Prehistoric Art and Artifacts – Virtual Tour
Prehistoric Art was produced by preliterate, prehistorical cultures beginning in the Paleolithic era.
These prehistorical cultures continued until that culture either developed writing or made valuable contacts with other cultures that could record historical events.
The end-date for Prehistoric Art varies significantly between different parts of the world.
The earliest human artifacts showing evidence of sustainable workmanship with an artistic purpose existed by 40,000 years ago.
Virtual Tour of Prehistoric Art and Artifacts
- Ain Sakhri Lovers
- Wolverine Pendant of Les Eyzies – Prehistoric Portable Art
- Antler Perforated Baton – Paleolithic Portable Art
- Venus of Brassempouy
- Head of a Cycladic Statue, Keros-Syros Culture
- Stargazer – Sculpture of a Female Figure
- Stargazer Figurine
- Dancing Girl (Mohenjo-Daro) from the Indus Valley Civilization
- Prehistoric Stone Hand Axe
- Great Handaxe from Furze Platt
- Clovis Weapons and Tools
- Prehistoric Petrosphere – Carved Stone Spheres and Balls
- Neolithic Chinese Painted Pottery
- Korean Neolithic Pot
- Neolithic Pottery from Ban Chiang
- Li – Chinese Tripod Jar
- Comb-Pattern Pottery
- Phaistos Disc
- Sican Funerary Mask – Peru
- Greenstone Mask, Central America
- Australian Aboriginal Rock Art – Bradshaw Rock Paintings
- Indigenous Australian Rock Art – Wandjina Style
- Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings
- Plastered Human Skulls from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Age
- Neanderthal Flute – Divje Babe Flute
Highlights of Prehistoric Art and Artifacts – Virtual Tour
The Ain Sakhri Lovers figurine is a sculpture that was created over 11,000 years ago and is the oldest known representation of two people engaged in a loving embrace.
It was found in one of the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem. The sculpture was made by carving a single rock of calcite cobble, which was picked away with a stone point to create the heads, arms, and leg positions of the couple.
The sculpture shows the lovers face to face. The arms of one of the couples are positioned around the shoulders of the other.
The legs are drawn up and embraced the waist of the other. The sculpture figurine lacks fine details but is expertly sculptured to allow the imagination to visualize different interpretations depending on the viewer’s perspective.
This Wolverine Pendant is a bone pendant decorated with an engraved drawing of a wolverine from the cave of Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France.
The pendant has an engraving with a relatively deep-cut outline of a wolverine featuring a distinctive bear-like face, pointed nose, small ears, substantial body, and hairy paws.
Delicate internal shading indicates the distinctive markings of the fur. The wolverine appears to be walking or running.
The diagonal line across the animal’s shoulder may represent a spear or dart. The pendant is broken, and the missing piece may have shown another figure.
This “Perforated Baton” with low relief horse, was created during the last Ice Age (Upper Palaeolithic). This antler baton was used in the manufacture and throwing of spears.
The hole is a gauge to shape the shaft of the spear and rub the wood smooth. It was also used to straighten both the tips and the shafts. The baton is 16.6 cm long, 5.5 cm wide, and 3 cm thick.
By looping a strip of rawhide through the hole, the tool also becomes a weapon. Looping the thong around the end of the spear turns the baton into a spear thrower.
This object represents both a decorated tool and a weapon. It is an essential tool and piece of art that serves more than one function and is easily transportable when one is on the move.
The Venus of Brassempouy is an ivory figurine created about 25,000 years ago and is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a female human face.
She was carved from mammoth ivory, and her face is triangular and serene. The forehead, nose, and brows are carved in relief, but the mouth is absent, suggesting the work of the sculptor may have been interrupted.
The representation of hair is a checkerboard-like pattern formed by two series of shallow incisions at right angles to each other. This checkerboard-like feature has also been interpreted as a hood with geometric decoration.
She was discovered in Brassempouy, which is a small village in southwest France. Two caves near the village, 100 meters from each other, were among the first Paleolithic sites to be explored in France.
This head of a Cycladic Statue is similar to the ancient Cycladic art that flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea from c. 3300 to 1100 BCE.
