Neolithic artwork is part of Prehistoric art, not only did it serve functional purposes, as is so characteristic of Prehistoric art, but it served aesthetic purposes too. Neolithic art is our visual record of the beginnings of civilization. This article will explore the question, “what is Neolithic art?”
Table of Contents
- 1 The New Stone Age: When Was the Neolithic Age?
- 2 What Is Neolithic Art?
- 3 Neolithic Artwork
- 4 From the New Stone Age to the Contemporary Age
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
The New Stone Age: When Was the Neolithic Age?
Before we look at Neolithic art, a brief contextual background of the Neolithic period will give us more understanding. The Neolithic age was the last part of the Stone Age, it was also referred to as the “New Stone Age”. It occurred, approximately, around 10 000 BCE to 3000 BCE.
The word “Neolithic” originates from the Greek words néos meaning “new” and líthos meaning “stone”. The English scientist John Lubbock introduced the term “Neolithic” and “Palaeolithic” in the 1870s, the latter of which was the earlier part of the Stone Age, also referred to as the “Old Stone Age”.
In-between the Neolithic and Palaeolithic eras was the Mesolithic Stone Age, meaning “Middle” Stone Age.
The Three-Age System
The Stone Age falls into the broader categorization of prehistoric times, so let us briefly zoom out and see where we are. The Three-Age System, started in the 19th Century, was utilized as an archaeological dating tool to categorize prehistory into three respective periods, namely, the Stone Age (c. 2.6 million years ago to 3000 BCE), the Bronze Age (c. 3000 BCE to 1300 BCE), and the Iron Age (1300 BCE to 900 BCE).
This categorization made it easier for not only archaeologists and scholars, but anyone who seeks to understand the history and evolution of man. Although there were other scholars that introduced a divisionary system for prehistory, the Danish man Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, the Director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities, refined this method of classification.
Portrait of Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865); See page for author, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
He outlined this system in 1837 in one of his essays, titled, Kortfattet Udsigt over Mindesmærker og Oldsager fra Nordens Fortid (1837) (“Brief Outlook on Monuments and Antiquities from the Nordic Past”). This essay was part of a collection of volumes published by the Danish Royal Society for Ancient Nordic Manuscripts, this was titled, Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed (1836) (“Guideline to Scandinavian Antiquity”).
Thomsen’s method was significant because he categorized different materials from prehistoric times, namely, stone, bronze, and iron.
Additionally, these different periods existed in different parts of the world. For example, some of the primary Neolithic regions were Mesopotamia, the Levant, North Africa, Asia, and Western and Northern Europe, among others. The time periods also ranged between regions.
The Neolithic Revolution
The Neolithic period marked the beginnings of changes in civilization, this has been referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. This term was introduced by the Australian archaeologist, Vere Gordon Childe in the early 1900s. Childe’s usage of the term “revolution” could have possibly come from the tenets of Marxism, which influenced him.
It is important to note that most of the changes during these prehistoric periods occurred gradually – it was not an overnight occurrence. The nomadic lifestyle was still prominent and with steady progression, farming increased, which led to settlements. Childe’s concept of a “revolution” also received critique from various archaeologists because it may have been “misleading”.
A short animation of the chronology of the introduction of agriculture in Europe; Wikirictor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
From the hunter-gatherer mode of living there were new developments in farming and agricultural modes of living. During the Palaeolithic period, people utilized stone and bone tools, but these were basic in their form. Artwork existed during this period, but it was also rudimentary, made from natural materials and pigments.
The Mesolithic period slowly became more developed with polished tools as well as the beginnings of agriculture and settlements. This then became the Neolithic period, where settlements were permanent, people farmed, grew grains, domesticated animals, and various home-based functions like weaving, pottery, and sewing. This certainly was a “revolutionary” type of period in human evolution because it set the foundations for humans to settle and live in more permanent environments.
