Art – Neolithic Europe And Primitive America

SOME culture traces its origin to savagery. Elsewhere savages grow out of a background of culture. Not all is smooth in evolution. In the new Stone Age the polished stone axe, or celt, marks a great advance in man’s civilization. It is an enlargement of his power over nature, a forward step in his culture. Stone huts now appear, and pile dwellings. We have agriculture, domestic animals, monuments to the dead. We have pottery.

Now we are in a period of great activity. There is an all-around advance in culture. Yet in some ways Neolithic man is inferior to his predecessor, who hunted and carved and painted with equal zeal and expertness. Man has entered into the prehistoric industrial age. He appears too busy for art. And yet he must express something finer than bare materialism in spite of him-self. Hence he makes finely finished and polished instruments and gives them beauty. Knives and daggers of flint of this period are found in Scandinavia and Egypt, with blades almost as sharp as those of our metal ones, remarkable, too, for their artistry. Neolithic Egypt offers prehistoric vases in limestone, alabaster, porphyry and basalt, regular in shape and showing the hand of master craftsmen. Bracelets, pendants and amulets of marble, flint, schist are found in Spain, Egypt and Switzerland.

The manufacture of pottery now becomes prevalent. This requires more careful observation and reflection than making wood and stone implements or skin garments. Many examples are highly artistic in outline and ornamentation. An interesting classification is known as corded ware in which designs were made by pressing a cord in different ways upon the clay before baking. From Wurttemberg comes pottery with elaborate ornamentation of dots, lines, zig-zags, chevrons. From upper Austria we have pottery with incised designs inlaid with a white material, also clay figures of the human form.

The art of pottery seems to have originated in the Neolithic Age. At first it is wholly hand-made and poorly baked. It is of coarse material, a mixture of stone, sand and shell, simple in form, round bottomed and ill-designed, with no attempt at decoration. Soon improvements and refinements are introduced. The surface is smooth and even polished. There comes a tasteful variety of form; perforated knobs for carrying give way to handles. Fingernail marks, surface undulations, cord impressions, simple designs of dots and lines comprise the ornamentation. In some places even color decoration seems to have been reached, as well as incised lines filled with white substance. The spiral also commences to appear.

Of this period are stone carvings of the human face and form, a great many with attempts at delineation of garments. From the number of reproductions of the female form it is generally believed that there was a prevalent worship of a female deity. Many engraved designs on stone are found of curved and circular lines. Some authorities advance the theory that these were maps of their immediate localities. Others claim they were a primitive form of writing, or else they represented constellations or games. The more reasonable view seems to be that they were deemed to have magical or totemic significance.

The discovery of metal ranks among the greatest influences of civilization. Virgin metals first attracted attention, like gold, silver or copper. Because of its brightness and beauty gold may have been the first. There is reason to believe that it was known in Neolithic times. Copper, more prevalent in its pure state, was the first metal used for making tools and weapons. Excavated in Babylon and Egypt were copper tools dating back 4500 years before the Christian Era. Because of its softness copper is of little use for the manufacture of cutting instruments. It may be hardened, but the process is a tedious one. The important discovery that copper mixed with a small quantity of tin produces much greater hardness brought the alloy, bronze.

Bronze was known in Egypt about 4000 B.C. but did not come into general use for a thousand years or more after that. It reached Spain by 2000 B.C. and Britain about 1500 B.C. Iron did not make its appearance before about 1000 B.C. and in England more than five hundred years later. For a thousand or fifteen hundred years cutting instruments were all of bronze. Bronze also served for ornament and decoration. Most metal objects were cast in the alloy. Alongside of many articles of bronze have been found the molds in which they were cast.

Celts, spearheads, knives, daggers and swords of this metal are common. Elaborate bronze trumpets six feet or more in length have been found. In the peat bogs of Denmark twenty-three of these horns were unearthed. They are now used at concerts at the Museum of Copenhagen. And they were made several thousand years ago! They give forth music, too—clear, ringing and sweet.

The highest culture attained in the Bronze Age was on the Isle of Crete in the Mediterranean. This island excelled along many lines, notably in colored pottery. We find in Crete, from the Bronze Age, paintings, engravings, carvings, molding, inlayed metal work and jewelry showing a degree of originality, power and taste by some considered equal to the art of Greece at its best.

