THE Neolithic period is the earliest phase of agricultural society, before cities and before the widespread use of metal for tools and weapons. After the end of the last Ice Age some ro,ooo years ago, new climatic conditions brought woodland once again into Europe and the tribes o reindeer-hunters who had created the remarkable cave art of France and Spain (see Paleolithic Art) were no longer able to exist in their accustomed way. Small groups of hunters remained in the woodlands or on the coasts, but after 5000 BC these were increasingly absorbed or displaced by the colonizing activity of farmers, spreading with their flocks and cultivated grains from a homeland in the Near East, and settling in villages on the more fertile soils. Cutting down the forests for fields and pastures, these peoples used the new and effective polished-stone ax-hence the archaeologists’ term “Neolithic”, or New Stone Age. This period began c8ooo BC in Iran, but only qooo BC in the British Isles. It lasted down to 3 5 oo BC in the Near East, and nearer 2000 BC in Europe.
The way of life of these peoples, and hence the character of their art, was in great contrast to that of the hunting groups they replaced. They lived, for example, in solid-built houses rather than the caves or makeshift shelters of their often nomadic predecessors. They developed, and brought with them to Europe, the technique of making pottery. They lived in larger communities and therefore developed more organized forms of religion and public ritual. And they probably had to work harder to make a living than their predecessors, for, contrary to popular belief, the development of agriculture was not “emancipation from the food quest”; it probably created less spare time than hunting. The achievements of Neolithic artists were not, therefore, simply the result of sufficient leisure to devote to creative pursuits, but arose from the nature of their society, their technology, and their mythological beliefs, and from the increasing number of their material possessions, mostly still produced on a domestic or village scale. The achievements of Neolithic art are thus mainly in the areas of domestic design and decoration.
In discussing the various media used by Neolithic man, it must be remembered that we know practically nothing of his output in organic materials-textiles, woodcarving, feather work, leather objects, or painted decoration on perishable materials. Enough survives in fragments to hint at the importance of all these, but it is impossible to recapture the vividness and color of the originals. Nor is the significance that these objects once had to their makers clear or easy to reconstruct. There are, of course, no written texts from this period, and there is very little realistic representational art before the coming of cities. What representations there are show single figures: there are very few groups, or figures that are part of a wider scene. Portrayal is often schematic and detail ambiguous. While it is likely that figures and motifs had a mythical or religious significance, attempts to reconstruct beliefs are pure speculation.
The mudbrick villages of the earliest farmers spread gradually across Iran and Turkey and into Europe through Greece and the Balkans. Most of these were small communities, though in the richer lowlands some larger sites not only grew to the size of small towns but also served as craft and religious centers.
Two examples of these (dating from c7000 and 6000 BC) are the original settlement at Jericho, and the site of Catal Huyuk in southern Turkey. At the latter, an impressive shrine has been excavated, with the skulls of long-horned wild cattle (aurochs) covered in mud plaster and set into the wall of the sanctuary. The smoothed wall surfaces of nearby buildings were painted in red ocher with representations of hunting scenes, showing men surrounding the bull. Other scenes in the sanctuary depict large birds pecking at what are probably human corpses-strongly suggesting that bodies were exposed before burial. At Jericho, a similar concern with the body after death is shown by skulls with plastered faces and cowrie shells set in the eye sockets.
More widespread than these practices associated with central cult areas was the manufacture of small figurines for domestic ritual. The slightly later site of Hacilar (in western Turkey) has provided a great diversity of these objects, many of which have been copied by forgers and ultimately sold to museums. They are usua)J),I female, and in some cases show birth scenes or groups of ‘a” mother and child. The corpulent mothers are unclothed, but the rounded bodies are schematically treated and often covered in painted decoration. Anthropomorphic vessels were also made, with obsidian inlay used for eyes.
In addition to the production of small sculpture, a variety of utilitarian and decorative crafts were widely practiced in these earliest villages in Turkey. The pottery was fired at low temperatures, but effectively decorated by slips and painted areas of white, iron-free clay on red iron-bearing clay oxidized to a fine red color. These were evenly burnished before firing in the same manner as the figurines. Woodworking and basketry are rics with their strong geometric emphasis are reflected in the repetitive zigzag and rectilinear ornament of the painted pottery.
