has led authorities to limit the number of tourists allowed to visit the island, as well as reducing the length of stay for non-inhabitants. The protection of the island’s sensitive environment, communities and the Moai – the statues which made the island is famous – is a high priority for the people of Rapa Nui, for they for inhabit a living landscape.

With respect, I acknowledge and celebrate the Rapa Nui.

*common era (AD)

The Archaeology of Malta

Human habitation in the archipelago of Malta goes back almost 7,000 years. The island has seen populations flourish and collapse repeatedly. It has been occupied, conquered and reconquered intermittently by Neolithic fisher/farmers and temple builders, Bronze Age people, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims Normans, Sicilians, the French and British. Despite its erratic and often troubled past, Malta is a nation rich with archaeology and heritage.

Malta achieved independence in 1964 and became the Republic of Malta in 1974. It’s been on my bucket list for decades. For now I have to be content to live vicariously in my art journal.

Some of the monuments are so grand and elaborate there can be little doubt they were sacred places.

For a detailed look at Malta’s history and prehistory Wikipedia has a good has a good article titled The History of Malta.

Avebury and Stonehenge

Stonehenge and 3 menhirs from Avebury

Everyone knows about Stonehenge, but less well known is Avebury henge, the largest stone circle in the world. A larger prehistoric circular monument, called Marden Henge, located between Avebury and Stonehenge contains no stones, but has massive earthworks. It is much bigger than Stonehenge and Avebury, and is the largest henge in the British Isles. The Stonehenge and Avebury monuments are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage landscape in Wessex, UK, however Marden Henge sits outside the zone¹.

Monuments in the Wessex landscape date back to at least 5,000 years ago. For good reason, they attract a lot of academic and public attention. They are splendid, there can be little doubt of that, but they are also proof of sophisticated cultural and social systems in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. They give some insight in to ceremonial practices, as well human relationships with astronomical features of the sky. They provide key insights in to how ancient groups of people interacted with their landscape and changed it, and they are architecturally and technologically impressive works which would have required a great deal of raw ingenuity as well as resources.

Today we have a lot of evidence and a lot more conjecture as to the original purpose of the monuments. Some of the sites are so conspicuous in the landscape, and so awe-inspiring to behold, even after thousands of years, it is impossible to ignore their importance to prehistoric people. Their construction, use, maintenance, and eventually even their disuse, were all deliberate acts that required significant resources and effort. What a sight to behold the landscape must have been to ancient pilgrims.

The mystery of Stonehenge, Avebury and their associated sites endure, and that makes me happy.

References

  1. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology/0/steps/15261

Further reading

Red ochre revolution

It’s impossible to put an exact date on when art emerged in prehistory, especially since we don’t know if the first attempts were on rock, or some other, less enduring medium, such as wood, bone, in the dirt, or even on the skins of the makers. At best we know ancient people were using ochre pigment at least 300,000 years ago and that our species was not the first to take advantage of the vibrant colours offered. We can only guess at how and why they were using it. It is still used today in a number of different ways across the world.

The “Creative Revolution” – fact or fantasy?

Much has been made of the “creative revolution” (known as the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution hypothesis), which seemed to want to trace the origins of creativity to a single location in place and time, namely Europe 40,000-45,000 years ago. But looking beyond Europe we can now see that migrating groups of humans inherited the creative spark from much older ancestors, perhaps in a land far away. For example, the First Australian’s were using ochre 65,000 years ago according to recent evidence. By the time we see the earliest evidence of rock art in Australia some 28,000 years ago, it was already developed and distinct, suggesting it was not a young practice even then. Most of the earliest rock art in Australia that survives are petroglyphs (engravings in rock) and these are notoriously difficult to accurately date. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is such a giant leap to say the First Australian’s were making art before they arrived in Australia.

