Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Paleolithic art, part 6: Women in Paleolithic art

The representation of humans is comparatively rare in Paleolithic art, and only becomes widespread with the advent of civilisation. Where they are depicted, their sex is often ambiguous. However, in certain fields of art there is an abundance of female representations. Interpreting them poses the same problems as Paleolithic art in general.

This article does not claim to be a comprehensive survey of depictions of women, and it is orientated to Eurasia because of its focus upon figurines. My knowledge does not extend to female representation outside that region, but I may expand upon this article in the future.

Female figurines

By far the most common representations of women in the Old and New Stone Ages were small statuettes carved mostly from stone or ivory, of which the ‘Woman of Willendorf’ is one of the best known. These were created over a span of 20,000 years, the first of them appearing during the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods. In the Paleolithic, they appear across a huge area from France to Siberia; by the Neolithic this area shifts towards the Mediterranean and Near East. The abundance of female images suggests that women held a prominent role in prehistoric society — as we have discussed, this role is likely to have been different to men’s, but equal in importance.

Woman of WillendorfThe Woman of Willendorf, discovered at a Paleolithic site in Austria. It was carved from limestone ca. 24,000–22,000 years ago, and was once painted with red ochre. At 11cm long, it fits snugly into the palm of the hand. Photo: MatthiasKabel.

These figurines tend to emphasise female attributes — the breasts, buttocks, crotch, belly and thighs — while showing little interest in the face and extremities. The Woman of Willendorf is a good example: her breasts and genitals are carefully carved, but her arms, hands and feet are very understated and she has no face at all. Other well-known figurines include ‘the Lady in the Hood’ from Brassempouy, and ones made of baked clay from Dolní Věstonice. You can find more images of female figurines here. They are usually naked and sometimes plump, and some appear to be wearing jewellery or garments. Many have holes so that they may be worn as pendants.

It is unlikely that hunter-gatherer women could have achieved the plumpness of some of statuettes, and they are all stylised. So they cannot be understood simplistically as works of naturalism. The artists have chosen particular forms to convey social meanings; the problem is trying to reconstruct those meanings thousands of years later, often without knowing the stratigraphic context. There is, however, no shortage of theories.

Interpreting the figurines

One view could be that Paleolithic female figurines simply celebrate sex, which would not be extraordinary in itself. But that only begs two questions: why are they not more realistic, and why is sexual male imagery so rare (exceptions include for example the phallus found at the Hohle Fels cave in Germany). Early interpretations (by exclusively male archaeologists) saw the figurines, with their clearly marked sex organs, in erotic terms as a kind of pornography for Stone Age men. This interpretation of female images as serving male pleasure owes more to sexism than archaeology.

The most popular theory is that the figurines represent an interest in fertility. Men and/or women might have carved them as charms to encourage success in childbirth, perhaps to be worn by the woman. In this interpretation they become an affirmation of the idea of birth and rebirth, with the female as the ‘origin’ of life. The irony of this was not lost on Eleanor Leacock:

Women’s power of childbearing has been a focus for awe and even fear as long ago as the Upper Paleolithic, judging from the fertility figurines that date from that period. This point is easy to overlook, for the ability to bear children has led in our society not to respect but to women’s oppression.[1]

There has also been speculation about the figurines playing a role in fertility ‘cults’, but a cult implies rituals and practices for which, in the Paleolithic, little convincing archaeological evidence has been found. The site of Kostienki I in the Don Valley in Russia does provide an example: the great majority of the female statuettes found by archaeologists were buried in pits next to dwelling places together with tools and other items. The pits were covered with mammoth bones — almost like a dwelling constructed for the figurine — and were then filled in with silt and red ochre. This is evidence of ritual activity, but its purpose is unclear.

The ‘fertility’ theory has an obvious connection with the ‘magic’ theory of Paleolithic art, according to which images of pregnant women would be created to encourage pregnancy in real women. But the idea of sympathetic magic is not as convincing now as it seemed in the early twentieth century. Also, fertility is a greater concern for agricultural communities, which depend upon an adequate supply of human labour and the success of crops, than for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers whose population has practical limits. If the ‘fertility figurine’ idea may be correct in some cases, it cannot be taken as a blanket explanation. The figurines from Mal’ta in Siberia, for example, are slim and flat-bellied, which makes associations with fertility difficult to substantiate.

mal'ta figurineFigurine of a woman carved from mammoth ivory, ca. 23,000 years ago, found at Mal’ta in Siberia.

In 1981 the anthropologist Patricia Rice [2] found, after studying 188 figurines, that they depict women in a variety of types, conditions and ages: only a small proportion appear to be pregnant. There are also no images of children. Ethnography — though as ever we must be cautious about what it can tell us — has revealed no especial interest in fertility, or in the creation of female figurines devoted to it, among surviving hunter-gatherer peoples.

The ascribing of sexual meanings to images of nude women may owe more to the socialisation of (male) archaeologists than the images themselves. But we should equally not assume that an interest in female fertility or sexuality is unique to men. The figurines may be self-images by women, uninhibited by the mores of a less egalitarian society. LeRoy McDermott claimed that the stylisation of the figures means that they were self-images made by women, but there’s no evidence either way. By the same token, despite the existence of a male-defined culture of sexism, there is no single ‘male’ viewpoint, in prehistory any more than there is today.