The Cycladic culture is one of three dominant Aegean cultures along with the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.
This marble head highlights the critical sculptured features of the nose, ears, and mouth.
The face is typical of the elongated oval Cycladic faces and is set on a long neck, which may have been broken off a larger body.
This 5,000 year-old marble sculpture of a female figure is called the “Stargazer.” The name derives from the way her eyes are looking up to the stars above.
Created in translucent marble, this is an unusual sculpture because her head is sculptured entirely in the round. Her body is reduced to a simple yet elegant profile.
The nose is depicted as a slight ridge on a straight-line edge. The head tilted backward; the eyes are tiny dots raised in relief.
The Stargazer is similar and related to the Cycladic Art which flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea. However, this ancient masterpiece was found in Western Anatolia.
Western Anatolia was one of the significant crossroads of ancient civilizations. Created in the Early Bronze Age, the purpose of this masterpiece is not known.
This “Stargazer” Figurine is a 6,000-year-old sculpture, referred to as the “Stargazer.” The figurine is called the “Stargazer” because the eyes are looking up to the stars above.
The head is sculptured entirely in the round, while the body is reduced to a simple yet elegant profile. The nose is depicted as a slight ridge on a straight-line edge. The head tilted backward, and the eyes are tiny dots raised in relief.
The Stargazer is similar to other Cycladic Art, which flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea. However, this ancient masterpiece was found in Western Anatolia, an area that was one of the significant crossroads of ancient civilizations.
Geographically it is a broad peninsula that lies between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Called Asia Minor or Lesser Asia by the Romans, the land today is part of modern Turkey.
The Dancing Girl is a bronze statuette created over 4,500 years ago and is a rare and unique masterpiece. It was found in the ancient Mohenjo-Daro site in 1926.
This statue is a cultural artifact reflecting the aesthetics of a female body as conceptualized during that historical period.
The bronze girl was made using the lost-wax casting technique and shows the expertise of the people in making bronze works during that time.
The statuette was named “Dancing Girl” based on an assumption of her profession. She is one of two bronze artworks found at Mohenjo-Daro that shows a more natural pose than compared to other more formal figures.
The statuette has large eyes, a flat nose, healthy cheeks, curly hair, and a broad forehead. She is a tall figure with long legs and arms, high neck, subdued belly, and sensuously modeled.
Stone tool societies and cultures made these prehistoric Stone Hand Axes from the prehistoric Stone Age. Archaeologists study stone tools to understand the cultural implications of tool use and manufacture.
Stone has been used to make a variety of different tools and weapons throughout history, including arrowheads, spear points, hand axes, and querns to grind cereals into flour.
Hand axes were the first tools to be recognized as prehistoric. The first published representation of a hand ax was drawn for a British publication in 1800. Until that time, their origins were thought to be supernatural.
They were called thunderstones because tradition held that they had fallen from the sky during storms or were formed inside the earth by a lightning strike and then appeared at the surface.
This large handaxe was produced by the Acheulian culture of 400,000 years ago, during the Lower Palaeolithic period. It was found in Furze Platt, Berkshire, Britain in 1919.
It is one of the largest Handaxes ever found in Europe and considered too bulky to be useful, and therefore considered to have been a Neanderthal status symbol.
A handaxe is a prehistoric stone tool with two faces that is the longest-used tool in human history. It is characteristic of the lower Acheulean and middle Palaeolithic periods.
The most common hand axes have a pointed end and rounded base, which gives them their distinctive shape, and both faces have been knapped to remove the natural cortex, at least partly.
These “Clovis Weapons and Tools” are ancient tools that are over 10,000 years old. They were created by the Clovis culture, originally based around the current-day Clovis, New Mexico, US.
The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture, named after the area where the stone tools discovered in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Clovis culture appeared around 11,500–11,000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period.
This Paleo-Indian culture is characterized by the manufacture of “Clovis points” and distinctive bone and ivory tools. Clovis people are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.
This Neolithic Chinese Painted Pottery was found in the graves of New Stone Age people who lived in northwest China over 3,500 years ago.
