Tag: archaeology

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.

Creative renderings: early evidence for creative minds

Some examples of archaeological finds described as art. Top: Trinil engraved shell. 540,000 years BP Henk Caspers/Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0) Bottom, left to right: Cupules from Chief’s Rock, 290,000 years BP. Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka rock shelter, India. Image by Dinesh Valke (CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0). Blombos engraved ochre. 73,000 years BP. Henshilwood C.S et al, public domain. Bottom row left: Panel 78, La Pasiega gallery, 65,000 years BP, D.L Hoffmann. Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave painting of a bull, circa 44,000 years BP. (image via Wikimedia)

Early messages

Creative thinking is universal to humanity. We’ve been doing it for a long time, longer than previously thought. One of the earliest bits of evidence for creative thinking comes in the form of engravings on a fossil shell from Trinil in Java. The shell was found in close proximity to the remains of a Homo erectus individual, an extinct species of hominin (bipedal primate) considered to be antecedent to modern humans. The purpose of the cut marks is unknown, but the deep geometric marks do suggest humans were thinking creatively at least half a million years ago. The shell has been dated to between 540,000 and 700,000 year old, making it an extremely early example of a deliberately engraved object (Joordens et al, 2014).

Between 290,000 and 700,000 years ago in a cave at the rock shelter site of Bhimbetka, central India, archaic humans created cupules (circular depressions on the surface of a rock) on a large boulder. While the intention and purpose for the cupules is unknown, they have been descried as a common form of rock art (Bednarik, 1996). Very ancient cupules, all many tens of thousands of years old, are known from the Africa (such as the Kalahari desert and Sudan), Europe, Asia and Australia.

From Blombos Cave, along South Africa’s southern coast, early modern humans created geometric engravings on pieces of ochre. These small artefacts have been dated to between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. From the same site perforated shells were found, as well as a 73,000 years ago stone flake with ochre markings. This piece has been dubbed “the world’s oldest drawing” (Blakemore, 2018). The finds at Blombos cave were older and more sophisticated than previously thought possible for their age. They are evidence for the deep roots of creative thinking.

Further, extremely significant evidence comes from the 65,000 year old cave paintings from La Pasiega cave in Spain. A remarkable feature of these paintings – aside from the fact they predate the famous Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave art from France by some 30,000 years – is that they predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. This means the most likely creator of the abstract paintings were Neandertals, since there is no evidence modern humans were in Western Europe before 42,000 years ago (Wong, 2018). This revelation forced some archaeologists to rethink long-held assumptions that modern humans were the first and only hominin to create art.

The discovery and acceptance of very early art forms that predate modern humans adds a new dimension to our understanding of the evolution of hominin cognition. They have far-reaching implications for understanding the relationship between evolution and the creative mind and how creative expression has been a significant driver in human cognitive development. New dating techniques also means we are constantly expanding the timeline, thus deepening the relevance of the art habit.

As an artist and student of archaeology, the deep origins of the creative mind, and in particular art, are fascinating and go some way to explain its appeal. The reasons why we started doing it in the first place, and its early role in cultural development, would require many volumes of books to do any justice to the topic. My purpose is not to explain the evolution of creative visual thinking, but to reveal it in all its diversity and to show that it is, and always has been natural, instinctual and immortalising.


References

Bednarik, Robert G. (1996), The cupules on Chief’s Rock, Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka, The Artifact: Journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria, Volume 19, pages 63–71 http://www.ifrao.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Auditorium96.pdf

Blakemore, Erin (2018) 73,000-Year-Old Doodle May be World’s Oldest Drawing, National Geographic

Joordens, J. C. A. et al. (2014) Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13962 

Wong, Kate (2018). Ancient Cave Paintings Clinch the Case for Neandertal Symbolism, Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-cave-paintings-clinch-the-case-for-neandertal-symbolism1/

Further reading

An excellent resource for information pertaining to palaeolithic archaeology is Don’t Maps.

Another excellent resource for rock art enthusiasts is the Bradshaw Foundation. This site contains information for rock art across the world.

For more in depth discussions on early and prehistoric art, see The Encyclopedia of Art (www.visual-arts-cork.com). In particular Earliest Art of Prehistory