Man have always found ways to create. It seems to be a vital part of being human. In fact, it is one of the things which set us apart from animals. Did it contribute anything to human survival? Probably not. And yet we still created. On stone, in caves, using peplos, tusks and wood – anything from the world around us. This ability to see animate objects within inanimate objects is a uniquely human attribute. Natufian art is particularly interesting because it came from the first settled hunters and gatherers.
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In this post, we will be looking at the art of the people who settled in the Levant area first. The Natufian are the relatives of the first civilisations, and are a vital part of our Mesopotamia Unit Study. They help us to understand the nature of these early settlements and how the settled hunters and gatherers eventually turned to farming. Natufian art links the art of the Palestinian hunters and gatherers and that of the farmers.
In my last post about Natufian culture, I shared how we created our own set of Natufian artefacts (in fact, I made a video!):
These artefacts were, by their very nature, useful items which made the Natufian’s lives easier. Natufian art is different. These art pieces were not essential to their survival, nor did they make their lives any easier. However, they allowed expression, exploration and spirituality to evolve. This art was meaningful to them in some way.
The Natufian’s did not have a choice of canvas, paper, card or wood to paint on. They could not choose from oil paints, water colour paints or pastels to make their marks. And they did not have the memoirs or art of those who came before them, in the form of books, videos or, in fact, the actual art itself. They were unaware of the cave paintings of the ice age or the Lion Man artefact carved tens of thousands of years before their existence. They had only their tribe and their surroundings.
As archeologists explore more and more sites, they constantly add to the collected directory of Natufian art. As they do so, some characteristics specific to the Natufian people reveal themselves. These include carvings using the natural articulation of the bone; unnaturally large bulging eyes, protruding ears, mouth and legs; in distinctively carved face of possible human or animal origin and that of a male, female or even bird; careful polishing using sand and leather.
The Natural World
So, the Natufian’s used what they had, from the natural surroundings they lived in. Natural objects were used not just as models but also as canvases and materials. Inspiration came from items such as fossils, unusually shaped rocks and the bones of animals to produce their own art. Patterns found in nature gave them inspiration to produce geometric art. They used flat stones as canvasses to display their representational images. The abundant availability of marine life from both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea meant that many of the ‘objects d’art’ found their origin in the sea.
The Natufian’s did not just exploit marine life for its nutritional value but also for use as tools, weapons and for its artistic value. Shells were used for body ornamentation. They fashioned jewellery and head-dresses and displayed them in elaborate burials. A lime material similar to plaster was used as a precursor to pottery. The Natufian’s were learning to exploit the natural world in which they lived to create beautiful art. In fact, they were the first documented tribe to have created elaborately decorated functional objects such as white ware and ostrich eggshell vessels.
The Natufian’s intentional and considered use of natural objects as templates allowed them to reproduce geometric shapes, lines and angles seen around them. Most of the Natufian’s artwork was small, meaning it was portable. For example, archeologists have found geometric or schematic renderings on stone and animal bones as well as limestone slabs. Were these a primitive language? Or did they denote the allegiance to a specific tribe? Or did they instead indicate ownership of something? We may never know. It seems likely though that this mark making had a purpose, possibly a spiritual one, and that its maker was attempted to communicate something in their renderings.
There have been many suppositions made regarding the origin of geometric carvings. One idea is that the Natufian people ate hallucinogenic plants, and ‘saw’ the geometric form in their visions, replicating them or even, at times, abstracting them. There is little evidence for this (!) and the most accepted explanation is that they studied the extensive natural world around them and reproduced what they saw: lightening strikes, jointed rock formations, crystals, the veins of animals, leaves and ferns, water ripples, tree branch angles, patterns on animals skins, imprints of animal feet…I could go on. It is these interesting natural designs which may have appealed to Natufian artisans who played around with their own reproductions, lightly modifying them as the feeling took.
Natufian Art Carvings
Many of the carvings found in the Natufian settlements were small in size and often depicted a face of some sort. They were portable, which leads scholars to ask whether these small stones depicted a loved one, or someone who had died, perhaps a bit like we may carry a photo of a loved one around in our wallet. Alternatively, could they have had a spiritual meaning? We may never know…but it sure is interesting to contemplate.
In the example above, the artist has carved an abstract representation of the human image. It is an image which can arguably be both an abstract conceptualised face or (take a step back and look again) an image of a whole body. It is both advanced and delightful in its simplicity. The concentric semicircular eyes (or are they arms and legs?) with the brows at the top (or could it be an abstract head on top of a body?) offer a sense of calm which transcends through the years.
There is unlikely to be much argument that the above carving is that of a human face. The two right angles, carved parallel to each other, could not make a bigger statement. The face seems all knowing, maybe having something supernatural inherent in its markings. Was this carried for good luck? Or did people hold it whilst praying to ‘Mother Nature’ to control the uncontrollable? It is fascinating in its simplicity.
I have created some Natufian Art notepages to go along with your study:
How to Make Natufian Art
I have created a video show you how to recreate these art pieces yourself. This is a wonderful activity to experience a little of what it meant to be a Natufian artisan. These art pieces would be a perfect addition to any Mesopotamia end of unit presentation. Just in case you would like to create your own museum containing all the artefacts you make over the course of your Mesopotamia unit, I have included some museum labels for you to download and print:
They need to be printed four to a page in order to get the approximate size of an actual museum label.
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