Ten minute introduction to materiality and prehistoric art
What do you see?
We might recognize a tiny woman, or a penis, testicles, breasts, a goddess, or the Woman of Willendorf. But if we were viewing her from a distance, or if we were holding her, she would first and foremost be a rock.
And while contemporary, capitalistic societies generally perceive rocks as “minerals” - inert, lifeless, passive objects, or as commodities to be exploited for economic gain, pre-industrial societies took a different view. Stones were alive, could grow, tell stories, hold memory, draw people together, but also were understood not as “minerals” but as petrified blood, fat, and bones of the ancestors.
Some Amazonian villages consider quartz and other rock crystals to be concentrated semen. Likewise, in Japan the myth-histories say rice is hardened semen delivered to the people through the ancestral land, itself understood as self-hardening, “onogoro,” God ejaculate. The leaders of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria claim they obtain their red clay from the vagina of the goddess Iya Mapo (and this sheds new light onto humans-from-clay creation myths like the Judeo-Christian one).
Links between food, clay, and flesh are in fact really common in the anthropological literature, as are associations between stone and bone. Tribes in California are recorded as referring to a white mineral used in healing and body painting as powdered human bone. The mineral is obtained from a hole where the rock giant Yayali is said to have thrown the bones of people he ate. Stone and bone are conceptually linked because they share physical properties of hardness and durability. Rice gruel looks and feels just like semen. Ochre is associated with blood because it is red, and when mixed with water looks like blood. In the film Rivers and Tides, we see Andy Goldsworthy make blood out of grinding up ochre and mixing it with water.
And remember that the Woman of Willendorf was covered in red ochre, and that archeologists found human bones in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic burial sites covered in red ochre, and that we covered our bodies in red ochre, or as we understood it, the healing, petrified menstrual blood of some deity.
So tonight I will review what the "female" figurines found at the beginning of history symbolically mean, in theory, adding that we should approach them as “surrealist objects” because of their polymorphic nature and because prehistoric people were probably tripping on psychedelics a lot of the time, but I want to emphasize that, in myth-histories around the world, stones can grow, and we have to keep that in mind when interpreting stone and mineral artifacts. It turns out that most studies focus on symbolic meaning, and completely overlook the materiality, or rockiness, of the object. They forget that the medium is also the message.
An Animate Earth
And the medium, in this case, is alive and can grow. There are examples in Australia and New Zealand where stones grow, get pregnant, and have a gender. In Melanesian societies, ethnographers have recorded examples of stones believed to walk around, dance, light fires, transmit and cure diseases, speak, procreate and kill. In Japan, this ancient idea that stones grow is expressed in their national anthem (the shortest national anthem in the world) and arguably in their rock gardens! The Chumash people of coastal California describe certain stones as people who turned into stone, and who can sometimes return to their human form.
And this idea, that a cultural hero can shift between human and stone forms, is key, according to ethnographers, to understanding why mountains, rocks and human modified stone constructions like the Woman of Willendorf, have held so much significance for indigenous people.
So imagine you are a prehistoric person, and you don't know where the strange object came from because it was made ten thousand years ago and you just now stumbled upon it within the ruins of a small clay city. It could be a tiny fairy who turned to stone and may one day turn back! You better keep her around. Or, plant her in the ground! She may grow into a woman, The Magic Seed theory, as some of the clay figurines were planted in the ground.
It's interesting my parents are selling their house and the other day my mom’s best friend came over and brought a tiny Saint Joseph statue to bury upside-down in the front yard. Who knows about this Pagan, Catholic Voodoo ritual? Is it a cultural retrieval of animism? "Desperate times call for desperate measures." Is it related to beliefs about making blood offerings to the ground, to appease the spirits under the ground, which is, I might add, an invisible realm more inaccessible than the sky. The world beneath our feet is harder to gaze into than deep space. Remember just last year scientists found an entire ocean some 400 miles beneath North America. And it gets better: the hidden ocean is apparently locked inside a blue crystalline mineral called ringwoodite, and it holds three times as much water than exists in all the world's surface oceans! They say this discovery may help explain where Earth's water supply came from, and how subterranean water affects plate tectonics, and in a way it confirms the mythic origins of the oceans, Leviathan, the blue crystal coated water dragon sleeping and stirring inside the planet. There is a great version of the deluge myth from the Jewish Midrash where Yahweh hates people and wants to flood the earth so he takes the small white stone off of Leviathan's head he had placed there to keep her docile and lets her thrash around, causing water to burst forth from beneath the ground, a scene we saw so beautifully depicted in Daron Aronofsky’s film, Noah.
We read in Marilyn Stokstad and Rosemary Joyce that the water left inside many of the female figurines found at Dolni Vestanice made them explode in the kiln. Now why would people so skilled in making pottery—we know they made vessels and clay bricks— why would they purposefully put wet figurines into the kiln to explode? Stokstad gives no answer, but there are three theories, or projections, I like. One is that the artist hated women and wished them harm, treating the clay figurines like voodoo dolls. We can spot misogyny twenty millennia away! Another, and the one that is most popular, is that the artist-shaman used the cracking of the sculpture like the Chinese shaman used the cracking of tortoise shells, or like the gypsy uses tealeaves—as a way to read the future or receive messages from the ancestors. And the third projection, which I like the best, is that the life of the object recapitulates the life of a person, and destruction is part of the life. The sculpture begins as a small bit of clay, then grows, gradually hardens, and then breaks apart and returns to the ground. This is like the terracotta horses in India. Today, huge terracotta horses, some of the largest clay sculptures in the world, are built to slowly decay. They are created during rituals where they are believed to be infused with divine life, and then afterwards they are deposited in lakes, or left at the edge of villages to disintegrate in a process of clay recycling.
And yes, I think Indian clay horses, Chinese oracle bones, my mom’s St. Joseph statue, materiality, and the mysterious realm beneath our feet all help inform our interpretation of prehistoric art. As a visual artist, everything is source material, and I don't have to follow the rules of the historians or archaeologists when interpreting cultural artifacts. I believe that the imagination is an opening onto the collective unconscious, and maybe even onto the prehistoric body from which all human culture sprang. So I throw my net wide and I gather all I can disregarding the rules. By lining up stories in the imagination, patterns emerge, and we can receive a deeper, more poetic, more complex and therefore more accurate interpretation of these objects.
Ok, so, let's begin!
Ballard, C. (1998) Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual, and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Bergin and Garvey, Connecticut.
Ohnnki-Tierney, E.(1993). Rice As Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Boivin, Nichole and Owoc, Mary Ann. 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. UCL Press.
Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966).
Chamberlain, B. (1981). The Kojiki. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.