One day in 1443, a mason chiselled the letters “A. E. I. O. U.” on a giant bone which hung from the gates of the bustling city of Vienna.
The mason was not making sure they never forgot their vowels (although it is a pretty snazzy way of remembering). These letters were the motto of Emperor of Austria, Fredrick III: “All Earth is our [Austria’s] Underlying”. What greater statement than to inscribe the great Emperor’s motto onto a leg bone of a humungous being. This enormous bone, thought to have once belonged to a giant, was discovered when building St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. It was hung on the city gates, known as ‘Giants Gates’.
This was of course not the leg bone of a giant. It was a mammoth femur. For centuries bones of mammoths (and other beasts) have been used in rather creative ways with their true identity remaining a mystery. In Germany a mammoth bone hung from Erfurt Cathedral’s entrance to warn away evil. One of my favourites goes back to 1603. An enormous mammoth tusk was discovered in Southern Germany, and hung from St Michael’s Church. Alongside the tusk was written, “Now say, my friend, what I may be.”
Ever since fossils of mammoths have been found, they have been used in wonderful ways. They have been hung on buildings as harbingers of good luck to worn off evil, or to create stories of fantastical giants. A monk even had a mammoth tooth on his desk for many years which, oblivious to what it actually was, he used as a paperweight.
Creative use of mammoth bones is much older than you may think.
While the magnificent woolly mammoth was alive, their fresh tusks were used for some of the earliest human art to have been discovered. Going back 40,000 years, incredibly detailed carved sculptures of horses, reindeer and bison have been recovered from caves in Germany and France. These objects are stunning. Not just because they look beautiful. Nor because they are so old. They were carved, from Mammoth ivory with flint. No drills, chisels, or steel knives, but thin blades of flint.
Stone tools are incredible. These are pieces of stone (often a specific type of stone) that has been purposefully shaped to do a task. And they go back a long, long way. What’s more, they were not unique to Homo sapiens. The earliest stone tools so far discovered date to around 2.6 million years ago, the very beginning of the Pleistocene. These early stone tools, found in Africa, were designed for smashing up bones or chopping roots. Through time, the tools got more complex. Around 1.7 million years ago a more sophisticated stone tool emerged, known as the ‘Acheulean Industry’. This is a much more complex way of shaping the stone: hitting off large flakes off to get the shape, and then user a slightly softer ‘hammer’ (like a piece of bone), to be more refined and precise. The discarded flakes could be used for other things like slicing or scrapping. Shaping a stone like this is known as knapping.
I knew about flint blades and the ‘tool kit’ that people could get from a flint core they carried around with them. Mostly, I had learned from Jondalar; Jean Auel’s perfect flint knapper, bewitched by the true hero of her saga, Ayla. (Herself an excellent flint knapper, Ayla had learnt from the Neanderthals she grew up with, but not to the sophistication of Jondalar.)
Flint can slice flesh. It can scrape leather. Even pierce leather. I never really appreciated how difficult it is to knapp flint into the shape you wanted. That was until I had a go at knapping myself. I thought it would be pretty easy. A little tap here. A gentle bang there. Voila! A nice flint axe head. Boy was I wrong. There is a huge amount of skill in striking a flint nodule at exactly the right place, with exactly the right force. Holding the large heavy light grey flint nodule in my left hand, I brought down a much harder rounded grey limestone pebble to bash away an edge. I flinched as I missed the flint. Another go, I missed again. The third time, the limestone pebble hit it in the wrong place and caused the flint nodule to vibrate in my weaker left hand and I almost dropped it. I eventually managed to chip a slither off my big chunk. I hit a few more, not in any of the places where I wanted, before passing over to the expert. I was in awe at the precision and the skill with each strike hitting just where they wanted it to go, and removing just the bits he wanted.
Although strikingly similar to Jondalar in many ways, I realised I would need a little more practice at flint knapping.
Flint is also extremely sharp. Stupidly, I ran my index finger along the edge of a freshly made hand axe saying ‘wow, it looks so sharp’. Blood trickled down the fresh slice on my finger.
Axes can be used to smash things, cut down things and hunt things. The thin flakes can be used to sliced into with ease. Tendons can cut from the bones, or cut into wood. Delicately thin blades of flint can be used to shave off bits of ivory to shape the most beautiful creature from a blank piece of mammoth tusk.
We don’t know the true use of the majority of this incredible art work. But what we do know is that the artists were extremely skilled in capturing the essence of the animal they visualised. Transforming this onto a piece of mammoth ivory, with a few flakes of fine flint is astonishing. These amazingly detailed rare sculptures have one more magical glimpse for us: the artist actually saw these animals. Mammoths, hyena, bison, reindeer and more were real, and a part of our environment. They were captured in cave paintings on many sites. Perhaps more amazingly, these have been preserved for tens of thousands of years: real, life-like sculptures capturing these animals in astonishing detail.
One of the most wonderful, and most enigmatic, sculptures is that of the ‘lion man’. Known as Löwenmensch, meaning ‘lion human’, this spectacular one has been found in a cave in Germany, dating to around 40,000 years old. Figurines of women have been found at some sites (the famous ‘Venus figurines’), but the ‘lion man’ tells us something else. The artist, or the group of humans, created a half-lion half-human creature, with a ritual or spiritual significance. Others have been found at sites across Europe.
Looking at these incredible pieces, we see more than just a work of art. We see the focused mind of the artist, how they held the image of the beast in their head and was able to transfer it onto a piece of mammoth tusk by delicately carving away slithers of ivory. Their masterpieces provide a glimpse into a different world. A time where small communities of Homo sapiens sat in and around caves watching the wonder of the world around them.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
For more information and images on Pleistocene art, visit the Bradshaw Foundation site.
Cook, J. (2013). Ice Age Art: the arrival of the modern mind. The British Museum. [Book]
Harmand, S, et al. (2015). ‘3.3million year old stone tools from Lomekwi 3. West Turkana, Kenya.’ Nature 521 (7552): pp.310–315. [Abstract only]
Semaw, S. M. J. et al. (2003). “2.6-Million-year-old stone tools and associated bones from OGS-6 and OGS-7, Gona, Afar, Ethiopia”. Journal of Human Evolution 45: pp.169–177. [Full article]
Sillitoe, P. & K. Hardy. (2003), ‘Living lithics: ethnoarchaeology in highland Papua New Guinea.’ Antiquity 77: pp.555-566. [Abstract only]
Wendt, H. (1956). Before the Deluge. Paladin. [Book]