This type of living, compared to the nomadic lifestyle, inevitably changed human behaviors and in turn, it affected all areas of life, including art and what it was made for.
What Is Neolithic Art?
As we discussed above, the Neolithic period fell somewhere between 10 000 BCE to 3000 BCE. It marked the beginning of numerous new developments in social and cultural life. In clarifying the Neolithic art definition, we will discuss various related characteristics below.
Geometrical scratched motive near Hodmezovasarhely, Hungary, Neolithic period; Takkk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Characteristics of Neolithic Artwork
The characteristics we outline for Neolithic art are quite different from the type of characteristics we outline for art movements like the Renaissance. Neolithic art, first and foremost, served several functions, either related to food, farming, ritual, ornamentation, or any other purpose related to Neolithic living.
Furthermore, Neolithic art was not a separate aspect of the various Neolithic cultures, so we will also look at cultural characteristics, which inform the artwork.
The major changes that took place during this time were notably the increased security in terms of safety and food. With this came an increase in population and people settled in communion or “small tribes”. This also gave people the sense of place and territory, which inevitably increased the way they treated their surroundings, for example, living spaces, tools, objects, and each other.
Map of the different cultures and settlements of the European Middle Neolithic period; !Original: w:Sugaar (talk | contribs);w:Clarifer (talk | contribs)Vector: Joostik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This follows on from how people treated one another, there was an increase in hierarchical structures. Food was also usually maintained and stored on a more communal level instead of individually in households. Furthermore, there were also areas for rituals, which were evidently tied to the veneration of crops and climate changes.
There was a focus on the feminine and masculine qualities, and we will notice this in the Neolithic sculpture of female figurines throughout these periods.
Cults and shamanism were also a part of cultures and certain animals held more meaning than others. The realm of religion and ritual during prehistoric times is complex, and it is important to note the vastness of it throughout the regions and the importance placed on different deities and conceptions of the divine.
Neolithic artwork consists mostly of pottery, terracotta sculptures, statuettes, various smaller pieces that were utilized as adornments, Neolithic drawings like engravings and wall paintings, pictograms, and most notably megalithic structures – think Stonehenge (we will get to that). Neolithic sculpture was also made through new techniques like sculpting it from clay and baking it instead of just strictly through carving.
Neolithic Yarmoukian culture figurines at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Below, we discuss some of the prominent artistic pieces, from pottery, skulls, to megalithic structures. We will also discuss important archaeological sites where extensive collections of artworks were found, giving us a visual indication of the role art played in the Neolithic communities.
Bear in mind that while this only touches on a select few examples of Neolithic artwork, there are significant numbers of artwork excavated from this art period.
Çatalhöyük is also referred to as Çatal Höyük and is an archaeological site in Turkey not far from one of the major cities named Konya. The site was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. It is a site filled with evidence of not only hunter-gatherers but people who settled and lived in communities. It is reported that around 6000 to 8000 people inhabited these spaces thousands of years ago.
The site consists of various buildings made of mud bricks, these were built very closely next to one another, in fact, people moved around via the rooftops and entered their respective living spaces through holes or doors in the roof, some doors were also on the sides, by means of ladders or stairs.
A very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, 7400 BC; Murat Özsoy 1958, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The walls inside the homes were usually plastered and rooms are reported to have been kept in tidy conditions. Additionally, there were also up to two rooms in a dwelling with an extra room that could have been utilized for storage purposes.
There has also been a diverse range of art discovered on this site, such as murals on walls inside and outside homes.
The subject matter for these murals was mostly geometric patterns and figural shapes. The figural shapes were often of animals with some human-like forms incorporated. An example of this is titled the Neolithic Wall Painting in Building 80, Çatalhöyük, among many other such images.
Detail of a Çatalhöyük mural showing the hind part of the aurochs, a deer, and hunters; Omar hoftun, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Some examples of this include vultures at a dead corpse and what appears as two cranes faced towards each other with a fox behind them. A characteristic stance or depiction of these figures has been described as “splayed” because we will often notice their heads not depicted or they would have no hands or feet.