Personal ornaments made use of a variety of decorative stones obtained through long-distance trade. Beads were bored from steatite, turquoise, carnelian, onyx, and malachite, which later became an extensively used ore of copper. Indeed, even at this time some small ornaments may have been made by hammering small nuggets of naturally occurring pure copper. Shells were another commodity widely in demand for use as ornaments. These were carved into simple shapes as beads or bangles.
In southeast Europe, including Greece, no sites of the size and importance of Catal Hiiyiik have yet been discovered, but from the 6th millennium BC onwards the same crafts were practiced, and the pottery shows a similar kind of design with ‘step” and “flame” motifs clearly relating to woven textiles.
Figurines are similarly common, and again show local styles.
Thessaly, in particular, produced a wide range of forms, but further north the types are more standardized. Especially characteristic of Macedonia are the so-called “rod-head” statuettes with an exaggerated head and neck, the lines of which are broken only by applied pellets of clay forming “coffee-bean” eyes. This style is important in demonstrating the links between communities on the north Aegean coast and those further north in Yugoslavia. The religious area of Catal Hiiyiik has its counterparts, on a smaller scale, in cult-houses, differing from ordinary dwellings in their size and paintedplaster ornamentation. The designs (as at the Bulgarian site of Karanovo) are purely geometric-often spirals and meander motifs-and the only representational designs besides anthropomorphic figurines are a few schematic “stick-figures” made of applied strips of clay on coarse pottery. When they have any specific identity, they are most often of animals such as deer.
As Neolithic groups moved further north into Europe in the yth millennium BC, fine-painted pottery became increasingly rare and the surviving assemblage appears artistically impoverished in comparison with contemporary products in the eastern Mediterranean. We lack objects made of organic materials, however, and in consequence our impression of artistic poverty may be wholly false: a vast artistic and cultural legacy may have perished with the materials in which it was fashioned. Certainly, wood was a much more important raw material than clay or stone for many purposes in northern Europe. Large areas of heavy woodland had to be cleared for settlement, and for building houses timber was more appropriate than mudbrick in northern climates. Drinking vessels and tableware were probably increasingly the products of woodcarvers rather than potters, though pottery remained important for storage and cooking vessels. Until the later part of the 3rd millennium BC, fine pottery was a regional speciality rather than a universal commodity in northern Europe. Culthouses were still built in each village, but the earliest farmers of central Europe did not produce figurines like those so characteristic of southeast Europe. Fine craftsmanship continues to appear in the stonework, however. Axes were naturally essential working tools, but finely polished examples in attractive and widely traded hard stone were also significant as indicators of status and power. Along with imported shell ornaments, they were placed in the graves of the older male members of the community.
In the far west and north of Europe, along the Atlantic seaboard and in the north European plain, the introduction of agriculture in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC involved the clearance of huge stones from fields. Now not only timber dwelling-houses but also large monumental tombs of undressed blocks were built, serving as cult-centers, and also as territorial markers among the more scattered hamlets of these areas. The earliest monumental architecture in stone used two techniques: in one, vast unhewn blocks were lined up or piled up one on top of another to provide burial chambers, and in the other, drystone construction techniques were used either to fill in the gaps between these blocks or to roof over a chamber by corbeling. Some of the most impressive of these tribal mortuary shrines occur in Brittany, Ireland, and the Orkney islands. Maes Howe in Orkney, for instance, has three side-chambers under a covering cairn.
A particularly well-preserved group of prehistoric monuments of this type was built in the Maltese islands, where the soft and easily worked limestone hardens on exposure to give an enduring record of the kinds of carving that may well have been made in wood further north. The temples were modified and enlarged over the centuries, as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were to be, over four millennia later. Besides spiral and scroll ornament on lintels and altars, gigantic statues-somewhat reminiscent of the east Mediterranean terracotta figurines-were erected in the temples. Laboriously pecked ornament of spirals and concentric circles was also used on a smaller scale, for instance to adorn megalithic struc-