There is evidence of considerable intercourse about 1580 B.C. between the highly gifted inhabitants of Crete and the Egyptians. Paintings in the tombs of Rekhomara and Senmut in Egypt show foreigners bringing gifts—cups, vessels of silver and gold, which resemble those at Knossos in Crete. The figures are believed to be Cretans; their dress and grouping are similar to those on Cretan frescoes. Late Cretan pottery has been found in Egypt; while alabaster Egyptian vases, red ware, jugs and bronze vases with lotus handles, a fig-urine carved of bone, all apparently of Egyptian origin, have been found in Crete.

Decoration of pottery in Bronze Age Crete reached a very high development. Early workmanship shows rich polychrome ware, white, red and yellow on a black ground, ornamented with geometric designs. On these the spiral is fairly common and occasionally plant de-signs appear. Some small vessels are so thin they are known as “egg-shell” ware. Later we come upon pottery ornamented with more naturalistic designs. About 1800 or 1900 B.C., ceramic art in Crete reaches its finest flower.

The Cretan artist now goes “direct to nature for his inspiration. His designs are full of grace and exuberance; reeds, grasses and flowers adorn his vases; the life of the sea is represented with astonishing fidelity; but his naturalism is controlled by a rare power of selection and grouping.” (Hawes, Crete the forerunner of Greece, 1910, page 125) . Gradually a more conventional style sets in, influenced by fresco drawing in buildings. Naturalism and living form are revived at the close of the Bronze Age. But it is decadent compared with the work of Crete at its best.

In Mycenaean pottery of the Bronze Age we are introduced to glazed polychrome ware, usually of yellow ground laid on brown, red, chestnut and white. Circles, spirals and other geometric designs appear, as well as plants and animals. Sea weeds, shells, fishes, the octopus, birds, quadrupeds and even the human form are depicted. But the drawings are rather poor.

In Spain, Crete and Mycenae during the Bronze Age many articles were made of silver. There are silver rings, rivets, pendants, bracelets, diadems, scepters, bowls and vases. Silver seems to have originated in Spain. In the province of El Argar it was at one time twice as plentiful as tin. There is evidence of considerable trading in that metal by the Spaniards with the enterprising Cretans.

In Scandinavia we find engravings of boats on bronze knives and razors. On these the spiral design is used, sometimes accompanied by lines which are interpreted as solar discs. The boat itself is said to be a solar symbol. A myth of the Bronze Age told of the sun traversing the ocean when at night the earth is left in darkness.

Gold was very plentiful in the Bronze Age, judging by the great quantity of plate and jewelry found. A much earlier time, the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, also has yielded up gold in consider-able quantity, particularly in Ireland. The Emerald Isle was quite a trader in the precious metal.

In Bronze Age England we find objects of gold which show incomparable delicacy of workmanship and power of execution. Of a dagger handle found at Normanton, ‘Wilts, for instance, it is said that in design and execution it could not be surpassed, if equaled, by the most able workman of modern times. Of British zigzag pattern, it was formed with a labor and exactness almost unaccountable from thousands of gold rivets smaller than the smallest pin. Hunting scenes inlaid on dagger blades and drinking cups are on a par with the goldsmith’s art of our own day.

Amber was highly prized in prehistoric times. It was found mainly on the southern coast of the Baltic and on the North Sea coast near the mouth of the Elbe. Amber was an important article of commerce as far back as the Neolithic Age. It is generally found in beads and necklaces of delicate workmanship. In the ornaments of the Bronze Age jet played an important part.

Some writers claim that when Europe was inhabited by wandering savages America was peopled by men who built cities and attained a high degree of culture. This is a considerable overstatement. Yet prehistoric America had its full measure of art.