Female clay figurines have also been found on the site, for example, the popular Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük (c. 6000 BCE). This depicts a female sitting between two feline figures, possibly two armrests with the heads of feline figures. Some sources suggest she may also be sitting on the feline figures. It is not clear what feline figures these are – it could possibly be leopards, lionesses, or panthers. The figurine is made of baked clay and the right armrest and head have also been restored.
The figurine is currently housed at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, located in Ankara city, Turkey.
Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey; User:Roweromaniak, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
These female figurines were popular forms of Neolithic and connected to female deities, however, there has been debate over the importance of the female deities compared to male deities, and sources also point out that both genders had equal standing. Furthermore, there have been around 2000 figurines excavated, predominantly consisting of animals.
The figurines were also found in different areas of homes, for example, some were found in garbage pits, others in walls or floors. The purpose of these figurines could be for good luck or to keep bad spirits at bay. The above-mentioned Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük was excavated from a grain bin.
The excavator, James Mellaart, suggested that her purpose was related to good harvests and the safety of food supplies.
The Palestinian city, Jericho, is another site where the Jericho Skull (9000 to 6000 BC) and other similar skulls have been found. What is unique about these skulls is that they are plastered human skulls. Many were males, however, there were also females and children.
The skulls are believed to be connected to ritual and religious practices of burying the dead. When people died, they were buried under the floors and their skulls would often be plastered with shells placed in the remaining eye sockets and sometimes human features like hair would be painted on them.
A plastered skull from the ancient city of Jericho in Palestine 7000 BC; Mary Harrsch, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
There are other sources that suggest the skulls were for the “practice of headhunting” in which case they would be “trophies”. Other suggestions indicate the skulls were to venerate the dead ancestors or to remember passed away loved ones by having an “image” of them (in this case, their skull) plastered and decorated to appear more life-like. The skulls were found at many other sites too, for example, Nahal Hemar, Tell Ramad, Beisamoun, Kfar Hahoresh, and others.
The exact reason for these skulls is varied, but from what the evidence suggests, these are early examples of what is believed to be portraiture in art.
Neolithic Megalithic Structures and Artwork
As we move on from the Neolithic sites mentioned above, we move into what is probably one of the most fascinating aspects of Neolithic art: Neolithic megaliths. These are found in numerous regions of the world, and many are famously known in the regions of Europe like England and Ireland.
Stonehenge (c. 2550 to 1600 BCE) is in England, on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. It is one of the biggest prehistoric structures constructed, consisting of numerous large stones arranged in a circle; there is an outer circle and inner circle. The outer circle consists of stones standing vertically each with a horizontal lintel stone. The stone is made from sarsen stone, which is a prevalent sandstone in England.
The stones stand around 13 feet tall, measure to around seven feet in width, and weigh over 20 tons each.
Inside this ring are five sarsen trilithons (a trilithon is a structure consisting of two vertical stones next to the other with a horizontal stone on top of both), these appear in a horseshoe shape and weigh around 50 tons. We will also see various Bluestones within the outer and inner circle of sarsen stones.
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England; Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Stonehenge was reportedly built in three phases, although there is debate about the accuracy of when the phases took place. Phase One was around 3100 BCE, Phase Two was around 3000 BCE, and Phase Three was around 2600 BCE, this was also the longest phase and lasted until around 2400 BCE.
This was a monumental undertaking and there is still a lot of debate about how this ancient structure was erected and by whom.
As to the function of Stonehenge, it possibly served religious and ceremonial purposes. Its orientation is towards the sunrise on the Summer Solstice, which gives a further indication for its purpose. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
There are also other stone monuments in the surrounding regions, for example, the Avebury monuments in Wiltshire, England. These are three stone circles located around the Avebury village. It is also part of a henge, a bank with a ditch, surrounding the stones. The outer circle measures 1088 feet and the inner circle of stone measures around 322 feet on the northern side and around 354 feet on the southern side.
