Art

An Artist and Anthropologist Reinterpret Stone Age Tools as Sculpture

A curious and provocative show considers an age-old tension between form and function, treating the tools of early humans as a kind of art.

Spheroids from North Africa, Tony Berlant Collection (c. 500,000-300,000 BCE, all images courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic)

DALLAS — For over two million years, humans and their predecessors have left behind stone tools. Our evolutionary history is littered with these utilitarian artifacts: from Australopithecus to Neanderthals to sapiens, early hominins created handaxes, scrapers, and stone cores across Eurasia, Africa, Southeast Asia, even Australia. These tools are usually categorized according to function. But what if these pieces of worked stones were more than just utilitarian? What if they, as we might say two million years later, were art for art’s sake?

The exhibition First Sculpture: Handaxes to Figure Stone, currently on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, reframes stone tools as a form of early sculpture, suggesting that perhaps the human mind is hard-wired for abstract representation. First Sculpture is curated by Tony Berlant, a Los Angeles artist who collects indigenous art, and Thomas Wynn, a prominent anthropologist at the University of Colorado. Berlant and Wynn began their collaboration for the exhibition in 2013, focusing on the aesthetics of Acheulean handaxes, and later expanding the catalogue to include more controversial figure stones and spheroids. Their curious and provocative show focuses on an age-old tension between form and function, treating the objects on display, first, foremost, and fundamentally, as works of art.

Acheulean basalt cleaver from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, on loan from Tel Hai University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (c. 780,000 BCE)

“Archaeologists do acknowledge this visual appeal [of these artifacts], but being trained as dour skeptics, they rarely grant this perspective much credence,” Berlant and Wynn contend in their exhibition catalogue. “Yet, as the examples in this exhibition will show, aesthetic considerations have very deep roots in human antiquity, and have been a significant part of human experience for almost 2 million years.” The exhibition conveys their frustration with traditional archaeology, which they feel has dismissed aesthetic play in evolutionary history.

First Sculpture features 76 artifacts, from handaxes to anthropomorphic stones, that range in age from 2.5 million to 50,000 years old. Most of the pieces have been created through “knapping,” in which small flakes of rock are shaved away from the core, similar to how a sculptor strikes stone from a large block. They feature a range of raw materials, including chert, jasper, and quartzite; many come from famous archaeological sites like Le Moustier in France, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, or Makapansgat in South Africa. Some are on loan from institutions like the Field Museum in Chicago, while others come from Berlant’s private collection.

The exhibition highlights several artistic curiosities. The handaxes from Niger and France, for example, have holes in the middle of them. A handaxe from England shows off a seashell. The catalogue suggests that a few of the flake tools have been sculpted to be zoomorphic forms — one resembles the profile of a fish, another an elephant’s head. It’s easy to think that modern humans are the only species able to render such aesthetic artifacts, but humans are not the sole artists in the evolutionary record, and never have been.

“For so much of anthropology’s history, we’ve defined ‘human’ behavior by what we think is ‘uniquely human’ or behaviors other species don’t do. Things like art we have long thought we’ve held a monopoly over,” Marc Kissel, an anthropologist unaffiliated with the show, told me. “We see over and over again that assumed exclusivity simply isn’t true. Today, we’re working to reframe definitions of behaviors that make humans human based on what is shared in our evolutionary history.” (Just last week, a scientific paper suggested that the earliest known cave paintings were made by Neanderthals.)

Installation view of First Sculpture, featuring figure stones (left) and handaxes (right) at Nasher Sculpture Center

The question remains: are these tools art? In his recent book The Creative Spark, the anthropologist Augustín Fuentes asks: “Just how ‘creative’ does one need to get in order to make sharp flakes from rocks?” The answer — very creative. “Actually, it is a lot harder than it appears, especially if it has, so far as you know, never been done before.”

It seems impossible to look at these artifacts — or sculptures, depending on your point of view — without considering the aesthetic decisions that seem to have shaped them. Many of the tools have spectacular colors and beautiful lines; some show ridge after knapped ridge, suggesting that their creators worked and re-worked pieces of stone beyond what was strictly functional. These are necessary tools, but the exhibition argues that we owe it to the stones to consider what else they might be.

In addition to stone tools like handaxes, scrappers, and flakes, First Sculptures showcases 17 figure stones — objects that seem to have heads or human features, such as depressions that look like eyes. Figure stones, such as the Makapansgat pebble, associated with the hominin genus Australopithecus need not have been functional.  If an early human picked up the dark purple pebble, recognized the resemblance, and decided to keep it, their decision might amount to artistic valuation. But figure stones have never featured strongly in mainstream academic discussions of hominin evolution. “One result of this aversion is an almost complete absence of figure stones in organized, catalogued museum collections,” write Berlant and Wynn. In an aside, they add that “what remains crated and un-accessioned in the deep dungeons of some museums is anyone’s guess.”

Context matters, and the context of the Nasher Sculpture Center — as opposed to a natural history museum — implies that these ancient artifacts are more than functional. Next door, another exhibit gallery shows contemporary pieces that echo First Sculpture, suggesting a kind of artistic continuity that dates back millions of years. Tellingly, I was twice reprimanded by museum staff for getting too close to the artifacts with my camera. I was photographing artifacts the same way I would anything in a natural history museum: leaning toward the case to reduce glare and improve the angle. But in doing so, perhaps I was denying the artifacts the space we afford to sculptures. From the Nasher’s perspective, what I was doing was akin to crowding the David. My camera and I retreated to a respectful distance.

Twisted handaxe from Grindle Pit, England, on loan from the Sir John Evans Collection at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (c. 300,000 BCE)

First Sculptures is fascinating and provocative, but a pervasive dissonance undercuts the exhibition.  I couldn’t help but feel that, in the effort to ensure that these artifacts are seen as art, the exhibition sacrificed what makes them works of craft. I overheard one visitor refer to anthropology as “just the science stuff.” Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an anthropologist who studies Neanderthal artifacts, expressed concern that the term “sculpture” could give the public a “strangely skewed” view of the central function of the objects. “‘Sculpture’ without context feels like it’s dismissive of a host of careful, detailed archaeological evidence, that shows that we know a great deal about what hominins did with their stone tools.”

This is hardly the first show to contend with these issues: artifacts like medieval swords and armor have long challenged art museums to balance aesthetics and practical use. But First Sculpture seems uninterested in balance. Without any discussion of how the tools were made — or where these toolmaker artisans gathered their materials — I felt that the tension between form and function was amplified, rather than resolved. First Sculpture contends that you can’t have an artifact without artistry. But it’s equally true that you can’t have these works of art without their utility. These stones shouldn’t be stripped of their material history.

Still, First Sculpture is an important exhibition, because it bridges the worlds of art and archaeology. It showcases the form and function of humankind’s material legacy, and shows us that we’re just the latest in a long line of hominins to imbue stones with significance.

First Sculpture: Handaxes to Figure Stones continues at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas through April 28.

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