Astonishing discovery rewrites history of art

Small wonder: Many of the seal’s details can only be seen via photomicroscopy. © University of Cincinnati

Does art improve through history? A Bronze Age carving has stunned art historians with its beauty and precision. Some now believe the ancients were far more advanced than we used to think.

Art history textbooks could be completely rewritten after a stunning discovery of prehistoric art.

A tiny 3,500 year old carving was found in the tomb of an ancient Greek warrior. In meticulous detail it depicts a fierce battle: one warrior plunges a sword through a neck of his enemy, whilst another lies broken and defeated on the ground.

The detail of the carved bodies has astounded experts. They previously thought that such sculpturing skills were not developed for another thousand years.

Archaeologist Sharon Stocker declared the object so moving that it “brought some people to tears”, and that it will “change the way prehistoric art is viewed”.

The carving now takes its place in the epic story of art, which stretches from our deep past up to the present day.

It all started 40,000 years ago when our ancient ancestors placed their hands against cave walls and blew red paint around the edges, creating haunting stencils.

Millenniums later and vast civilisations like the Greeks and Egyptians expressed themselves through stone. Visitors to the British Museum marvel at the monumental statues of Egyptian pharaohs, and ancient Greek friezes of warring centaurs.

Then came the Renaissance and the revolution of realism. Leonardo da Vinci combined anatomy and brushwork to masterfully reproduce the human form in paint. Even now crowds in the Louvre are transfixed by the teasing smile of the Mona Lisa.

At the same time, Raphael’s use of perspective transformed the flat canvas into a 3D world of depth, space, and wonder.

But as the world modernised, what was “real” was no longer obvious. Impressionists like Monet and Renoir used bold brushstrokes to capture the ephemeral dance of light. And Cubists like Picasso explored how the world can be seen in many different ways by painting people from many perspectives at once.

But is it right to say that art has improved over time?

Show me the Monet

In 1919, poet T.S Eliot stood in a cave in France, marvelling at ancient wall paintings of animals. Inspired by the experience, he later wrote: “Art never improves,” and many agree. Materials may change and styles may go out of fashion, but art always expresses the same essential things: imagination, creativity, and an attempt to understand our place in the universe. Art never changes and art never improves — art simply is.

That is a lazy way of viewing art, others reply. The revolutions and changes in art are what makes its story so fascinating. Clearly we have refined and improved our creative techniques. Not only that, more recent art truly captures the chaos and complexity of modern experience. Cave paintings look nice, but society has moved on. Thankfully, so has art.

You Decide

  1. Is modern art better than ancient art?
  2. What is art?

Activities

  1. Use the Become An Expert links to look at five different works of art across history. Which one do you like the most and why?
  2. Do some research into one of the following artistic movements: Impressionism, Cubism, Dadaism. In your chosen movement which artists are most important? What was the movement trying to say or achieve? What do you like or dislike about the paintings or sculptures that you found?

Some People Say...

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

Pablo Picasso

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The carving was discovered near the ancient Greek city of Pylos. It was in the tomb of a powerful warrior which contained over 3,000 other artefacts including beads, combs, and weapons. When it was found the carving was covered in limestone, and it took archaeologists a year to clean and restore it.
What do we not know?
We do not know who carved it and the exact year in which it was made. The warrior who it belonged to has been called “The Griffin Warrior” after an ivory carving of a griffin was found nearby. However, we do not know exactly who he was.

Word Watch

Battle
Some experts think that the carving could depict a scene from Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. The poem recounts a great war between the Greeks and Trojans. The Greeks won after infiltrating Troy using a giant wooden horse.
Detail
Some of the markings are only half a millimetre thick. Experts think that the sculptor may have used a magnifying glass.
Haunting stencils
Follow the second link in Become An Expert to see them for yourself.
Centaurs
Centaurs are half horse, half man. See them for yourself by following the third Become An Expert link.
Renaissance
A period of history between the 14th and 17th century in which art, literature, and music flourished across Europe.
Wonder
A famous example is Raphael’s The School of Athens. Follow the fourth Become An Expert link to see it.
Dance of light
See Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant in Become An Expert.
Once
See Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Become An Expert.

Subjects