Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The bare bones of it: ignore the hype, believe the reality

Robin Skeates
It has been billed as the exhibition everyone should see. “Rare and beautiful’ says The Telegraph, “Astonishing” says Metro, so it seems a perfect fit to have
Robin Skeates
, an expert in prehistoric Europe at Durham University, weigh in on ‘Ice Age Art: The Arrival of the Modern Mind’ at The British Museum for the first post to ‘Can you dig it?’.
“There may be no such thing as reality these days (Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation killed it off), but if you go and see the ‘Ice Age Art’ exhibition at the British Museum (open until the 26th May) your faith in the ‘real thing’ might be partially restored.
On display is a great collection of Palaeolithic portable art, assembled from museums across Europe – from France to Russia. Even the über-figurine, the Venus of Willendorf, is present … in the form of a curvaceous bar of hand-made, vegan soap from Shetland on sale in the exhibition shop. But the original Palaeolithic objects are compelling – to the extent that my fellow visitors simply ignored most of the modernist artworks placed alongside them for comparative purposes. Having seen many of the artefacts in photographs, it was revealing to figure out the true scale of these objects, to be reminded just how many were carved from the bones of hunted animals, to see details such as the skirt on the Venus of Lespugne, to imagine the leaping horse baton from Montastruc being used in motion, to fall in love with a little modelled fish from the same site, and to feel guilty at gazing a little too long at the breasts on a stick-figurine from Dolní Vestonice. It was also somehow reassuring to see how fragmentary and fragile objects such as the ‘Lion Man’ from Stadel Cave really are. And seeing all these things together made them seem more feasible, more real.

So, ignore the media hype, ignore the uninspiring text panels, and ignore – if you can – the pervasive, high-pitched, electro-acoustic dripping noises that accompany the video montage of cave art (or was it someone’s mobile phone dying?). The real thing is so much better. And for those of you who still don’t believe in reality, you must see the original of the exhibition poster image – a tiny figurine of yellow steatite on loan from the Musée des antiquités nationales at Saint Germain en Laye, which bought it in 1896 from Louis Alexandre Jullien, who ‘found’ it in one of the Balzi Rossi caves: it’s probably a fake!”

Read more about the exhibition.


  1. Baudrillard died at a ripe old age in 2007, and I believe the need to refer to him in archaeological discourse was killed off some years before that.

  2. I can only agree, an exhibition absolutely worth seeing even if the Lion Man was not really real since it was just a replica :) The freshly restaurated one with elongated neck will return in November to its home museum in Ulm.

    If you are in the London area ... an archaeological must!