Another interpretation proposes that prehistoric society was matriarchal, and in this context the figurines become images of a ‘mother goddess’. The existence of a prehistoric matriarchy was proposed as early as 1861 by Johann Bachofen, whose Mutterrecht und Urreligion (Mother Right and the Origins of Religion) is referred to by Engels in Origin. The theory that prehistory had been dominated by women and a mother-centred religion was taken up from the 1960s by sections of the feminist movement, keen to find positive alternatives to a history of oppression. Its less fortunate outcome was a quasi-mystical literature of minimal scientific value. Theories of a prehistoric matriarchy are not backed by anthropological evidence, nor is there evidence that Paleolithic images represented goddesses — deities probably don’t appear before the development of institutionalised religion during the late Neolithic. The Paleolithic images could be read as precursors of those religions, but again there can be no certainty.

The figurines were created over several millennia in an area spanning two continents, and the only thing they definitely have in common is their female subject matter. The temptation to look for a universal meaning is foiled at every turn. The figurines do not all have the same characteristics. Among the figurines from France alone, for example, the ‘Lady in the Hood’ from Brassempouy is unusual in having a carefully carved face and is also unusually naturalistic. So a single interpretation is unlikely to emerge. In reality, the figurines probably had different meanings for different communities: items for fertility ritual, charms, toys for children, teaching aids, or even simply ‘art for art’s sake’. Such interpretation is an ongoing challenge for archaeologists and anthropologists. However, in my view one conclusion can be made, which I explain at the end.

Women or Venuses?

I have illustrated above the ‘Woman of Willendorf’. Its more commonly used name is the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf, and the term ‘Venus’ has been applied to many Stone Age images of women. The term has an undistinguished history, coined by male archaeologists and predicated upon prejudice. It was first used in 1864 by the French archaeologist, the Marquis de Vibraye, when he found a Magdalenian figurine of a woman. This was perhaps a nod to classical art: based upon the Greek goddess Aphrodite, Venus was the Roman goddess of sex and beauty. But another archaeologist, Edouard Piette, later used the term for several sculptures found at Brassempouy in 1892, for reasons described by Randall White:

He identified two kinds of statuettes, obese and slim... He interpreted the slim figures from Brassempouy as Egyptian-like, and the other statuettes, representing much more ample women, were interpreted as South African (Bushman) types.[3]

Because the obese figurines did not accord with the prevailing European ideal of female beauty (one which is still with us in even more extreme form), Piette made a link with the steatopygous physique of some African women and used the term ‘Venus’ out of a sense of irony. The term continued to be used through the twentieth century as more images were found and given names. We may agree with White’s conclusion:

The application of the term ‘Venus’ resulted not from some extension to the Paleolithic of the reverence for classical art, nor does it involve a preoccupation with fertility. Rather, it stems directly from Western European racial/racist attitudes of the early twentieth century... In the light of this history, I would recommend abandoning ‘Venus’ terminology as inherently tainted and interpretively vacuous.

The ‘Venus’ label brings with it associations which do not help us to interpret the meaning of the figurine. The lesson is that our attitude to the art of the past is always coloured by our own cultural assumptions. When male archaeologists saw images of nude and well-endowed women, often with an unabashed delineation of the pudenda, they immediately evoked the goddess of sex and beauty. This tells us more about the society those archaeologists lived in than it does about Paleolithic art. Images of Aphrodite or Venus that have survived from ancient Greece and Rome often show the goddess naked, modestly trying to conceal her sexual organs with a gesture that does the exact opposite — draw attention to them (a good example is the Aphrodite of Cnidos by Praxiteles). Produced well after men had become dominant, these are principally works of sexual voyeurism.

The creators of Paleolithic art were humans like us, but they were living in a different kind of society. The Woman of Willendorf is a very frank object — the emphasis on sexual characteristics is uninhibited by the shame or repression that were to become expected female behaviours in male-dominated class society. As Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe put it, she is female, but she has not yet learned to be feminine.

Other female imagery of the Paleolithic

Not all Paleolithic imagery of women exists as statuettes. Examples have been found in painting, such as the drawing of the lower half of a woman on the ceiling of the cave at Chauvet (which strongly emphasises her crotch), and the three women engraved at Angles-sur-l’Anglin. An example of bas-relief is the image known as the ‘Woman with a Horn’. This is rare for being fixed art: it was engraved from limestone in a cave found at Laussel, near Lascaux in France.

Woman with a HornThe ‘Woman with a Horn’ from Laussel, ca. 25,000–20,000 years ago.

In her right hand the woman is holding a crescent-shaped object etched with thirteen incisions, towards which her head is turned. Commentators have seen the object as a bison horn; as a cornucopia, or ‘horn of plenty’; or as a moon, the incisions referring to the thirteen lunar months in the year. The woman’s left hand is placed upon her belly in what may be an indication of pregnancy, or a correspondence of the held object with her own cycle or the rhythms of nature. This is one of the few images where a theme of ‘fertility’ can claim some support from the artwork itself.

Another aspect of female imagery are engravings of what seem to be vulvae, carved into cave walls. Examples include those found near Les Eyzies in France. These are among the very earliest use of symbols, and the female pubic triangle survived as a symbol into the literate age as the basis for the Sumerian character for ‘woman’.

R. Dale Guthrie wrote that these images bore the “stamp of male youthful humour and ardour” and were “suggestive of unsophisticated, probably adolescent or juvenile, artists.”[4] But this may be little more than the old sexist reading in a new form. In a society that traced lineage through the mother, these images may have served as statements of stability, heritage or ultimate origin, or as celebrations of the reproductive power of women.

Interpretatively, we face the same difficulties as with the statuettes. These images would have had a great range of meanings specific to the cultures that produced them, but we do not know what they were: to see them as ‘sacred’ is a modern assumption. We can probably say that the predominance of images of female sexuality provide evidence that women were held in high regard during the Paleolithic. Yet even this is uncertain. If quantity alone were a measure of status, the magazine shelves of modern supermarkets would be evidence of outright gynocracy.


