How archaeologists can decide if prehistoric artefacts count as art

To make sense of aesthetically pleasing ancient objects and what they tell us about how their creators thought, archaeologists must temper imagination with science

New Scientist  15 November 2023


IN HIS poem The Conundrum of the Workshops, Rudyard Kipling imagined an early human pausing to admire a drawing he had scratched in the dirt, only to hear a voice whispering: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Archaeologists know a bit about scratching in the dirt, and when their excavations reveal a beautiful ancient object, they find themselves asking the very same question. They are motivated by a desire to step inside the minds of our prehistoric ancestors. In many cases, they want to understand if and when ancient hominins began to create art, as we explore in our feature “The archaeological finds that show art is far older than our species“.

Consider the Neanderthals. For decades, we thought of them as brutish, subhuman creatures lacking in creativity. Recent archaeological finds, including a painted fossil shell that was carried 100 kilometres by a Neanderthal, suggest otherwise. What’s more, a growing collection of evidence suggests that earlier hominins may have possessed an artistic sensibility, potentially pushing back the origins of art by millions of years.

Only potentially, though, because ancient artefacts often throw up “interpretive tensions”. To understand what they meant to their creators, archaeologists have to make inferences. There is a danger of taking that too far, of course, and any claims that an artefact was intended as a work of art should be treated with caution, considering all alternative possibilities. But herein lies the joy of all this: we have to use our imaginations to figure out how our ancestors saw the world.

That doesn’t preclude a scientific approach. The West Tofts hand axe is a good example. A 300,000-to-500,000-year-old tool created from a piece of flint containing a fossil shell, it looks like a work of art. By analysing exactly how the tool had been made and used, however, archaeologists showed that the fossil’s prominent position is a mere coincidence.

There can be no doubt that art has a long prehistory. But to truly unravel its origins, and to understand how ancient hominins thought, requires a meeting of rigorous science and imagination.


From Dave Riddlestone, Farnborough, Hampshire, UK 29 November 2023

Your feature traces the history of hominid art, but quickly dispatches the creations of the bowerbird as not art. I think it is a mistake to be so dismissive (18 November, p 32 and Leader).

On Valentine’s Day some years ago, I watched a pair of carrion crows outside my window. The male had placed a small white object on the grass and was creating a rosette of dead oak leaves around it, carefully placing each leaf, then looking up at the female. With each leaf, she hopped a bit closer. Was the rosette art? It was symmetrical and certainly wasn’t stereotyped. The male crow was more creative than me with my shop-bought card for my wife.

From Sally Shaw, Colchester, Essex, UK 29 November 2023

It is sad that you believe science should be used to rule out the possibility of art, writing that “claims that an artefact was intended as a work of art should be treated with caution, considering all alternative possibilities”. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to consider that something can be both artistic and functional? The interpretation that art is separate, can’t be part of the everyday, the functional, is reductive and a legacy of our industrial past.