As we ascend the genealogical tree of art, traveling backwards in time, it would seem that renderings become ever more stylized, ever more schematic. Much of the earlier art revealed to us by archaeology seems to be a kind of hieroglyphics, a pictorial language for which we do not have the key. Or perhaps there was no key in the sense of a single meaning that can be attached to each glyph.
However, matters are not so simple. European Palaeolithic paintings reveal a strong naturalistic current, especially in the vivid depictions of animals. The cave paintings of Lascaux are justly celebrated. Yet even here we find occasional subsidiary elements that seem to be linear abstractions. These are the so-called tectiform or lattice motifs.
By contrast with the Palaeolithic it is with the Neolithic that perennial abstraction came into its own. This era saw the introduction of agriculture, largely replacing hunting and gathering as the source of human sustenance. Agriculture requires adherence to regular patterns of plowing, sowing, and field distribution. These activities made patterns on the land, which would have inevitably suggested motifs for art. And so indeed we do find parallel and converging lines, checkerboard patterns, spirals, and lozenges.
The Neolithic period also saw the introduction of pottery. Prior to the invention of the potter’s wheel, the substance of the vessel was created by the coiling method. Coiling produces a three-dimensional spiral. It is also possible to impress the body of the pot with linear designs by applying a cord prior to firing. Then the introduction of glazes made possible various color changes. In Chinese ceramics of the Tang period the characteristic three colors (red, green, and yellow) are splashed on in a way that tends to be independent of the shape of the vessel. Ceramics of the following Sung period show subtle changes of color inherent in the glazes. However, much of the decoration of pottery is incised or painted. Circles and especially spirals are common, the latter almost a universal motif. There are also grids and checkerboard patterns. And finally one should note the blocky forms known as metopes and meanders.
Among the most impressive products of prehistoric art megaliths such as Stonehenge and the other henge monuments in Britain, the alignments of Britanny and the decorated menhirs. Concentric circles such as Stonehenge have been plausibly interpreted as calendrical or cosmic devices. There are also underground sanctuaries such as Newgrange in Ireland with its spirals and other linear motifs.
We turn now to two other major categories, petroglyphs and geoglyphs.
A petroglyph is a visual configuration recorded on stone, usually by prehistoric peoples, by means of carving, pecking or otherwise incised on natural rock surfaces. They are commonly associated with the Neolithic phase of human cultural evolution. They constituted a dominant form or pre-writing symbols used for communication from approximately 10,000 BCE to 5,000 BCE.
The term “petroglyph” should not be confused with either the term “pictograph,” a more advanced type of symbolic configuration, which uses the images to tell the chronological story spanning through time. Petroglyphs are also different from cave painting, in as much as petroglyphs are carved or engraved, while cave paintings are the images painted on walls, generally hidden deep within the earth.
The oldest petroglyphs stem from the border times between the Neolithic and late Upper Palaeolithic eras. Some primitive societies have been using petroglyphs much longer, some even until they made contact with Western culture in recent times. Petroglyphs have been found on all continents except Antarctica. In Asia notable examples have been found at Bhimbetka in India, at Angono in the Philippines and several sites within the territory of Hong Kong. In South America they have been found at Cumbe Mayo in Peru. Europe presents noteworthy examples in Ireland, England, Norway, and France. In North America they have been found in West Virginia, Arkansas, parts of Canada and the far Western United States.
The Southwestern region of the US is particularly rich in petroglyphs. The zone of efflorescence stretches from California and Nevada, across Arizona and Utah to New Mexico and Colorado—in short our great arid region. This art was produced by Amerindians in prehistoric times, from ca. 700 until ca. 1400 CE, when there was a great decline. The decline is hard to explain since it preceded the destructive advance of Europeans. After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, there was a crystallization of present-day peoples--Zuni, Hopi, Navajo--who have little demonstrable connection with the creators of the prehistoric rock art, despite claims to the contrary. The most notable rock monuments stem from cultural groupings, such as the Anasazi and Hohokam. (names given by archaeologists).
In terms of survival paintings (pictographs) are rare because of fragility. Common instead are petroglyphs. First, there was a selection of rock surface that is considered important and possesses the additional advantage of a varnish or patination. The artists then pecked or scraped away the place for the glyph so that it appears as a negative image..
Typical motifs include crawly creatures (snakes, lizards, frogs), quadrupeds (felines, sheep, deer, antelope), “anthropomorphs” (often stick figures), geometrical forms (circles, squares, zigzags, grids, possible maps).
A model survey has been made at South Mountain, part of the city of Phoenix in Arizona. The simplistic notion that the petroglyphs arise from doodling is excluded, because of stability of patterns. Some have said that shamanism lies behind this production. Others see clan markers (especially animals). There is some indication of grouping into sequences, as in the frieze from the Petrified Forest. Some speak of “newspaper” walls.” Are they a prototypical form of writing? What we can acknowledge is our fascination with such forms, even though we cannot say precisely what they mean.
It has been argued that these images had deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them. Many petroglyphs are thought to represent some kind of not yet fully understood symbolic or ritual language. The later carvings from the Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia seems to indicate some form of territorial boundaries between tribes. There appear to be "dialects" between neighborhood and contemporary petroglyphs. The Siberian inscriptions recall some early form of runes, although there is no well established relationship.
Geoglyphs are large-scale markings on the earth. There are also huge geoglyphs in Egypt, Malta, Britain, the United States (Mississippi and California), Chile, Bolivia and in other countries. However, the Nazca lines in southern Peru are the most famous examples of prehistoric geoglyphs.
The Nazca Lines are an enigma. Setting aside fantastic explanations of visitations by alien beings, scholars put their creation between 200 BCE and 600 CE. In all likelihood they were used for rituals and processions related to astronomy.
