Product has been added to the basket

Ice Age Art

Douglas Palmer visits the British Museum’s new exhibition

Exhibition: Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind
7 February – 26 May
Room 35 - The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London
Entry fee £10. Late opening: Fridays
Booking T: 020 7323 8181
For trailer, see

Picture: Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other. Approximately 13,000 years old, from Montastruc, France.  Courtesy, British Museum.

BM Ice age art

Carved images of Ice Age ‘Art’, mostly dating from between 35,000 and 15,000 years ago, including the fauna of the time as well as the so-called ‘Venus figurines’ of pregnant women are familiar enough from photographs but seeing the real thing is still something of a shock.

The generally recognised history of art spans not much more than the last 3000 years but some of these objects are ten times as old. I know that might not seem very much to us as geologists used to thinking in terms of million of years but when we place such antiquity in the Middle to Late Devensian and its associated climate change, it becomes not only impressive but very interesting. How did these people manage the extraordinary swings in climate, especially the Last glacial Maximum, which saw a significant increase in the production of Ice Age art?

The number of original objects of Ice Age Art (over 130) assembled by the British Museum, represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see works normally scattered through the archaeological museums of western Europe from London to Brno. Photographic reproduction however good, cannot put across the full sophistication of representation and the evident skill with which these remarkable objects were made.

The imagination employed their makers employed was impressive enough to intrigue modern artists such as Picasso. But should we even use the word art for works whose function was varied and generally unclear? Many of the objects currently on display in the British Museum’s Room 35 were perforated and designed to be hung and presumably worn as pendants but were they just ornamental? Other images were evidently decorative on otherwise functional, tools such as spear throwers. Others, such as the numerous exploded pottery figurines of animals and pregnant women found at Dolni Vestonice, were carefully formed only to be destroyed through thermal shock in a kiln.

The materials chosen for the carvings and engravings were mostly mammoth ivory, bone, and antler and were not that easy to work. The forms often reflect the nature of the medium used. Mammoth ivory objects are obviously constrained by the diameter of the tusk, the extent of the pulp cavity and to some extent by its structural ‘grain’, especially the nerve canal, which also controls their subsequent degradation over millennia.

The miniature netsuke-like scale of many of the objects is initially surprising but should not be when one considers that they were evidently made to be portable. The famous Geissenklosterle Cave relief human figure on mammoth ivory, known as ‘the worshipper’ is only 3.8 cm high and many of the very simplified female figures, also of mammoth ivory or bone, are only four or five centimetres high.


What is surprising is the fine precision and confidence with which the Upper Palaeolithic makers of these works produced line and form. These people clearly knew exactly what they were doing with a well-developed ‘picture’ in mind before the work was begun. The results make the work of many modern artists look ‘primitive’ by comparison. In this sense the Ice Age art is similar to the production of bifacial stone tools, which also require the mind to hold a preformed image of the tool before it can be made. The animalistic images and forms show a deep and detailed understanding of their subject matter – the lions, bears, mammoth etc were all as familiar and closely observed as domestic dogs and cats are to us today.

Apart from their self-evident cultural value, the existence of the work has specific areas of interest for geologists and palaeontologists in particular. Most of the material on exhibition is Eurasian and is distributed from Robin Hood Cave in the Creswell Crags, Derbyshire to Dolni Vestonice in Moravia and as far into the east as Mal’ta in Siberia. and dates from between 35k up to 15k, in other words within the Middle to Late Devensian, including the Last Glacial Maximum.


The dating of the work is often problematic because many of the objects were found in the uncontrolled ‘cave-art rush’ of the late 19th Century. Often, the all important stratigraphic context was lost as cave deposits were just shovelled out by the haphazard search process. Most dating has had to rely on associated subfossil animal remains. These include remains of many members of the spectacular Late Pleistocene bestiary, which interacted with the Late Palaeolithic people as both predators and prey. They ranged from wolverines and bears to big cats, giant deer, reindeer, woolly rhinos and mammoths along with aurochs, bison, musk ox, horses, ibex, seals, fish such as salmon and sole, birds including the Great Auk, swans and ptarmigan - and of course humans.

What is perhaps curious is the lack of representation of animals that were common at the time, such as wolves and foxes, beavers, hyena etc. Is it just that these were not hunted as food animals? Most but not all of these animals are seen in the exhibition but are shown in the excellent accompanying book ‘Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind’ by Jill Cook who curated the exhibition.

From the palaeobiological point of view, the engravings and carvings often show details of soft tissue form not preserved in fossils and they sometimes depict behaviour that can only otherwise be inferred through comparison with living relatives. Most famous is the depiction of the mammoth with its long hair, characteristic profile that is so different from that of living elephants, especially the ‘topknot’ on the skull, fat hump on the shoulders, small ears small tail, ‘two-fingered’ tip to the trunk etc.

A visit to the exhibition is well worth the effort and the £10 entry fee but if you cannot get to it, consider the book. As I have said, looking at photos is not the same thing as seeing the originals of these remarkable objects. However, the book is a stand-alone work, which covers much more background information that can be gleaned from the exhibition and it illustrates many more works than are on display.

  • Book: Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind by Jill Cook, Published by: British Museum Press; Publication: February 2013; ISBN 978 0 7141 2333 2 HB (hbk); 240pp
    List price £30,