Category Archives for Ancient Art

Stone Age Art

The stone age can be divided into two key phases, The Paleolithic era, which refers to the “old” stone age and the Neolithic era, which refers to the “new” stone age. The first phase of human existence was the Paleolithic era, or the “Old” Stone age, which spanned from 2,500,00-10,000 BC. During the Paleolithic era, humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers whereas the Neolithic age saw humans adopting a more settled, agricultural life. From the very beginning of this period, humans made stone tools. There is a lot of debate about whether these tools can be considered “artworks”, for they were not made with artistic intent. What we can refer to them as, however, are artifacts. And it is here that the history of art begins, with the evolution of humans. It is these tools that set humanity apart from other species and creatures just living their lives and surviving in a hard and rather deadly world.  
Based on current evidence, humanity did not begin making things that resembled artworks until the Upper Paleolithic, which began around 50 000 BC and ended in roughly 10 000 BC. These works are often considered the world’s earliest form of art, with the very oldest being found in Africa, Australia, and Europe. Paleolithic art was not created simply for aesthetic experience, however. It is believed, through anthropological study, that the sculptures and paintings were probably believed to have supernatural effects. Female figurines, for example, may have been created in the hopes of improving a tribes fertility while animals may have been painted on cave walls to bless hunting trips. Painting and sculpture, in general, are the world’s oldest art forms, both dating back to the Stone Age. Surviving paintings are found on natural rock surfaces while stone age sculpture is represented mainly by small carvings in stone, bone, ivory, and clay. With the later invention of architecture and pottery, painting and sculpture also expanded to fit with these new media, with paints being laid down onto the pots and ceramics and sculptures being made as part of the building.
Common themes in rock paintings typically included abstract patterns, stick figures, and hand-prints, which were created either by pressing a paint-coated hand against the rock or by blowing paint over the hand. Detailed human and animal figures were fairly uncommon and most of the figures and images were highly simplified and stylized. Stone age paintings were generally quite flat for this reason and were usually shown from one of three viewpoints. They were drawn either from the front, the side or a composite of the two, depending on how the artist needed to represent the figure. For example, a human figure could have a torso that was viewed from the front but the heads and limbs were in profile or viewed from the side. These simple views allowed for immediately recognizable shapes. The outline of the human leg, for instance, is much easier to recognize from the side than from the front. These qualities were not limited to the stone age but actually define most of the world’s traditional art. Throughout history, most cultures have placed very little emphasis on realism and aim more for representation. It wasn’t until the Classical Greek era really that an interest in the realism of the subject was valued.
One of the other important things to note was the mediums used in this era. Humanity was coming from a place where all natural tools and mediums were either gathered from nature or tempered from the earth itself. In the case of rock paintings, paint made from naturally found materials were used. The two primary ingredients in the paints used were pigments and binders. The pigment was the coloured powder that gave the paint its life and the binder was a liquid that held it all together. This will actually remain true for pretty much the rest of art history, as the process of making paint has not changed much, even though we have found more effective and synthetic ways of doing it. For the stone age painters, pigment took the form of mineral powders, like iron oxide for red paint, and the binders were made from the oils or fats from plants and animals. The paint was usually applied by rubbing the paint onto the surface, either with fingers or brushes made from animal-hair or by blowing the pigment through hollow stems or bones. There is fair speculation that social and/or religious ceremonies may have been conducted among these works and in some cases, there is surface damage that indicates the paintings were attacked, possibly in the belief that harming the image would wound a real-life animal.
At the end of the day, it is here that the course of art history began. And what would arise out of these rock paintings would be centuries of humanity expressing its needs, wants and desires on whatever surface will allow. Many of these paintings and sculptures do still exist today and we are blessed that many millennia later, we are still able to look upon the makings of our ancestors. To see where our story as a species began to unfold, not just from a survival standpoint, but a cultural one.

Ancient Art

Ancient art is more of an umbrella term that refers to the many different types of art that were produced by the advanced culture of ancient societies. These refer primarily to ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as pre-historic art and doesn’t actually typically fall into this category. This is also referred to as the Stone Age. For the sake of these writings and to create a clear, cohesive image of the timeline of mankind, we are going to cover the Stone Age as part of ancient art, for it was there that the journey really started.