In Indonesia, the oldest known figurative art is about 44,000 years old (hand stencils discovered there could be as old as 52,000 years). In Spain, the oldest art is about 64,000 years old and might have been made by Neandertal’s. In a cave in South Africa, modern humans were creating art on stones of silcrete about 73,000 years ago, and engraving lines in to pieces of ochre at least 100,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. Neandertal’s were using ochre pigment in the Netherlands about 250,000 years ago and in Olorgesailie in East Africa, circa 307,000 years ago, early humans, possibly very early Homo sapiens, were using red and black pigment.

Even if the very first artistic work was discovered and it was recognised as such, there would be little agreement on its meaning or its significance. We might not be able to date it reliably or associate it with one particular species of hominin. Many might not even accept it as the first art. Some will refuse to give up the search for the elusive piece of indisputable evidence of the beginnings of symbolic behaviour. All we do know now, is the prehistory of art and the origins of the human creative mind is much older than previously thought and the idea of a creative revolution is becoming less tenable. No one single group of people can claim to be more related to the first artists. All humans are creative and we have been for a very long time.

Note: Most of the dates listed are based on confirmed dates using reliable dating techniques. Many more ancient sites exist than I haven’t listed, but their dates are either controversial or the exact dates are not able to be reliably established.


Further reading/references

Prehistoric use of Ochre

Australian Rock Art of the Pleistocene

A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World

A Radical New Theory About the Origins of Art

Great Southern Land

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time re-acquainting myself with, and journaling about, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of diverse and complex cultural histories that span at least 65,000 years. I could fill a few sketchbooks with the amount of cultural evidence that exists, but sharing all of it would feel like a trespass on what is often sacred, personal and private – not to mention a massive undertaking, since Aboriginal people across Australia were, and continue to be, culturally and linguistically diverse within and across regions. Instead, I’ve chosen to share three pages of some of the oldest evidence for human habitation in Australia. By no means is this exhaustive, and some things are not included out of respect. For example, I decided not to include sketches of human remains, such as Mungo Man, who has been the subject of much debate, and whose removal from his ancestral home 40 years ago caused distress to local Aboriginal communities. Even though I was trained in forensic anthropology, and I was happy studying old bones during my studies, I am aware of the ethical issues of removing ancient human remains from burial sites. I believe the consideration of indigenous communities needs and wishes should take priority over scientific knowledge.

Point of interest: Mungo Man’s remains were returned to his ancestral home for reburial in 2017 in a casket made from 8,000 year old red gum wood.

Further reading: Two of my university text books from almost two decades ago.

Do what you love; love what you do

I’m loving working in this sketchbook. Of course, the subjects are engaging, personally significant and keep me interested and motivated, but I also like the no fuss approach of limiting colours and not worrying about “ruining” an expensive sketchbook (this is an economical brand from my local office supply store). Most pages have sepia ink with only the shading of a sepia coloured pencil. They take anywhere from less than an hour to several hours or more if I’m really engaged and reading up in between drawing. Occasionally I’ll throw in another coloured pencil for emphasis. The rules are simple with this one: do what you love and love what you do. It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else.

Art prompt: Back to beginnings

Coloured pencil and ink go well together, especially in sepia. I decided to test them out in a sketchbook by sketching some artefacts – things that got me started in archaeology and human prehistory that still inspire me. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Catalhoyuk was a game changer for me when I first read about it in the 1990s. The site was discovered in 1958 and was excavated between 1961 and 1965. Those summer seasons of digging revealed a lot about ancient Anatolia that wasn’t previously known. Unfortunately excavations were halted until 1993 due to controversy. In 1993 archaeological excavations reopened and continued to 2018. While it is not the oldest Neolithic site, its excellent state of preservation and long occupation period has facilitated a better understanding of the transition to settled life and how people occupied the spaces within.

The site of Catalhoyuk is a settlement in Anatolia, Turkey. It’s almost continuous occupation spanned a period of almost two thousand years, making it one of the most important and abundant early settlements in human history.

Stepping much further back in time I decided to sketch some of the earliest evidence of stone tool-use. It’s a good way to refresh the memory and practice ink and pencil sketching techniques. I quite like the old school look the sepia colours imbue.