As long as man has existed, he has had the impulse to create art. Although we tend to think of representational art as coming into its own during the Renaissance, in fact it dates back much farther; long before oil paints and acrylics were invented, man was using materials he had around him to create pieces that reflected what he found in nature.
A new example of that art was discovered last summer in East Asia, which is home to some of the world’s oldest sculpted pieces. But this one, a small bird no bigger than about two centimetres in size, dates back about 13,500 years – the oldest carving found in Asia to date.
It was crafted from burned bone using four techniques, experts explained: gouging, abrading, scraping, and incising. These were done with stone tools, the archaeologists said, because those were the methods available to the sculptor at the time.
The figurine is of a passerine, which was a bird not unlike a sparrow, or a thrush. It was crafted atop a small pedestal and has an over-sized tail, likely to keep it from falling forward when placed on a table.
This small bird sculpture has caused big excitement in the archaeology world, but also in artistic circles. The team who discovered it is comprised of experts from China, Israel, France and Norway, and their findings were published in June in the online scholarly journal Plos One to great acclaim.
In a press release that accompanied their announcement, they said, “This discovery identifies an original artistic tradition and pushes back by more than 8,500 years the representation of birds in Chinese art.”
The site at Lingjing, in Henan Province, where the small bird was found, has given up other important revelations, too, including pieces of pottery and a pendant made of ostrich. Work has been underway at the site since 2005.
One team member called the bird a “game changer” in experts’ understanding of how Chinese art evolved in the Stone Age and beyond because it is the oldest piece of three dimensional art discovered there by archaeologists so far.
Although the bird is incredibly tiny, it is breathtakingly beautiful, said one of the team members, Francesco d’Errico, director of research for France’s Centre For Scientific Research, which is based at the University of Bordeaux.
“When you look at it under a microscope,” he explained to The Guardian, “you really see it was (made by) an artist… It’s small but in fact it’s quite refined.”
The archaeologists say they are unsure of the sculptor’s reasons for making the carving, particularly as it’s so small – was it solely for display, or did a shaman carry it with him to use in magic or religious rituals? They can only speculate.
But they have no doubt whatsoever as to its significance to the history of art in China; older pieces have been found in Europe, but never in China.
In what we now know as Germany, animal and human carvings done on mammoth ivory were found in caves that date back approximately 40,000 years, some experts estimate. Before the bird was discovered, the earliest sculpture found in China dated to about 3000 B.C.
Whatever the purpose of the wee figurine, its beauty and meaning to archaeology and art are not in doubt.
Yet again these experts have found something hugely important to the evolution of man’s artistic impulses, and one day, perhaps, they will find more artifacts at Lingjing that lend even greater insights into our creative endeavours.
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After all, that is the purpose of archaeology; dig up the past to shed light on who we are today, and who we may become in future years.