The subtle shapes, smoothed surfaces, red, and black paint are typical of the Pan-Shan Pottery. The Pan-Shan culture (2500 – 2000BC) of Neolithic China had this distinctively painted pottery.
Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, originating before the Neolithic period, with ceramic objects like the pottery vessels that were discovered in China, which date back to 18,000 BC.
Chronologies based on pottery are essential for dating non-literate cultures and are often of help in the dating of historical cultures. A test can be used to provide an estimate of the date of the last firing.
This Korean Neolithic Pot shows a raised design that was created by attaching strips of clay to the surface of the poy and by pinching the outer surface to produce thin ridges.
It has a full mouth that tapers down to a narrow base. Below the mouth, a clay band has been attached, which is decorated with fingernail impressions.
The horizontal band that covers the top half of the vessel surface is divided into a series of triangular panels, which are filled with narrowly raised band decorations.
This example was created during the Jeulmun Pottery Period, which is an archaeological era in Korean prehistory broadly spanning the period of 8000–1500 BC.
This sizeable neolithic pot is an example of Ban Chiang red-on-buff ware, which was created freehand without the use of a pottery wheel.
This type of pottery discovered in burial sites, along with a variety of bronze and glass ornaments, including armbands, anklets, rings, and necklaces.
The tradition of Thai ceramics dates back to the third millennium BCE. The earliest trace of Thai ceramics ever recorded in Ban Chiang, which is in present-day Udon Thani Province, Thailand.
The ceramics discovered were earthenware, and the most common forms were cylinders and round vases. The early pots were undecorated, while the later ones were decorated with geometric patterns and swirling designs.
This “Li” is a Chinese Tripod Jar dating more than 4,000 years ago. Tripod vessels appear in China in the early Neolithic period of 7000 BCE. The innovation of hollow legs, creating Li (鬲) tripods, appeared during the middle Neolithic from 5000 BCE.
Historians ascribe significance to the shape of the tripod legs as being suggestive of goats’ or cows’ udders and, therefore, crucial for rituals.
Pottery as cooking or storage vessels, made of clay and hardened by heat, was the first functional art to emerge during the Paleolithic.
At the time, this masterpiece was created, ceramic technology-enabled vessels such as this to be placed directly in a fire without cracking.
This Comb-Pattern Pot is the so-called comb-pattern Pottery, which has a round base and is decorated with the distinctive incised or impressed linear patterns that give this pot its name.
It is typical of the Neolithic pottery in Korea, which is made of handcrafted clay fired in open or semi-open pits and used for preparing and storing food.
This particular example of comb-pattern pottery was excavated from the prehistoric settlement site in Seoul. With a wide mouth and narrow base, and the surface is decorated with engraved lines and dots forming geometric patterns.
Both the form and the motifs that characterize this type of pottery are unique to Korea.
The Phaistos Disc is a disk of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, possibly dating to the Minoan Bronze Age in the second millennium B.C.
The disk is covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols featuring 241 tokens, comprising 45 distinct signs.
The symbols were made by pressing hieroglyphic “seals” into a disc of soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiraling toward the center of the disk.
Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology.
This Sican Funerary Mask once adorned the body of a deceased ruler on Peru’s north coast. This mask was made of an alloy of gold (74%), silver (20%), and copper (6%), which was hammered into a flat sheet and shaped into the form of a facemask.
Cinnabar, a red mineral pigment, covers parts of this mask in the pattern of the face paint worn by the deceased person in life. Much of the red dye would have been removed in modern times to highlight the gold in the mask.
The eyes of this mask have thin, skewer-like projections emerging from the pupils to suggest vision. Hanging ornament from the eyes and the nose were used to convey a sense of movement and life.
Multiple masks were placed into burials of eminent figures. One mask was attached to the head of the wrapped body, and other masks were laid at the feet of the deceased.
This Greenstone Mask is made of dark green soft stone with a natural white-colored large spot represent eyes. Originating from Central America, it is thought to belong to the Toltec culture.
The name Toltec has many meanings, including an “urbanite” or a “cultured” person.
Stone masks, life-size or smaller, were used in burials to cover the face of the dead. Perforations allowed the masks to be attached to the shrouds.