Our questions about the meaning of Paleolithic art in general, and of its depictions of women in particular, can currently be answered only by educated speculation. Archaeologists still have no idea whether Paleolithic art was made by men, women or both: if we knew the sex of the artists, it would cast new light upon those questions, although it would not by itself answer them. We don’t know why the figurines only appear in Eurasia, when humans had spread across most of the world. Our only option is a materialist analysis of the evidence, and self-awareness of our own cultural and gender assumptions.

We see nothing in Paleolithic art to contradict the belief that the sexes were of roughly equal status under primitive communism. The predominance of female images must however be explained. It probably reflects the central role of women in a matrilineal society that depended upon women for its own reproduction and for the majority of its calorie intake [5]. That ‘central role’ should not be mistaken for disproportionate political or economic power — matrilinearity does not mean matriarchy. Nor should the equality and peacefulness of prehistoric society be credited to women and their ‘nurturing’ nature, itself a gendered construct based upon subsequent prejudices; egalitarianism was in reality based upon the material limitations of production. Women are prominent in Paleolithic art for the same reason that animals are so prominent — they are central parts of the world view of those societies, and therefore of their artists.

In another article we will look at how the representation of women changed with their loss of status after the Neolithic Revolution.

[1] Leacock, Introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
[2] Patricia C. Rice, ‘Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of motherhood or womanhood?’, Journal of Anthropological Research 37 (1981).
[3] Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Mankind (2003).
[4] R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2006).
[5] See Piero P. Giorgi, ‘A new interpretation of female symbols and figures produced in prehistoric Europe — The hypothesis of the centrality of women’ (2007). Available in PDF format here.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The origins of women’s oppression

As we have seen, the Neolithic Revolution introduced many profound changes into human society. We have yet to consider one of the most important: the dominance of men over women.

This has been expressed differently across cultures, but the general pattern is true everywhere and persists today: most of the powerful positions in politics and the economy are occupied by men, who also have majority control of wealth both in society in general and within the family. Women are still expected to carry most of the burden of childcare and housework, and are disproportionately subject to physical assault and to sexual and economic exploitation.

This situation has prevailed for only a small portion of humanity’s existence, but it has had enormous consequences for women’s participation and representation in art. Before we discuss that, we need to understand its causes.

The most substantial contribution on women’s inequality by the founders of Marxism was Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. This has become dated in some respects, but its basic argument remains sound. Marxists recognise that our explanation of the origins of sexual inequality has to be based not on mythology or speculation but on anthropological evidence. Only when we understand the causes of inequality can we propose ways of solving it.

Women in prehistory

Marxism’s first premise is that the inequality of the sexes is not eternal and inevitable, but is rooted in material conditions. The alternative is to believe that males and females are born unequal, for which there is no evidence.

For ninety per cent of its existence, the human race lived in a more or less egalitarian society. This view, which was supported by Marx and Engels, has subsequently been confirmed by a great deal of anthropological research. Early humans lived in loose groupings where labour was probably divided according to sex, though we must remember there is no direct evidence for this. It’s likely that men went hunting for big game, while women foraged for plant foods such as fruit, berries and nuts, caught small animals and reared children. (This should not be seen rigidly — the women of the Agta in the Philippines, for example, are skilled hunters of game animals, although they hunt less than men. If they can do it, so could women in prehistoric communities.) But there was no social basis for either sex to oppress the other. Inequality in the distribution of power and resources is not possible until society is producing more than is necessary for subsistence alone. As it was, food and other resources had to be distributed equally to keep everyone alive.

Likewise, we do not know if tool-making was divided according to sex, but there is no reason why both sexes could not have made them.

In this context, women’s contribution would have been essential. Whereas our stereotype is of male hunters bringing home game that fed the tribe, the truth was probably rather different. The anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, studying the hunter-gatherer Aché Indians of Paraguay in the 1980s, found that men’s hunting success was very variable. As summarised by Jared Diamond:

The first surprising result from the studies by Hawkes and her colleagues concerned the difference between the returns achieved by men’s and women’s strategies. Peak yields were, of course, much higher for men than for women, since a man’s daily bag topped 40,000 calories when he was lucky enough to kill a peccary. However, a man’s average daily return of 9,634 calories proved to be lower than that of a woman (10,356) and a man’s median return was much lower (4,663 calories per day) was much lower. The reason for this paradoxical result is that the glorious days when a man bagged a peccary were greatly outnumbered by the humiliating days when he returned empty-handed.[1]

Given the vagaries of hunting, prehistoric women were actually more consistently productive in calorie terms than men were. In a subsistence society, it is highly unlikely that this contribution would have been undervalued. In fact, many anthropologists believe that it was initially women who were in charge of planting and cultivating. The archaeologist Margaret Ehrenberg argued that women’s foraging role meant that they were particularly aware of where plants grew, their life cycle, how they responded to sun and rain, and so on:

The discovery of farming techniques has usually been assumed to have been made by men, but it is in fact very much more likely to have been made by women. On the basis of anthropological evidence for societies still living foraging lifestyles and those living by simple, non-mechanical farming, taken in conjunction with direct archaeological evidence, it seems probable that it was women who made the first observations of plant behaviour, and worked out, presumeably by long trial and error, how to grow and tend crops.[2]

This command of resources gave women considerable control over the decisions of the tribe, including the ability to veto wars they didn’t approve of.[3]

Some archaeologists, in particular Marija Gimbutas, have proposed that in prehistory women were worshipped and dominated society. A belief in prehistoric matriarchy has even been ascribed to Engels, whereas Origin states that prehistoric women were relative equals, supreme only in the household; lines of descent went through the female line, yet matrilineality is not the same thing as matriarchy. The theory has more to do with wishful thinking by some feminists than reality, as the evidence is unconvincing. Under a subsistence economy it is unlikely that any group could universally exert authority at the expense of others.

