Ice Age Art at the British Museum is one of the best. Not because of its design – I found its juxtaposition of original artefacts with more contemporary art infuriating – but because it set me thinking. Then, over tea afterwards, those thoughts developed into an insight that has excited me ever since.
The exhibition covers art from 40,000 – 12,000 BCE (Before the Current Era) and therefore the period when our European ancestors were emerging as ‘modern’ Homo sapiens. All of a sudden, as I wandered round, I was struck first by the beauty of a statue of a bison made from mammoth tusk, and then by that of a drawing of lion on a rib, both were truly extraordinary works of art. I realised that if I was seeing them as beautiful, my view of beauty coincided exactly with those of my forebears.
Nothing has changed in the beauty-appreciation centre of our brains for over 40,000 years. In this respect we are as one. In our joint history, beauty is a constant. I have written before about my love of being part the history continuum [Hand me downs, 12 November 2012] and this newly-discovered link across the generations was particularly empowering.
All manner of artefacts are displayed at the exhibition and all are inspiring. However, amongst them, the majority would have been crafted by the journeymen or women of the day, with a minority the creations of highly skilled artisans. Accordingly, amongst the works, particularly those depicting animals, there are just those few that are extraordinary. For years I had mistakenly believed that art produced by our distant ancestors was primitive even infantile compared to ours. They were, so my belief went, the work of a people who were less developed artistically and probably intellectually. The exhibition proved these prejudices very wrong. Moreover, with such sophistication, the works would certainly be impossible for a contemporary child to create. Words like ‘primitive’ and ‘infantile’ just do not apply.
Leaving aside my marvelling over the enduring nature of beauty, by chance, and far away from the world of exhibitions, I found myself captivated by Stone Age technology. Each year, one of my jobs is to dig over the vegetable plot to remove the weeds prior to planting the next crop of potatoes and the like. The process, which is at the heavy end of gardening, requires digging up large sods of earth and then breaking them up in order to separate the soil from the roots of the grass or dandelions or whatever. This process has always proved difficult. I have tried cutting up the sod with a garden fork, or the blade of a spade or trowel; picking up the sod and hitting it against a wall or the ground; pulling it apart with my hands; and tossing it the air and hoping that it would break up on hitting the ground. All occasionally work but none reliably so.
But now I have a solution. It is a stone I found amongst the rubble left after building an outhouse. The said stone is thin and tapered, about 30cm in length with a flat base at one end and a sharply pointed tip at the other. Had it been carved, one might describe its surface as fluted.
For the business in hand, I stand my stone upright in the bed in which am working, pick up the sods one-by-one, and then bring them down in turn over the stone’s tip. With the combination of the stone’s form and the sod’s momentum the components fall apart leaving the separated earth on the bed and the weeds in my hands ready for the compost heap. If needs be, I can hit smaller clumps directly against the stone’s tip to the same effect. And as I dig across the bed I can move the stone along with me. With the aid of this simple Stone Age technology my work as a gardener has been made so much easier, and in terms of effectiveness, nothing ‘modern’ in my experience comes near.
How odd it was that over a few weeks, and in two very different circumstances, I found myself at one with my distant past. And it was a delight. Who would have thought that ideas of beauty on the one hand, and the use of a rough stone on the other, could have coalesced in this way to give me such pleasure.