Avebury stones in the South Circle viewed from the south-east quadrant bank. From left to right, stones 103, 102, 101, and 105 are shown. The small concrete post marks the position of missing stone number 104. The tower of St James church is in the background; JimChampion, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It was built approximately around 2850 BCE to 2200 BCE. This is part of the associated World Heritage Sites, of which Stonehenge is a part. There is also a wide debate about the construction of Avebury as well as its purpose. Many scholars and non-scholars have posed ideas as to this structure’s purpose, some say it was most likely for ritual and ceremonial purposes.
Brú na Bóinne
Brú na Bóinne, meaning “Palace of the Boyne” or “Valley of the Boyne”, is in the County Meath, Ireland. It is also referred to as the Boyne Valley Tombs. It includes the three major burial mounds or passage tombs, namely, Newgrange (c. 3300 to 2900), Knowth (c. 3200 BCE), and Dowth (between 3200 to 2900 BCE).
These are located near the River Boyne and are around 40 to 50 kilometers north of the city of Dublin. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. The Brú na Bóinne complex is home to numerous Neolithic henges, stones, tomb chambers, mounds, and other structures related to ceremony and ritual.
An interesting fact about the Brú na Bóinne complex indicates that it was built before the Pyramids in Egypt.
TOP: The Neolithic passage tomb of Brú na Bóinne in Newgrange; Dieglop, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons | BOTTOM: A detail of one of the Neolithic borderstones of Brú na Bóinne, Newgrange; Pasztilla (régi), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
We will also find the extensive knowledge and application of astronomy, such as the Newgrange mound and its passage. The mound (measuring 249 feet wide, or across the structure, and 39 feet in height) was built with layers of stone and earth with a passage leading around 60 feet into the central part inside the mount. The passage inside the chamber is aligned when the sun rises in the Winter Solstice. The chamber inside is lit up for an estimated time of 17 minutes.
Another important aspect of these mounds is their Neolithic rock art or rock engravings.
These are significant examples that tell us about the Neolithic period art in Ireland. There are geometric motifs in distinct patterns, namely, spirals, circles, arc-like forms, chevrons, various lines like parallel lines, lozenges, and radials.
The triple spiral or “triskele” shape is among one of the common shapes we see on Irish megaliths. There is wide debate among scholars about the purpose of these designs, some say they are symbolic while others say they are decorative.
Neolithic Pottery and Ceramics
There were four periods that categorized Neolithic pottery and ceramic production in the Middle East, in the Mesopotamia region. These were namely, the Hassuna period (c. 7000 to 6500 BCE), the Halaf period (c. 6500 to 5500 BCE), the Ubaid period (c. 5500 to 4000 BCE), and the Uruk period (c. 4000 to 1300 BCE).
The Hassuna period was named after the archaeological site called Tell Hassuna in Iraq.
It was the site where the Neolithic Hassuna culture lived. The pottery from this site has been divided into three phases, namely, Hassuna Archaic, Hassuna Standard, and Samarran. The characteristics of pottery include creamy coloring with incised patterns.
A pottery fragment showing the neck of a bottle-shaped jar painted with a woman’s face. The eyes and nose were added. The overall depiction points to Samarra culture from Tell Hassuna, 5000 BCE; Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Halaf period was named after Tell Halaf in Syria. Characteristics of pottery included a wider range of colors with animal and geometric patterns. Halaf pottery has been considered quite technically advanced in its production.
When we look at the Ubaid period, which is named after the archaeological site Tell al-‘Ubaid located in Ur in Iraq. Pottery during this period also had creamy and brown colors with patterns that consisted of zig-zags, chevrons, and other geometric motifs. Pottery was also characterized as much plainer during this period.
The last Uruk period that occurred was named after Uruk, a city in Sumeria.
