An Introduction to Materiality and Prehistoric Art
Here is a Paleolithic artifact. What do you see? A penis? Testicles? Breasts? Do you recognize the Woman of Willendorf? If we were viewing this from a distance, or if we were holding it in our hands, it would first and foremost be a rock. Who thought rock? Not many of us. Often when we view artworks we move right into symbolic meaning and overlook the more basic materiality, the rockiness, or what Heidegger called the “thingly character” of the work.
It is a red rock, first and foremost. 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, pre-contact societies took a different view. Stones were alive, could grow, tell stories, hold memory, draw people together, and they weren’t understood as “minerals” (some European, scientific concept) but as petrified blood, fat, and bones of the Ancestors.
Some Amazonian villages consider quartz and other rock crystals to be “concentrated semen” leftover from the great Ancestors’ wet dreams. Interestingly, in Japan the myth-histories say rice is hardened god-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 I believe this sheds new light onto humans-from-clay creation myths like the Judeo-Christian one.
Links between food, clay, and flesh are pretty common in the anthropological literature, as are associations between stone and bone. The Miwok people 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. Likewise, whiteness bundles some stones with other object like teeth, pearls, semen, and eyeballs, and because the white bones remain on the funerary pyre after the pink, hairy flesh burns away, it was believed to be connected to eternal life. This is one reason why the Egyptian Ankh, the symbol for eternal Life, resembles a bull’s thoracic vertebrate. (Arguably this is also because bone marrow was believed to be semen and soul). Red ochre in the Americas and ancient Europe was probably associated with blood because it’s red, and when mixed with water it looks like blood. Carved bits of red ochre found in caves in South Africa are the oldest known human artifacts, and they prove that our artful engagement with rocks dates back 70,000 years. Interestingly, many Chumash and other native California puberty rituals involve women covering their bodies in red ochre and painting red symbols onto large, shiny stones.
Like a person, the stone artifact pictured above was painted in red ochre. And archeologists have found human bones in Europe and in the Americas, in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic burial sites, covered in red ochre, or as we understood it, the healing, petrified menstrual blood of some deity.
I want to emphasize this: in myth-histories around the world, stones are alive, can grow, and we have to keep that in mind when interpreting stone and mineral artifacts.
The medium is part of the message, and there are examples in Australia and New Zealand where stones grow, get pregnant, and procreate. 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 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. Standing Rock, Inyan Woslata is a woman who “turned to stone” because she refused to move on with her tribe. Similarly, Lot’s Wife, in the Judeo-Christian myth-history, turns into a pillar of salt because she looks back and refuses to move on. There are mineral formations around the Dead Sea believed to be the remains of that Biblical event. Both provide poignant symbols for the perils of refusing to move on.
In any case, the idea that a cultural hero can shift between human and stone forms is key to understanding why mountains, rocks, and human-modified stone constructions like the Woman of Willendorf have held so much significance for people, and still do today.
I wonder. When my parents were selling their house, my mom’s best friend came over with a tiny ceramic Saint Joseph statue wrapped in plastic to bury upside-down in the front yard. “Face it in the direction you want to go.” Who knows about this American, Catholic, Pagan earth ritual? Is it from Europe? 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 living under the ground, which is, I might add, an invisible realm more inaccessible than outer space. The world beneath our feet is harder peer into than deep space. We can see the background radiation of the big bang, but we cannot see more than a few hundred miles beneath our own feet. Just a few years ago scientists found an entire ocean some 400 miles beneath North America. This hidden, lost 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, how subterranean water affects plate tectonics, and in a way it confirms some mythic origins of the oceans, like the myth of Leviathan, a blue crystal coated water dragon sleeping and stirring inside the planet (and, apparently, inside ourselves). There is a great version of the deluge myth from the Jewish midrash where Yahweh comes to hate people so much, and he wants to flood the earth to clean and to purify it, so he lifts the tiny, white stone from 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 (2012).
We read in Marilyn Stokstad and Rosemary Joyce that the water left inside the female figurines found at Dolni Vestanice made them explode in the kiln. Now why would people so skilled in making pottery — we see 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. It was a form of sympathetic magic, and 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 placed over heat — as a way to read the future or receive messages from the ancestors. I think gypsies use tea leaves this way, like psychedelic, mind-revealing Rorschach tests. These frozen pictures of chaos and order reflect back to us something else, a larger story beyond our control. The third theory, 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. Things are treated as people, just as people are treated as things. The sculpture begins as a small bit of clay, then grows, gradually dries out, hardens, and breaks apart, returning to the ground. There are wonderful, huge terracotta horses in south India, massive red horses, some of the largest clay sculptures in the world, 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. Beautiful pottery shards found in burial mounds all over the Americas point to a similar practice of destroying the clay or stone artifact as a way of completing it.
Do we want to know what these objects mean to us today, in a museum sense, where the stones are inert and lifeless, where we cannot touch them, or do we want to know what the objects meant to the people who created them? Can we imagine ourselves beyond the limits of our modern, colonial mindset?
I believe that the imagination is an opening onto the collective unconscious, and maybe even onto the prehistoric, pre-contact, pre-colonial body from which all human culture springs. We touch the ground and bones and stones we share with the dirt and soil and animals, even if we are locked in our colonized, white settler projections. The culturally, historically situated meanings we bring to the objects mingle with the basic, boney, stoney, “thingly” materiality of them, murmuring in deep time. If we give our imaginations plenty of material to work with, patterns emerge, and we can receive deeper, more complex, more chaotic interpretations of these strange objects.
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Boivin, Nichole and Owoc, Mary Ann. 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. UCL Press.
Chamberlain, B. 1981. The Kojiki. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.
Graves and Patai, 1966. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York, McGraw-Hill.
Houtmand, Dick; Meyer, Birgit, (ed) 2012. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, Fordham University Press.
Ohnnki-Tierney, E.1993. Rice As Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
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