The advent of sexual inequality

The exact steps by which sexual inequality emerged are still unclear, but the general pattern is not. The key advance of the Neolithic Revolution was to greatly increase productivity, and this favoured those who had the greatest control of that production. This affected women in two ways.

Paleolithic women’s food-gathering role would have posed no problems for their other major social function, the bearing of children. Nor would childbearing have dominated women’s lives to the extent that it did, for example, in 19th century Europe. Nomadic people are limited to the number of children they can carry with them, which imposes a four-year interval between births until a child can learn to walk by itself; in addition there is no incentive to reproduce more mouths than the subsistence economy can support.

In Neolithic society, beginning around 12–10,000 years ago, these conditions changed. Sedentary agriculturalists can give birth more often, and valued larger families because they increased the amount of available labour. This put a heavier burden of childbearing upon women.

After the technical innovations of ploughing and herding, the heavy work that was necessary for the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals was much less compatible with childbearing than Paleolithic gathering had been. Men were already in charge of cattle, because of their history of hunting such animals; now they took on more responsibility for agriculture too. Childe wrote:

The plough changed farming from plot cultivation to agriculture (the tillage of fields)… It relieved women of the most exacting drudgery but deprived them of their monopoly over the cereal crops and the social status that conferred. Among barbarians, whereas women normally hoe plots, it is men who plough fields. And in even the oldest Sumerian and Egyptian documents the ploughmen really are males.[4]

Egyptian ploughmanAncient Egyptian mural painting of a man plowing, from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1200 BCE.

So, as a result of the shift to a new economy, women were gradually excluded from the area of production in which the most dramatic productive advances were being made. As productivity increased, so did the wealth and importance of men relative to women in society. At the same time, the increased productivity of labour meant increased pressure on women’s reproductive role as childbearers. The great advance for humanity represented by the Neolithic Revolution was thus accompanied by a huge step backwards for women, who gradually became subordinated to men. Women were more and more confined to the household, while economic power was moving in the opposite direction.

The second way in which women were affected was the rise of class society and the development of the family within it. The Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock made a key point:

It is crucial to the organisation of women for their liberation to understand that it is the monogamous family as an economic unit, at the heart of class society, that is basic to their subjugation.[5]

As we have seen, the production of a surplus after the Neolithic Revolution meant that a minority in society began to acquire a disproportionate control over resources, and therefore also of power. This ruling class used this control to organise society in a way that entrenched and extended its privileges.

One expression of this was the shift from the loose, collective pairing of hunter-gatherer society to a new form of family, in which the male and female partners were strictly tied to one another and property rights were held by the male. This family form was necessary to the ruling class as it allowed wealth to be inherited within the family, i.e. it allowed the ruling class to reproduce and perpetuate itself. The woman was little more than her husband’s servant, expected to rear children and perform domestic chores. In Origin, Engels wrote:

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.[6]

This took a variety of forms across different cultures, but the assumed inferiority of women is universal outside of surviving hunter-gatherer societies. Thus the ruling class that emerged from the Neolithic Revolution was also a male-dominated ruling class.

To take one example of how this was expressed, human lineage in prehistoric society was often — it is impossible to be sure of the extent — measured through the mother. A child’s maternity was incontestable, whereas paternity was always open to doubt (not least because many early societies practiced much looser forms of marriage). This practice of matrilinearity, or ‘mother right’, came into conflict with the principle of male dominance. Engels explained:

Thus, on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance... Mother right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was.[7]

Lineage through the mother was replaced by lineage through the father, but this was not enough. To guarantee that he was indeed the father of his wife’s children, a man had to exert considerable sexual control over her, and a monogamous family arose in which female sexuality became taboo. Centuries of sexual repression and hypocrisy have resulted. Engels concluded:

The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.

Out of this concrete social relationship rose ideologies seeking to reinforce inequality by making it seem inevitable. Ideas went into circulation that are still current: men are by nature more aggressive, women are nurturing, mothers are especially important to children, war is no place for a woman, boys don’t cry, women must worry about their looks, men must sow their wild oats, and so on. Women’s role in childbirth led to suggestions that they were closer to ‘Nature’ and to a passive kind of ‘spirituality’. Men and women were expected not only to believe these ideas but to try and live up to prescribed gender identities in their behaviour.


The reactionary explanation of sexual inequality is that men are innately more aggressive and domineering than women, i.e. that male dominance is natural and inevitable. But the predominance of men has only existed for a very small and recent period in human society. Inequality is not rooted in innate differences between male and female biology or psychology, but in the development of productive forces through history.[8] This is a fact that only dialectical materialism can properly explain — bourgeois theories have to resort to the ‘nature’ argument to some extent because for political reasons they must resist the full implications of materialism.

Another theory widespread among feminists is that of ‘patriarchy’. The term literally means ‘rule of the father’, usually in the context of the family or household, but has become little more than an alternative term for male dominance. This theory has its basis in the uneasiness of bourgeois feminism with Marxism. It tends to assert the same ideas of innate male oppressiveness, merely from a more critical perspective. For this reason it offers no solution to sexual inequality because it does not understand it as a historical question.