The Nazca Lines are located in the Nazca Desert, a high arid plateau that stretches between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the pampa (a large flat area of southern Peru). The desolate plain of the Peruvian coast which comprises the Pampas of San Jose (Jumana), San José, El Ingenio, and others in the province of Nasca, is some 250 miles. South of Lima, covering nearly 400 square miles of sandy desert as well as the slopes of the contours of the Andes.
The Nazca plain is virtually unique for its ability to preserve the markings upon it, due to the combination of the climate (one of the driest on Earth, with only twenty minutes of rainfall per year) and the flat, stony ground which minimises the effect of the wind at ground level. With no dust or sand to cover the plain, and little rain or wind to erode it, lines drawn here tend to stay drawn. These factors, combined with the existence of a lighter-colored subsoil beneath the desert crust, provide a vast writing pad that is ideally suited to a people seeking to leave their mark for eternity.
There are various representational designs consisting of figures of animals, flowers and plants, objects, and anthropomorphic figures of colossal proportions made with well-defined lines. However, the majority of the designs are geometric and abstract. Many consist of straight lines, sometimes stretching for miles before converging. Others are spirals, some of them connected with the figures.
An ancient art of decoration is tattooing, which is undergoing a major revival. Spirals and sequences of bars are among the abstract devices used.
How did scholars first become aware of these phenomena? In the nineteenth century the tempo of archaeology increased. Excavations were no longer focused primarily on classic sites of Greece and Rome. An important achievement was the recovery of Mycenean art and culture. This in turn led to the recognition of a whole world of spirals in the Balkans and Greece. Somehow this profusion seems to be related to the motifs on early Chinese bronzes. There is also a distant connection with European labyrinths and mazes of the historic period.
The attraction to the archaic is related to the interest in the prehistoric. At the same time it is also distinct from it, as archaic phases usually occur at the boundary between the prehistoric and the historic, or as an early phase of the latter. During the 1880s archaeologists working on the Athenian Acropolis found substantial numbers of sculptures that were preclassical, enlarging our sense of the scope of Greek art. The concept of the archaic (with a lower-case “a”) lends itself to many cultures which have a distinguished record of achievement, even though they eschew or de-emphasize the human figure so cherished by classical art. While no bright line can be drawn between so-called primitive societies and archaic ones, a working definition is literacy. Archaic societies have generally been literate, however remote and strange they may seem, as distinct from prehistoric and primitive cultures that do not possess writing. These cultures would include the Migrations art of northern Europe (including Celtic and Anglo-Saxon), early Chinese art, and the high arts of the pre-Columbian Americas.
While Egyptologists might quibble, the art of Egypt of the pharaohs may arguably be termed archaic. The carefully controlled script, known as hieroglyphics, evolved from a set of pictures, eventually creating forms better described as ideographic, visual renderings of an idea. The ideographic principle is one of the major forerunners of abstract art. And what could be a better standard-bearer of minimalist abstraction than the pyramid, that perfect five-faced form? During the eighteenth dynasty, under the reign of Akhenaten, the pure disk of Aten became prominent as a symbol of divinity. The monotheism introduced by Akhenaten for the first time into human culture, rejected the concept of the gods in the form of living beings. Arguably, monotheism is a religious precursor of abstraction (note the Abrahamic theme, above).
The modern fascination with the archaic is a puzzle, since its cultural products derive from economies and societies very different from out own. Perhaps this admiration reflects an unconscious realization of what we owe to these remote forebears.
We tend to think of the realm of perennial abstraction as limited to the worlds of prehistory, early cultures, and tribal peoples. However, there are remarkable occurrences in high cultures as well. The folio volume of Owen Jones (Grammar of Ornament, London, 1856) represents the first important attempt to capture this range of material. Jones was guided by the Victorian movement to reform design as well as (indirectly) by burgeoning European, especially British imperialism, which had the side effect of bringing samples of this material back to the homeland..
Preeminent among the high cultures that have produced abstraction is Islam. While the ban on images was never absolute, they were enveloped in a certain atmosphere of suspicion. This occultation tended to stimulate the creation of nonfigural forms. Any visit to Islamic lands or to a museum with significant holdings in this field, will disclose the importance of ornament. Elaborate designs are laid over various types of surfaces, such as walls, boxes, pots, and metal objects, so as to form a kind of garment. They readily adapt themselves to various curved shapes.
There are two major categories of ornamental motifs. The first exploit vegetal forms. Preeminent among these is the arabesque. Scholars have established the derivation of this characteristic Islamic device from classical plant forms, such as the acanthus and the vine scroll or rinceaux. Gradually, however, the origins of the forms in nature became obscured, and later arabesque becomes almost wholly abstract, a kind of intricate ballet of interlacing forms. The second main type is geometrical, consisting of squares and lozenges; polygons and star patterns; and stalactites (muqarnas). The latter are architectural, but are sometimes used in the minor arts as well. All these forms lend themselves to a potentially endless continuation and repetition, in a type of design known as overall patterning.
In addition to the two characteristic types, the curvilinear or vegetal, and the geometric, Islamic craftspeople excelled at various types of writing. There are two main categories: the monumental or epigraphic, and the calligraphic. Some epigraphic examples are so stylized as to be virtually unreadable; they are mainly enjoyed for their patterning, and hence produce an abstract effect. To anyone unfamiliar with the Arabic script this effect is general, as seen in the admiration of Renaissance connoisseurs in Europe for “kufic” and other designs, which they sometimes imitated without understanding.
REFERENCES. Barbara Braun, Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient Sources of Modern Art, New York, 1993; César Paternosto, ed., Abstraction: The Amerindian Paradigm, Brussels (Palais des Beaux-Arts), 2001. See also the many volumes on Neolithic art throughout the world, as well as books on Egyptology.