ArtIssue 21

The Oldest Art in the World

It may have passed you by. Nobody shouted it in the streets; no crowds left stadiums singing its story; some scholarly men and women in practical outfits, wearing many-pocketed trousers, might have gasped and chattered excitedly amongst themselves; no more than that. But, in 2012, the oldest artwork in the world – probably – was discovered in France’s Vézère Valley; a river which flows into the Dordogne, roughly halfway between Bordeaux and Lyons.

Sixteen stone blocks featuring depictions of mammoths and wild cows known as aurochs, found in a collapsed overhang, have been radiocarbon dated to 38,000 years old, making them possibly the oldest images ever discovered. There have been other competitors for this top spot – a particular painted silhouette of a hand found in Spain might be 5,000 years older, but its dating is contested, and an ivory sculpture of similar age to the blocks has been found in Southern Germany. Nevertheless, these tablets represent the strongest, most clean-cut contenders for the crown, and are by far the most artistically accomplished of any potentially coeval creations.

These engravings were made by anatomically modern human beings belonging to the Aurignacian Culture – an archaeological culture of the Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age), covering a significant area of Southern and Western Europe. These new finds were discovered by Professor Randall White, an anthropologist at NYU who has, with colleagues, increased the record of known ancient art in Southwest France by 40% in just the last decade. He and his team had been excavating this particular site for eighteen months before the finds were made.

Facetious comparisons abound. The Independent reported the discovery with the addendum that “The pictures are also being compared to the pointillism technique supposedly pioneered in the 1880s by artists like Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat.” How that “supposedly” sneers, as if those two artists had finally been given the slap out of smug pretension they deserved. Professor White is a little more circumspect, and he is reported in that newspaper as saying “It’s almost digital in its nature […] why this fixation on dots, I’ll admit it’s a puzzle. It’s not exactly pointillism but the principle is there, the construction of a form out of pixels.”

Pixels and points might be rather different, if one is attempting precision on the subject, but we will forgive White, who presumably uses brushes more for dusting than painting. The implemental homonym between the two trades is a funny one, betwixt the brushes and burins of the archaeologist and the artist. One uses them to create, the other to uncover. These particular pictures were made by patterns of indentations in a limestone rock, once the wall or roof of a troglodyte dwelling. To call a single spread of works substantive of a “fixation” seems rather rich, and the comparisons with Pointillism seem both desperate and glib; it risks ignoring their real interest. Pointillism, like Impressionism, is not interesting simply because of its techniques of representation, but because of their deployment within a particular artistic and academic context. It is not, removed from that context, the idea to draw something made up of dots that is momentous – abstracted, academically ‘wrong’ modes of depiction have been made by children and the incapable throughout history. The innovations of the Pointillists concerned the express construction of such paintings by proficient professionals, and the championing of such pieces as artistically valuable in a world where that, by contemporary standards, was laughable. No such world existed in 35,000 BC…or much of any artistic world at all.

But it is only through this comparison that this discovery has been trumpeted. It is only in the last two months that this discovery has been picked up by major newspapers and websites: The Independent, The Telegraph, Mail Online, Yahoo News, artnet News, The Smithsonian… the list goes on. They have all covered it for the first time in the last two months, despite the news being over four years old. Thus trumped-up controversy makes cretins of us all. Why weren’t we interested already?