Biology has been important — ‘male’ and ‘female’ have no meaning outside it — but only because it is women who give birth to children; the historical stage at which this difference determined the inequality of the sexes is long past. Women were not forced into submission by male aggression: the change in their status took thousands of years, and followed a socio-economic logic based upon the interests of society in increased production and reproduction.

However, human beings are rarely fully aware of the historical processes they are swept up in, and society came to believe its own propaganda — officially, at any rate. Male dominance came to be seen as ‘inevitable’ and decreed by the gods. (This pattern, wherein developments based upon particular historical conditions are mistaken for absolute and universal truths, is repeated again and again across history.) The egalitarianism of prehistoric society was conveniently forgotten as new interests were asserted.

Even when new techniques made the physical differences between men and women irrelevant to production, class society persisted with the male-dominated family because it drew several benefits from it. Firstly, women’s domestic role meant that future generations of labour were reared and supported at little cost to the ruling class.[9] Secondly, the family became an important means of passing on ‘official’ ideology to those new generations — respect for the monarchy, one’s obligations to the ruling class, subservience to religion, the superiority of men over women, etc — which could be asserted against more dangerous notions of class and gender solidarity. Thirdly, restricting women’s status in the workplace creates a pool of labourers who can be paid less, for the same work, than men. And fourthly, the right to inherit wealth within the family is as important for the bourgeoisie as it was to the nobility in ancient civilisations. It is for this reason that Marx and Engels argued that “it is with the abolition of private property that the abolition of the family is self-evident”.[10]

The result of all this for art was, and is, that it disproportionately represents male experience. This has been an inescapable fact of artistic production ever since the establishment of civilisation, and we shall return to this topic again as the blog progresses. I will take a look at the representation of women in early art in the next article.

[1] Jared Diamond, Why is Sex Fun? (1997). Diamond argues that men hunted, despite lower calorie yields, because they could trade their occasional bonanzas for adulterous sex.
[2] Margaret Ehrenburg, Women in Prehistory (1989).
[3] See for example Judith Brown, ‘Iroquois Women’, published in Rayna Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975).
[4] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[5] Eleanor Leacock, Introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
[6] Engels, Ch. II The Family, 4 The Monogamous Family from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[7] Ibid., Ch. II The Family, 3 The Pairing Family.
[8] To take a contemporary example, girls today outperform boys in the education system. Many responses to this place huge emphasis on differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, etc, whereas the real cause of the difference is socialisation, such as the idea that it is not ‘cool’ for boys to study hard. It is only by encouraging different attitudes in boys that their underachievement can be resolved. This however means overturning many long-cherished, even Romantic, assumptions about male behaviour.
[9] This is one of the reasons underlying the right’s insistence upon the importance of the family. The family operates as a kind of welfare system for its members, thus sparing the state from responsibility for supporting them.
[10] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (1845–6).

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Early civilisation, part 3: The art of Mesopotamia

The world’s oldest known civilisation was Sumer in present-day Iraq [1], a culture comprising a series of city states that was well established by 3000 BCE.

Obviously, such dates can only ever be approximate. The establishment of a culture is a process, influenced by other pre-existing and contemporaneous cultures. Early settlement in the region is attested by the site of Jarmo in the north-east, which dates to about 7000 BCE (roughly contemporary with Jericho and Çatalhöyük) and provided evidence of agriculture, female figurines and other typical artifacts. By the 4th millenium BCE, the Sumerians, or the ‘black-headed people’ as they called themselves, had built the most sophisticated culture the world had yet seen.

Taking control of the land was itself a struggle. Childe observed: “Arable land had literally to be created out of a chaos of swamps and sand banks by a ‘separation’ of land from water; the swamps... drained; the floods controlled; and lifegiving waters led to the rainless desert by artificial canals.” [2] He also suggested that this separation of the land and waters may have inspired the story of creation as retold in Genesis.[3] What is certain is that a huge amount of labour must have been invested.

The annual floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates were unpredictable: a low flood could mean famine, a high flood disaster to homes and crops. Shifts in the courses of the rivers could be very damaging for a city. But the valley was fertile, and the Sumerians practiced year-round agriculture, raising a big surplus by irrigating the plains between the rivers and harnessing ploughs to draught animals to turn the soil more efficiently. The scale and innovation of their labour allowed, and necessitated, managers who would organise the irrigation canals and oversee agricultural production, as well as encouraging vital new skills in surveying, mathematics and technology. Key villages came to prominence and towns grew up around their temples.

Map of MesopotamiaAncient Mesopotamia. Map: Eugene Hirschfeld. The position of Akkad is an educated guess, as the site has not yet been found.

During the Ubaid period, villages and towns such as Eridu were built with mud-brick buildings. It was around this time that the wheel was invented — a tool that could not have been developed before agriculture and specialist labour, as it requires roads and draught animals. By 3200 BCE the first true city had appeared: Uruk, at the time possibly the largest urban settlement in the world. Other cities followed, amongst them Lagash, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, Mari, Ashur and Babylon. The old kinship systems broke down as strangers from all over the region congregated in the towns. Mesopotamia’s shortage of resources (such as stone, wood, metals and precious materials) encouraged trade and cultural exchange; at the same time, the coveting of others’ resources — never a major issue for subsistence-level societies — provoked the world’s first true wars. Confronted with new problems of social order, Mesopotamian kings created systems of law. As temples and a caste of priests arose in the cities, religion appeared in its modern form. A class structure emerged with a mass of farming peasants supporting a ruling class of priests, courtiers and kings; this was accompanied by a state with centralised administration, written records, and the use of slave labour. Mesopotamia had become the ‘cradle of civilisation’.

