These Faces From The Ice Age Give The Lie To Our Idea Of Civilisation

Simon Jenkins | The Guardian | February 7, 2013

The British Museum's ice age exhibition proves beyond doubt that human beings are born to make art and cannot escape it

Every now and then archaeology steps forward and offers us a teasing, tantalising glimpse of this prehistory. One such is this week's British Museum exhibition of ice age art. It is of 130 objects from the earliest days of human occupation of Europe, never before presented in this way.

It is a difficult show. Visitors should not be deceived by blown-up publicity images of mis-shapen ladies. All the objects are minuscule. They remind me of the "insect safaris" of Africa's Skeleton Coast, conducted on hands and knees with magnifying glasses. The eye and brain take time to adjust to the tunnel vision of a microscopic world. Yet once adjusted, a wonderland reveals itself.

There are no magnifying glasses at the British Museum, but with time the wonder grows. The animals are astonishingly realistic: horses, bison, lions, deer, carved from mammoth tusks with stone tools. A bison strides towards us, mouth half-open; a reindeer swims a stream. Like the mural horses in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, the sculptor's eye is attuned to expressing life as something static and lasting, to freezing movement and expressing fear and eagerness in an animal's face...