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

Two Baobabs and a Boab

Three species of Adonsonia. In most parts of the world the common name for these bottle-like trees is Baobab – the first two sketches are the African Baobab (A. digitata) and the Giant Baobab or Grandidier’s Baobab (A. grandidieri) respectively. In Australia they are mostly known as Boab’s (A. gregorri), but it is also known by a number of different names in different Australian Aboriginal languages. The Boab is native to the Kimberly region in the far northwest of Australia and is a wonderfully mysterious tree. No one really knows how or why it came to be in Australia, as they were not considered to be part of the Gondwana supercontinent. The three possible scenarios put forward by scientists for their occurrence is either they were brought here by the first people in Australia; the seeds floated across the Indian Ocean from Madagascar, or, while unlikely, it is still possible, the genus Adonsonia started in Australia and migrated to the rest of the world.

I will defer to First Australian wisdom in this one: Boab’s have always been here.

Boab Tree
Image Credit: By Summerdrought – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35827546

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.

Playing with my favourite pen and subject

Claudia Nice is the first artist that inspired me try working with pen and ink with several books, including Drawing in Pen and Ink. I like to engage fully with what I’m doing and ink requires a level of commitment that appeals to my nature. I like detail and I enjoy how tight and clear I can get with ink. Which is probably why it is a common medium for scientific illustrators, especially botanical. But pen and ink can also be very flexible. True, you can’t rub it out once its on the page, but that doesn’t matter if you’re sketching loose drawings for practice or wanting to capture the shape of a species of tree. Ink also plays nice with a lot of other mediums, especially watercolour. Claudia Nice has also written many books on creating texture with pen and ink, and watercolour.

European silver fir – Abies Alba

The Lamy Joy, pictured above, is my favourite tool for sketching in pen and ink. The nib glides smoothly across the paper, depositing ink evenly and the tapered style feels good in the hand. I use fountain pens for 80% of the inked artwork I create. I use an ink converter, with De Atramentis Archival black ink. I have had no problems with it drying it our clogging the pen.

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.

Make ink and see what happens

In this day and age computers are kind of hard to avoid. I saw my first computer when I was about nine years old. It was a Commodore 64. In those days all you could do was type and print using a dot matrix printer and play rudimentary games. Even then I knew I wanted to write and could see the benefit of typed notes, because I hated my own handwriting. At 12 I commandeered my mother’s typewriter and started hammering out page after page of stories. By 16 I had my first computer, which was given to me by my uncle because he knew I wanted to be a writer and my current electric typewriter had kicked the bucket. It was a time when home computers were still relatively rare so I felt pretty grown up. The computer was bootable from a compact floppy disc and I remember having to insert one disc to boot the operating system and a second which contained all my files. I only had a finite number of space for saving the screeds of writing I was doing every day after school. I was in heaven. Most of the time I would scribble out notes on paper in my own shorthand scrawl, and then type them in long form, checking for spelling and grammar as I went. I have never been without a computer since, but I always kept a free-form notebook too. I now realise those notebooks were where the real magic was, not the pages of printed matter. My notebooks were dogeared, messy and organic, with its pasted clippings, and folded and half torn pages. Nevertheless, at the time I was embarrassed by them and kept them to myself; eventually I threw almost all of them out. Whatever remains is still hidden in boxes of ephemera in the garage.

This way of working served me well when I was younger – I could handwrite for extended periods of time without much fatigue, and most of my essay’s for university were handwritten before they were typed. After graduation I worked as an editor and proofreader for a medical research centre, where everything was digital. From then on it was easier to forgo the notebook and surrender to the speed and efficiency of the computer. I suppose that is one of the computer’s greatest attractions. Unfortunately, quick and easy isn’t necessarily creativity’s best friend, complexity is.

The digital world can be a trap if we let it.

It was only when I took up art that I returned to hard copy notebooks and sketchbooks and rediscovered the magic of the pen. I still don’t keep as many handwritten notebooks as I used to, though I carry a small one with me in my handbag and keep one on my desk for story notes. Nowadays I rarely use paper for doing drafting bigger art pieces. I use Procreate first or a similar app because it saves on a lot of paper and for the very appealing undo button. I keep gigabytes of information in databases, folders and storage devices, all easily searchable and accessible with a few clicks. Admittedly that is one of the greatest appeals of having computers – no untidy filing cabinets or masses of paper, and everything is at your finger tips. It’s all very easy and convenient, but I have to admit, all those files and folders and fancy apps don’t spark joy quite like a book of hand-drawn scribbles or handwritten notes. I’m not an either/or kind of person and believe in balancing digital and analogue, but sometimes I need to rest one and favour the other. This week I decided to rest the computer and show up with my pens and pencils to my notebooks and sketchbooks. Somehow brainstorming feels more organic and thus more gratifying with a pen. It’s a good way to refresh the creative reservoir.

When you have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and your imagination, you have everything you need. It’s just the three of you. No distractions, no complications, nothing to click. Just make ink and see what happens.