The effect of Sumer’s development was to establish Mesopotamia as a geo-political entity, though its various peoples never came up with a name for it. The name ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from ancient Greek and means the ‘land between the rivers’, but this is too narrow to properly define the region — an area stretching from southern Turkey to Iran, from the western deserts to the hills of the north-east. Empires based in cities such as Akkad, Babylon and Assur would overwhelm Sumer, which disappeared as a political entity after the destruction of Ur by the Elamites in 2000 BCE, but each successive power built upon the cultural foundations it had laid. The region was about the size of Belgium, yet only ancient Egypt rivals Mesopotamia in importance in the history of early civilisation.

The art of Sumer and Akkad

Our topic covers a period of 3000 years and a succession of ancient cultures: Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians and many more, some of which lose prominence only to be resurgent later. In this article I can only touch upon a few aspects of Mesopotamian art, and will keep to the early phase of its history — some aspects, such as literature, I will look at elsewhere.

Even before Mesopotamian civilisation came to maturity, it was producing cultural objects of high quality. Crockery and pottery from the Samarran and Halafian periods are finely made and painted with designs of great elegance and simplicity, ranging from dots and strokes to human figures. Pottery is suited to a sedentary lifestyle, and besides its practical purpose it communicated social messages — such as a sense of shared identity and custom. Pottery like the Samarra ware was the work of skilled specialists, a prestige product which implies the existence of social stratification.

Later the Ubaid period saw the first public and lavishly decorated temples, representing the growth not only of the social surplus product but also of an emerging class basis in society. At Tell Uqair in the early Uruk period, we find fresco paintings, early cylinder seals (see below), and the first appearance of writing. By the 30th century BCE, writing ushers in what is known as the ‘proto-literate’ period, which features the ‘Jemdet Nasr ware’ pottery found at a site north-east of Babylon, vigorous sculptures depicting animal combats and hunting scenes, and a striking head of a woman, possibly the goddess Inanna, carved from marble.

As we have discussed, art following the Urban Revolution was defined by a huge extent by the disproportionate power over resources held by the ruling class [4]. Class society is very clearly illustrated on the object known as the ‘Standard of Ur’, a hollow wooden box excavated from the site of the ancient city of Ur in the 1920s. Its purpose still unclear — possibly it was the soundbox of a musical instrument — it is decorated with a mosaic of red limestone, shell and lapis lazuli depicting aspects of Sumerian society in two main panels. These have been dubbed ‘war’ and ‘peace’. On the top row of the ‘peace’ panel, we see a king sitting among his courtiers, and in the next two rows we see the farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen who supported the leisured class.

The Standard of UrDetail from the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BCE. The king sits at top left.

The Standard of Ur was found at one of the great sources of Sumerian art: the cemetery of Ur, containing 2500 graves dug near the city wall. Excavations in the early 1920s uncovered deep burial chambers or ‘death pits’ from around 2500 BCE, in which lay the remains of men and women clearly of high status. Buried with them were huge numbers of ‘art objects’ which make the tombs the single most remarkable find in Mesopotamia. You can see some of these wonderful objects here. They included decorated vessels; jewellery; gilded daggers; golden cups and bowls; a gaming board inlaid with lapis lazuli and shell; a golden helmet said to belong to a king named Meskalamdug; harps; a wooden lyre, decorated with a bull’s head of beaten gold and plaques of shell depicting scenes with people and animals; and a pair of sculptures known as a ‘ram caught in a thicket’ depicting a ram with its forelegs resting on a branching plant, made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone, and bitumen. The tomb of a lady or queen named Pu-abi contained, as well as her body and other expensive items, a head-dress comprising hundreds of pieces of gold and other precious materials formed as leaves, rosettes and pendants.

Whereas many Sumerians were buried beneath the floor of family homes, the lavish burial gifts in what became known as the Royal Tombs of Ur are evidence that these were nobles, a conclusion corroborated by cylinder seals referring to monarchs by name [5]. The items show the highest standards of workmanship and the existence of long-distance trade that could provide rare materials not found in Sumer. They also provide evidence of the ritual attached to persons of high social status, and of a belief in some kind of life after death.

Ram Caught in a Thicket‘Ram Caught in a Thicket’, found in the Death Pit at Ur. Photo: mharrsch (Flickr).

With the Sumerians we see the basic system of belief that has characterised religion ever since: that the world was created by a pantheon of gods (in later religions, one god) whom humans were obliged to worship if their lives were to be successful. The centrality of religious beliefs and structures in the early civilisations is embodied in the temples which, alongside royal palaces, formed the most impressive buildings in the Mesopotamian city states. These were centres of economic organisation as much as of religion. The priesthood had control over food distribution, owned vast estates, and organised mass labour, all of which required a well-trained bureaucracy. In addition it devised elaborate rituals within the temples, intended to flatter and appease particular deities — these used music, hymns, incense and images of deities.

Some of the surviving objects of worship are statuettes, such as those found under the temple at Tell Asmar, to place before altars as proxy worshippers. It is likely that the joined hands of these figures represent an attitude of prayer, and that the wide blue eyes symbolise adoration of the deity.

Alabaster statuette from MariAlabaster statuette of an official named Ebih-Il, ca. 2400 BCE, found at the Sumerian city of Mari.

These figurines seem only to represent members of the elite — scribes, priests, officials etc.