The natural white spots representing the eyes would have made this a unique and valuable mask.
“Bradshaw Rock Paintings” is a term used to describe one of the significant traditions of rock art found in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia. There are thousands of known examples of Bradshaw art in the Kimberley region.
Australian rock art researchers date the earliest art to over 12,000 years ago. The identity of who painted these figures is highly contended amongst Australian researchers.
As the Kimberley Region is home to various Aboriginal language groups, the rock art is referred to and known by many different Aboriginal names, the most common of which are Gwion Gwion or Giro Giro.
The art consists primarily of human figures ornamented with accessories such as bags, tassels, and headdresses.
They were first recorded by pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw in 1891, after whom they were named.
The Wandjina are cloud and rain spirits from Australian Aboriginal mythology that are depicted in rock art in Australia. The broad-stroke artwork dates to around 4,000 years ago.
The Wandjina paintings are characterized by common colors of black, red, and yellow on a white background. The spirits are depicted individually or in groups, vertically or horizontally, depending on the dimensions of the rock.
The large upper bodies and heads may show eyes and nose, but typically no mouth. They have no mouth because they are powerful and do not require speech, and if they had mouths, the rain would never cease.
The emergence of this art style follows the end of a millennium-long drought that gave way to a wetter climate characterized by regular monsoons.
The Divje Babe Flute is made from the bone of a cave bear femur, and it is pierced by holes that have the spacing and alignment of a flute. It is possibly the world’s oldest known musical instrument, and some archeologists believe that Neanderthals made it.
Divje Babe is the oldest known archaeological site in Slovenia. The cave is 45 meters (148 ft) long and up to 15 meters (49 ft) wide and is near Cerkno and the Idrijca River in Slovenia.
Researchers have uncovered more than 600 archaeological items in at least ten levels, including twenty hearths and the skeletal remains of cave bears.
This presumed flute has been associated with the period of the Neanderthals, about 43,000 years ago. It has been suggested that Neanderthals made it as a form of musical instrument.
The earliest known drawing by Homo sapiens is estimated to be 73,000 years old.
Engraved shells have been dated as far back as 500,000 years ago, although experts disagree on whether these engravings can be appropriately classified as Art.
From the Palaeolithic through to the Mesolithic, cave paintings and portable art such as figurines and beads predominated. Decorative workings are also seen on some utilitarian objects.
In the Neolithic era, early pottery appeared, as did sculpture and the construction of megaliths. Early rock art also first appeared during this period.
The advent of metalworking in the Bronze Age brought additional media for use in making Art. There was also an increase in stylistic diversity and the creation of objects that did not have any apparent function other than Art.
The Bronze Age also saw the development in some areas of artisans, a class of people specializing in the production of Art, as well as early writing systems.
By the Iron Age, civilizations with writing had arisen from Ancient Egypt to Ancient China.
Many indigenous peoples from around the world continued to produce artistic works distinctive to their culture until exploration brought record-keeping to them.
Some cultures, notably the Maya civilization, independently developed writing, which was then later lost. These cultures may be classified as prehistoric, especially if their writing systems have not been deciphered.
Dating Prehistoric Art
- Stone Age
- Lower Paleolithic – (c. 3.3 million years ago – 300,000 years ago)
- Middle Paleolithic – (c. 300 – 45,000 years ago)
- Upper Paleolithic – (c. 50 –10,000 years ago)
- Mesolithic – 20,000 to 8,000 Before Present (Southwest Asia); 15,000–5,000 Before Present (Europe)
- Neolithic – 10,000–4,500 BC
- Cradle of civilization
- Chalcolithic – Copper Age
- Bronze Age
- Iron Age
- Stone Age
- Recorded history
- Ancient History
- Post-classical history
- Modern history
Select a Virtual Tour
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- The Art of the Kiss
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Cave Art 101
Stone Age Art History
Introducing Paleolithic Art
“In every human society of which we know – prehistoric, ancient or modern, whether hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agricultural or industrial – at least some form of art is displayed, and not only displayed, but highly regarded and willingly engaged in.”
– Ellen Dissanayake
Photo Credit: Jack Versloot / CC BY (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)