Pottery vessel from the late Susa II period (Uruk Period), 3300-3100 BC, Chogha Mish, Khuzestan Province, Iran; Jerónimo Roure Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The potter’s wheel made it easier to produce pottery. Kilns were also enhanced. Pottery during this period appeared more monochrome with lesser decorative motifs on the containers. If there were decorations these would appear as what is known as “lozenge” motifs. There was also a large collection of pottery from this period in a range of shapes and sizes suited to different foods and needs. The various jars and vases had large bellies (bodies), shorter necks, and larger openings or mouths.
Neolithic pottery and ceramics in China were functional in nature and had various characteristics as the Neolithic period progressed.
During the earlier Neolithic period, pottery was made from earthenware and fired mostly in bonfires, and these were a red color. Pottery was also hand-made through the coiling method. Jugs were more prominent during the middle Neolithic period in China, for example, the amphorae.
A typical example of Neolithic pottery in China, Xinyang City Museum, Henan Province; Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
These were also red in color and had various incised patterns. In other regions of China, some pottery was black in color due to it being charcoal-tempered. The later Neolithic periods in China were increasingly burnished and decoratively painted with geometric patterns. There were many different Chinese cultures throughout the Neolithic period and the production of pottery and sculpture developed in unique and complex ways.
There were also various cultural and social factors that allowed this Neolithic art to evolve and become refined not only as a utilitarian object but as a form of craftsmanship.
From the New Stone Age to the Contemporary Age
The Neolithic or New Stone age evolved into the Bronze age, which started with the advent of more people using bronze. It started around 3300 BCE and lasted until around 1200 BCE. There was a wide range of artwork, not to mention extensive bronze carvings, but ceramics also developed more aesthetically. Records of the first type of writing have been found from this age too.
LEFT: Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamish (Obverse side); Stephen Langdon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons | RIGHT: Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamish (Reverse side); Stephen Langdon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We will also find the Stone age revived in our contemporary age through various artists who replicate the enormity of Neolithic megaliths in everyday objects, for example, artist Mark Leckey’s GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction (2010).
Other examples of or “throwbacks” to Neolithic times can be viewed in land art from the 1970s, for example, Nancy Holt’s installations called Sun Tunnels (1976). These structures, four concrete cylinders, were erected in Utah’s Great Basin Desert and align with the Summer and Winter Solstice’s sunrise and sunset, reminiscent of the astronomical and ceremonial qualities we see from the Neolithic period art.
The Neolithic period was vast and complex, spanning across many regions, consisting of many peoples who all gradually evolved from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled lifestyle including farming and agriculture, and animal domestication. We can almost say the Neolithic age set the stage for how we live today, in communities and settled environments.
Frequently Asked Questions
When Was the Neolithic Period?
The Neolithic age occurred, approximately, around 10 000 BCE to 3000 BCE. It was the last part of the Stone Age, otherwise the “New Stone Age”. The word “Neolithic” originates from the Greek words néos meaning “new” and líthos meaning “stone”. The Paleolithic age preceded the Neolithic age.
What Is Neolithic Art?
The Neolithic period art varied in style and subject matter, it also occurred in numerous regions worldwide. It consisted of pottery, Neolithic sculpture, statuettes often of female and male figures, but including animals too. There were also Neolithic drawings like engravings and wall paintings as well as rock art on various structures, most notably megalithic structures like Stonehenge or Newgrange. Neolithic pictographs were also common and many sources state that these could have been the precursors of writing.
What Are the Characteristics of Neolithic Art?
Neolithic art served different functions, these were either related to food, farming, ritual, ornamentation, or any other purpose related to the Neolithic lifestyle. Neolithic art was not a separate part of Neolithic cultures, the two go together, for example, the way people live directly influenced the Neolithic art definition and its characteristics. The changes that took place during this time included increased security like personal safety and food. These changes resulted in increased populations, which gave people a sense of place and territory, this also changed the way people treated their surroundings, for example, living spaces, tools, objects, and each other.