The temples themselves were decorated with frescos, mosaics and sculptures, and supported singers, potters, jewellers, bronze-workers and other artisans. One of the finest creations of early Sumer was the Warka vase, dating to the proto-literate period of Uruk ca. 3000 BCE (Warka is the modern Arab name for Uruk). This three-foot alabaster vase was found in the grounds of the temple of the goddess Inanna, who was also known as Ishtar. It is carved with four bands of narrative relief carvings. At the bottom is a wavy line symbolising water, then there are depictions of cereals and domesticated animals — rams and ewes. Further up we see a procession of men bearing vessels, and the top band shows a female figure who is probably Inanna, and appears to be receiving gifts of animals, platters, etc. The Assyriologist Gwendolyn Leick wrote “there is a simplicity and single-minded purposefulness in the scene, stately and timeless, dignified and measured”:

The vessels and baskets that feature on these reliefs... embody the reality of the Uruk culture, the economic source of its enormous wealth and its meticulous distribution. It presents a well-ordered and well-managed world, sustainable and stable, confident to meet the challenges of collective life, perhaps the vision of the urban élite who celebrated the ritual aspects of distribution.[6]

More modest, though great in number, were cylinder seals. These were cylinders of stone used to roll one’s personal graphic ‘signature’ into clay tablets during a transaction, and have been found in temple grounds, underlining the very worldly purpose of the religious institutions. The seals are small and sometimes show considerable craftsmanship, depicting scenes from both peace and war with gods, animals, rituals and other images of ancient life.

The pre-eminence of Early Dynastic Sumer was short-lived. To its north lay the city of Akkad (Sumerian ‘Agade’), home to a Semitic people who unified the city states by conquest in around 2350 BCE. To celebrate and proclaim what was the world’s first empire, the Akkadian king Sargon and his successors had steles erected, bearing royal inscriptions and images of war — a stele is a stone slab or pillar, erected to mark territory but also to proclaim military victories.

Victory stele of Narâm-SinVictory stele of Narâm-Sin, ca. 2250 BCE.

One of the most famous of these is the Stele of Narâm-Sin, grandson of Sargon. About two metres high and carved from pink limestone, it shows Narâm-Sin armed with a bow, trampling corpses as he conquers the Lullubi mountain people. Such works arose only because successive kings owned the resources to compete militarily for dominance of the opulent city-states of Sumer. The riches on offer appealed to the peoples of the mountains too, and constant campaigns had to be fought to keep them at bay. On the stele, Narâm-Sin is depicted as considerably larger than the other figures, a giant before whose victories the disobedient tremble.

Through such works, a king could make his presence felt throughout his realm, assert the futility of challenges to his power, and declare the benefits he had conferred upon the people and the divine favour he enjoyed. They may therefore be seen as early pieces of public propaganda art.

Neo-Sumerian culture

After about 200 years, Akkad lost its grip over Mesopotamia and the individual cities reasserted themselves. One of them was Lagash: the stylised likeness of its king, Gudea, survives in over twenty statues carved from polished black diorite, which represent some of the best sculpture of the time. These images are unimposing, perhaps because the range of Gudea’s influence was modest. Inscriptions praise him more for the building of temples than for conquest — temples that are now lost.

Sumer would reassert its dominance of the region during its Third Dynasty period (2150–2000 BCE), also known as the ‘neo-Sumerian’, which saw what the French Assyriologist Georges Roux called ‘an extraordinary renaissance in all branches of Sumerian art and literature’ [7]. It was the gifted king Ur-Nammu who ordered the building of the Great Ziggurat of Ur — completed by his son Shulgi — the remains of which are still impressive today [8]. After being built up on a core of fired mud bricks, the Great Ziggurat would not have been the drab brown we see today but covered in glazed terracotta tiles, making it highly colourful.

Ziggurats were a product of both economic and material conditions: as cities prospered, their temples, which were modest at first, gradually grew upwards. As each old mud-brick building had to be rebuilt, it became a kind of platform for the next, which may have inspired the stepped pyramid. The lack of stone in Mesopotamia meant that mud and clay predominated as architectural materials, and fired bricks tended to be reserved for buildings of importance because the rarity of wood fuel made them expensive. This partly explains why so little remains of those great cities: their buildings were worn down by rain or split apart by earthquakes, and once left unattended simply crumbled away.

Symbolically, a ziggurat with its hundreds of stairs implies an ascension to heaven. Unlike an Egyptian pyramid, there is nothing on the inside, and it is likely that rituals were carried out in shrines on the top stage. As such it was both spiritually and physically the most important architectural statement in a city, its monumentality underlining the power structure with which religion was so intimately tied.


Mesopotamia would again fall into war with the incursions of the Elamites and Amorites, until the rise of an empire established by the Babylonians around 1800 BCE.

During the reign of its king Hammurabi, Babylon, which had been a prosperous city for several centuries, became the principal power in Mesopotamia. Its empire spread from the Mediterranean to Assyria and the Persian Gulf. Hammurabi is best remembered today for the ‘Code of Hammurabi’, his famous set of nearly three hundred laws.[9] (They are not, as sometimes asserted, the earliest known — that honour goes to some surviving laws of Ur-Nammu.) The Code was inscribed upon steles, one of which still survives and is an aesthetic object in itself. Carved from black basalt, it stands eight feet high and bears 282 finely engraved laws.

Code of HammurabiTop section of the Code of Hammurabi. The original stele is now in the Louvre.

In a carving at the top, Hammurabi himself (left) is depicted receiving a sceptre and ring — insignia of royal power — from the god Shamash (seated). This imagery of divinely-endorsed kingship is supported by the preface, which states: “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers”.