In the glacial deposits of the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey, are found implements which greatly resemble those of Palaeolithic Europe. It is note-worthy that they are like the European discoveries of the very earliest Stone Age. Sometimes these implements are embedded in boulders twenty feet in diameter or in rock striated and polished by the action of ice or by being swept along by torrents of water. From the general character of the surroundings among which they are found it is safe to say that they antedate the glacial period. Implements exactly resembling those of Scandinavian origin have been found on the islands of the Susquehanna. These, too, seem to have been made by the hand of man during the pre-glacial epoch. Palaeolithic and Neolithic implements are found in Buenos Aires and other parts of South America.

Much interest attaches to the earthen mound, which throughout the Western Hemisphere shows considerable skill in construction. We find mounds built up as defensive works, sacred enclosures, temples; also altar mounds and mounds representing animals. How long since mound building originated on this continent we do not know. Some of these structures undoubtedly go back to a very early stage in man’s existence, while others are of fairly recent times.

Cliffs are the earliest known habitations of man on this continent. At first they were merely caves in the rock, like those in the Grand Canyon. In later times they were supplemented by structures of stone at their approach. Some cliffs are in vertical tiers, not unlike present-day apartment buildings.

Pottery, earthenware, dishes and funeral vases are found dating back to a remote antiquity and in improved workmanship through succeeding ages. Many interesting examples come from the valleys of the Missouri, where in the dim past the country was inhabited by men with towns, government, a religious system and artistic taste. In general, American pottery bears a striking similarity to that of the old world. Much of it resembles the Egyptian in artistic outline and in the figures used in decoration.

Prehistoric American vases of all kinds possess real craftsmanship. Most varied in design, they often show development in sculpture almost unbelievable. Birds, animals, snakes, the human face and form are executed with real skill. Engraving on stone is quite prevalent, with representations of animals and birds as well as human beings. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on stone, found in great variety, are executed by craftsmen of skill and imagination.

Yucatan appears to have been the cradle of culture in America. Here long before the Christian Era, Maya civilization was at the height of its glory. In his Story of the American Indian, Paul Radin pictures the Maya center of Copan, in the vicinity of what is now the little Republic of Honduras. Seven or eight miles long and two miles wide was this city; with well-paved streets, courts and courtyards; with covered canals for drainage and underground sewers of stone and cement; with fine temples, palaces and public buildings.

“Here we find the first civic center of America,” Radin informs us. “It was approximately eight hundred feet square. Within the main building at an elevation of sixty feet, was a court one hundred and twenty feet square. The court was enclosed by a range of seats, rising to a height of one hundred and twenty feet in the form of an amphitheater and built of great blocks of stone neatly cut and regularly laid without the use of mortar.” Walls of an inner temple “were covered with a thin coat of stucco on which were painted figures and scenes in various colors. . . . The outside of the building was profusely decorated with grotesque figures, and around the four sides ran an elaborate cornice having a foliated design of feathers beautifully carved. Higher up a row of portrait-like busts extended along the entire building.” A grand stairway rising three hundred feetsky-scraper height—had sculptured human figures at regular intervals.

Ancient Peru produced fine sculpture, gold, copper and bronze ornaments, pottery, fabrics and textiles. It has been said that not even the Greeks or Egyptians excelled the Incas in artistry, variety and originality of their pottery. Whether that be true or not, these Peruvians did show exceptional skill. Their pottery designs depict all of Peru’s civilization: customs, rituals, dress, homes, gods, animals, plants, landscapes—all these either painted or sculptured.

“Most remarkable are the portrait vases,” Radin further states. “They give us an unusual insight into the physiognomies of the people, from the Inca and the nobles to the poorest commoner and slave. No phase of life is unrepresented. We even get glimpses into aboriginal surgery and disease, such as representations of an amputated foot with a cap being placed over the stump, and a man examining the sole of his foot from which the eggs of a sand flea have been extracted. The achievement of the Peruvians in the weaving of textiles and fabrics is if anything even more remarkable than that of their pottery. Not only does it represent the most extraordinary textile development of any prehistoric people, but in harmony of color, beauty and fastness of dyes and perfection of spinning and weaving, these fabrics belong in a class all by themselves.”

Here, then, you have a glimpse of the cultural development of the forefathers of our supposed savage American Indian. But if, as seems not unlikely, he is of Mongolian origin, his art is not to be wondered at. Among the Mongolians art and culture appear to have been full grown from time immemorial.