Between approximately 5000BC and 300AD “advanced” civilizations emerged. An “advanced” Civilization is generally considered one with written language and they thrived in regions like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Mexico and Asia, amongst many others. Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia which is now more commonly known as the area which houses Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia and parts of Syria and Turkey. Art played an important role in these growing societies by providing a means of enforcing religious and political order. For example, one of the most famous works of art from Mesopotamia, which, as a land, was often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” is the Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of laws carved in stone and adorned with an image of King Hammurabi and the Mesopotamian god Shabash. It was created to govern and exemplify the importance of the law in the land. Similarly, the art of ancient Egypt includes symbolic imagery alongside text, which is referred to as hieroglyphs, that tell the stories of rulers, gods and goddesses. Although prehistoric humans made art as far back as 40,000 years ago, ancient art is considered to be the foundation of all of art history with many of its techniques, forms and subject matter continuing to be explored by the art of today. Art reflected the culture it came from and can give us so much insight into civilizations and cultures long dead.

In the next few weeks we will explore the different ages associated with Ancient Art in much more depth, but for now, let’s look at what they are briefly about.

Stone Age 30 000 B.C – 2500 B.C

The first Ice Age ended around 10 000 – 8000 BC and the first permanent settlements started popping up. Which meant that life was not necessarily about surviving the deadly cold anymore. There were obviously still great dangers but humanity was in a critical phase of development. Life was about the survival of the human race more than anything else so most pictorial depictions and artifacts that come out of this era feature fertility icons, goddesses associated with women and birth, the hunt and the group. Natural resources were always utilized and many things involved stone in some way. Cave paintings, etchings and sculpture were the primary mediums.

Mesopotamian 3500 BC – 539 B.C

The Mesopotamian era was largely associated with the emergence of ‘advanced’ civilization, although there is some evidence to consider that the first attempts at writing and language started in the Stone Age. Warrior art was key here and many things were carved or narrated into stone. There are three key things to consider here in Mesopotamian art. First was the impact of the socio-political organization systems of the Sumerian city-states, and of the Kingdoms and Empires that succeeded them. The second was the role of organized religion in the affairs of the state and the third was the influence of the natural environment. Each of these three concepts influenced the art that was made and was usually a response to things that had occurred within those bounds.

Egyptian 3100 B.C – 30 B.C

The ancient Egyptians heavily revered the gods and represented them in any way they could. Monstrous temples and monuments were built in awe of the gods and a common theme that ran throughout their art was the thought of an afterlife. Tombs were ordained with priceless jewels and painted with ornate images and hieroglyphs. Egyptian Art reached a high level of painting and sculpture and was both highly stylized and very symbolic. One could stare at a wall of Egyptian art for years and still never fully understand the intricacies of the symbolism.

Ancient Greece 850 B.C – 31 B.C

The case for art reflecting culture is nowhere truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle into their culture. This was the principle of arete. To the Greeks, this meant excellence and the ability to reach one’s full potential. Ancient Greek art emphasized the importance and accomplishments of human beings. Even though much of Greek art was meant to honour the gods, those very gods were often created in the image of humans.

Roman 500 B.C – 476 A.D

The ancient Roman way of art was to capture the beauty of life. In many ways they were Realists and it is here too that scholars writing worldly philosophies and epic novels found their place. Their art was practical in many ways and exhibited the gentle quality of man and nature but also the fury and majesty of the gods. It also encompasses a massive spectrum of work, ranging from marble, silver and bronze sculpture to painting, mosaic work and terracotta pots.

Indian, Chinese and Japanese 653 B.C – 1900 A.D

Works from these regions typically took on a serene, almost meditative quality and much of it was about self-introspection. Many of the developments of Eastern art parallel those of Western movements, in fact, in general, they made the developments a few centuries earlier. Much like the Western world, Eastern art was a melting pot of various cultures and societies and they borrowed and took influence from these many cultures and religions. From Buddhist art to works coming out of Korea, Thailand and India, there is an abundance of history present here.

Byzantine and Islamic 476 A.D – 1453 A.D

This emerged primarily from the depths of the Roman decline and the Byzantine Empire flourished under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great. They borrowed heavily on Greek art and culture and decorated the capital city with elaborate Greek statues, exquisite gold and marble art and mosaics that glorified the Christian religion. Their focus lay in these heavenly mosaic works but also in the impeccable, finely detailed designs on their architecture. They embellished everything with rich, gold mosaics and this carried across both Byzantine and Islamic culture.