The empire of the Old Babylonian period, consolidated under Hammurabi, lasted 300 years, and was eclipsed by the primacy of the Kassites, Assyrians and other peoples for centuries. Not until the Babylonians and Medes overthrew the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BCE would a new period of dominance see Babylon, in the words of the Greek historian Herodotus, ‘surpassing in splendour any city of the known world’. Some of this splendour still survives in the glazed brickwork of the gate of Ishtar and Avenue of the Lions. Two other neo-Babylonian architectural splendours were the ziggurat Etemenanki, or ‘Foundation of Heaven and Earth’, the largest ziggurat in Mesopotamia and possible inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel; and the Hanging Gardens, later described by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.[10]

Some characteristics of Mesopotamian art

The only analysis of Mesopotamian art by an explicitly Marxist writer of which I am aware is by Arnold Hauser, who comments in The Social History of Art:

The real problem of Mesopotamian art consists in the fact that, despite an economy based predominantly on trade and industry, finance and credit, it has a more rigidly disciplined, less changeable, less dynamic character than the art of Egypt...[11]

Hauser argues that Mesopotamian art is even more conventionalised than the Egyptian despite its “more mobile and more directly urban economy”. In my view the reverse is true: Mesopotamian art is in fact less rigidly disciplined, more changeable, and more dynamic than Egyptian art, precisely because its highly developed economy existed in the framework of a network of city states subject to an ebb and flow of natural and political fortunes. Hauser emphasises Babylonian and Assyrian art without mentioning the many other cultures of the region. Certainly the friezes and ‘doorkeeper’ sculptures of the Assyrian empire are stylised and rationalistic, but against them one may place the relative realism and subtlety of the best Early Dynastic statuettes of Sumer. Hauser, not for the first time, makes the error of over-simplifying his subject.

The rise of the Mesopotamian cultures was one of the defining moments of human history — a tremendously creative period in which technical advances were matched by new artistic achievements. The sophistication and technique of these early artworks are undeniable, but they did not develop in isolation. Despite its productive farmland, Mesopotamia faced a number of challenges — poverty of natural resources, unpredictable floods, natural barriers like the desert and the mountains. Civilisation had to be wrestled from nature, and human society’s stake was high. Materials for Mesopotamia’s luxurious works of art — such as diorite, gold, silver, carnelian and lapis lazuli — had to come from abroad, helping to develop trade routes by land and sea to Afghanistan, Egypt, Nubia, the Indus, and elsewhere. Mesopotamia’s flowering assisted neighbouring cultures in a process of diffusion, influencing not only the Near East but ancient Greece too. Here is Georges Roux again:

It is now generally recognised that the Aesopian fable had Sumero-Akkadian antecedents and that Gilgamesh was the prototype of both Heracles and Ulysses, while a glance at the archaic statues and figurines of continental and insular Greece reveals at once strong affinities with earlier or contemporary Mesopotamian works.[12]

The innovations seen in Mesopotamia were also to appear in other parts of the world. Cultures with writing, bureaucracy, astronomy and science developed independently as far away as China and Meso-America. What all these cultures had in common was the huge impetus given to thought, society, technology and culture by the agricultural revolution, and the basic similarity of their social structure — class society, religion, trade, law, and in most cases writing — is striking.

Although dominated by a succession of cultures, there is a certain common identity to Mesopotamian art. It is a conventionalised art, in the thrall of kings and organised religion: bodily features tend to be seen from their most representative angle and figures tend to be shown in sizes relative to their status. Gods, exhibiting very human behaviours, are prominent as subjects. Temples and palaces with frescos and sculptures become the dominant architecture in cities which feature gardens, columns, terraces, courtyards, defensive walls and so on. Highly standardised stone relief carvings depict events such as festivals, construction or battles. Art was used to celebrate military victories over rival cities, depicting pillaging and the killing or humiliation of prisoners.

What these characteristics have in common is to show the dependence of art both upon a culture’s physical environment and on its social structures. In the transition from Stone to Bronze Age we can see plainly that art is part of a superstructure raised upon an economic base — higher productivity after the Neolithic Revolution led to greater wealth, specialists, organised religion, the state, warfare and class society. The new forms taken by art flow from those developments.

Further reading
Near Eastern antiquities at the Louvre
The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on Mesopotamia
The Met Museum’s Art of the First Cities
Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
The International World History Project on Mesopotamia

Youtube user easeen has posted the History Channel documentary Civilisations: The Gardens of Babel (2006), a popular show narrated by Simon Chilvers. See the episode in six parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

[1] Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a huge amount of damage has been done to the legacy of this culture, either through the looting of museums, combat, or deliberate archaeological vandalism by the invaders.
[2] V. Gordon Childe, New Light on the Most Ancient East (1954).
[3] See Man Makes Himself.
[4] Sumerian artifacts not only attest to the existence of class society, but even also to class struggle, that is, the political conflict that results from the contradictory interests of different classes in society. In early written documents, King Urukagina of Lagash is credited with stopping administrators from plundering the orchards of the poor and other acts against abuse, measures that suggest the victims were raising their voices in protest.
[5] Another sign of the power of class society even at this early date was that these individuals were accompanied by mass burials of servants and soldiers. It is not clear exactly how or why they died, but it has been speculated that they were killed so the privileged class might pass to the next world with the attendants they had been accustomed to in life.
[6] Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (2001).
[7] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, revised 1992).
[8] The ziggurat was partially rebuilt in modern times.
[9] You can read the text of the Code of Hammurabi here.
[10] Although none of them had actually seen it.
[11] Arnold Hauser, Vol. 1 of The Social History of Art (1951).
[12] Georges Roux, op. cit.