Ceramic Fragments Point to Artistry in the Ice Age

By Alana Mitchell, New York Times

Published online, September 10, 2012

We know them best for their stone tools and intrepid mammoth hunting. But new discoveries in Croatia suggest that ice age humans made evocative ceramic art far more regularly than once believed.

Thirty-six fragments of fired clay, excavated in the Vela Spila cave on an island off the Adriatic coast, make up the second-largest collection found so far of the earliest human experiments with ceramic art. They are 15,000 to 17,500 years old — the first European evidence of ceramic art after the ice sheets stopped spreading.

The oldest and largest collection, made about 30,000 years ago and found in the Czech Republic, includes a famously corpulent nude figurine known as the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. Apart from that, little fired ceramic art remains from the time before the explosion of ceramic pot-making 10,000 years ago, after the ice sheets retreated and early humans settled down to farm.

That led paleontologists to believe that ceramic art was uncommon among the highly mobile people of the ice age. But Rebecca Farbstein, the University of Cambridge archaeologist who described the Croatian collection in a recent paper in the journal PLoS One, said the work was not so unusual after all.

“The history of ceramic technology is longer and more diverse than we originally thought,” she said.

The most lifelike piece found at Vela Spila (the term is Croatian for big cave) is the tiny dark brown torso and foreleg of an animal, possibly a horse or deer, complete with a smooth, anatomically correct hole in its rear. But when the piece was uncovered in 2001, the team stuffed it into a bag without identification.

“It was overlooked because no one expected to find ceramics in the Paleolithic,” Dr. Farbstein said.

Five years later, someone looked in the bag and realized what the figure was. When scientists went back to the cave that year to excavate further, they found the other 35 ceramic art pieces.

Olga Soffer, an emerita professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois who has worked on the Czech ceramics, said the find reinforced the idea that ceramic work — a major, complex technological breakthrough in human history — was invented for art rather than utility.

In turn, that helps flesh out the modern understanding of how early human minds worked: more metaphor, less blood.

“Life was lived by more than stone spear point,” Dr. Soffer said. “It gets us away from the Hemingway, mega-macho male stuff.”

Dr. Farbstein said her analysis of the Vela Spila findings suggested that the inhabitants of the cave independently developed their own form of ceramic art more than 10,000 years after the Czech invention.

Read the full New York Times article here.