Ice Age Art: A Culture Show Special; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

There is an exhibition that’s just started at the British Museum about Ice Age Art and to tie in with this there was a Culture Show special covering both the exhibition and Ice Age art in general. The presenter was Andrew Graham-Dixon – we’ve watched a few of his programmes before including something about the art of Spain, and also something about the Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum a couple of years ago.

The two themes of the programme were firstly an emphasis on just how old all of these objects are, and secondly how these people were people just like us and much more sophisticated than the stereotype of a “prehistoric caveman” would lead us to expect. The programme looked at these themes by showing us some of the objects in the British Museum exhibition (and talking to the curators etc about them) and by showing us some of the cave paintings – particularly some in Northern Spain.

There was also a segment of the programme where Graham-Dixon met with an experimental archaeologist who makes replicas of some of these objects using the same techniques and types of tools that the originals were made with. I found this particularly fascinating, and it was astonishing how long it took – he was saying that the smaller pieces took about 80 hours each, but a larger piece might take on the order of 400 hours or more. He (and several of the other people interviewed) was saying that the time it took together with the skill & artistic talent shown in the pieces we’ve found imply that being an artist was a specialised profession in the hunter-gatherer societies of the time.

And they were also saying that art was clearly important to these societies – you don’t put that much effort and resources into something you don’t think much of. Perhaps it tied into their religion(s) – in particular the female figures seem to be biased towards representations of fertility, which might have religious significance. Perhaps it was also a means of communicating between groups of people, or over time – the subjects of the art are normally the natural world, the animals that they would hunt and that they shared their environment with. And in a world where people were significantly outnumbered by animals, and where they depended so much on the environment around them for survival, close observation of nature would be a necessity and showing each other what they’d seen would be important. This then shows up in the art – the detail & life-like rendering of animals in some of the pieces is astonishing.

On the subject of people being outnumbered by animals – at one point Graham-Dixon said that the population living outside Africa during this era was something like 100,000, less than the medieval population of Paris. And if the numbers of people are astonishingly small, the time spans are astonishingly large. The range of dates for cave-paintings or objects are from 40,000 years ago to 13,000 years ago – the whole of “history” is small compared to that. And these objects are as ancient to the ancient Greeks as they are to us, to all intents and purposes.

I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition at the British Museum even more after seeing this programme 🙂

In an attempt to clear some stuff of our PVR (which is why we’ve had a bonus TV night or two this weekend in addition to our normal Wednesday night) we started watching one of the series we’ve got recorded in HD. Rome: A History of the Eternal City is a look at the history of Rome from a religious perspective, presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore who we’ve previously seen present a programme on Jerusalem. This first episode covered ancient Rome from foundation through to just before the conversion of the Empire to Christianity – a large amount of ground to cover in an hour!

The programme opened with some scenes from modern Christian Rome – the crowds coming to watch a statue of the Virgin Mary being paraded around the city first by boat and later through the streets. Montefiore then pointed out that this pageantry had roots in pagan Rome, and explained that Rome has always been a sacred city. He then went on to re-tell the Roman foundation myth – the story of Romulus and Remus, twins who were suckled by a she-wolf after they were abandoned at birth. As adults they were to found a city, but fell out over where it should be sited – both saw omens from the gods indicating that their preferred site was the favoured one. The dispute was only resolved when Romulus killed his brother, and founded the city of Rome on the Palatine hill. The archaeological and historical evidence is that Rome grew out of the union of villages in this region, but from very early in its history it was a sacred area. The dead could not be buried inside the walls of Rome, and soldiers could not bear arms there. This sacredness extended even below ground, and Montefiore visited the sewer that had existed since ancient times (and is still part of the sewer system today). This originally drained the Forum, which flooded frequently, and also symbolised the purification of the city. There were rituals about washing things away in the sewers, including the body of at least one Emperor.

We then had a (fairly brisk) trot through the history of ancient Rome, with an emphasis on how the secular and the religious intertwined. He talked about how the priesthood influenced decisions during the early period when Rome was a monarchy – we got a demonstration of how the omens were read in the liver of a sheep (this being a modern sheep the liver wasn’t particularly blemished, I imagine a less healthy sheep would give more interesting (but less good) omens). Even once Rome was a republic many of the same religious ideas were still present – that the city was sacred, and that they had some divine right to conquer. The Senate even finished off a temple planned during the reign of the last King – it was a replacement of secular power that didn’t affect the religious life of the city. The Romans worshipped many gods & goddesses & would incorporate foreign ones into their worship. The programme noted in particular the Magna Mater, originally a foreign goddess, whose worship & priesthood was brought to the city after omens suggested that she was the only way to save the city from Hannibal during the Second Punic War. The arrival of the Magna Mater was in a ceremony very reminiscent of the modern day procession of the Virgin Mary that the programme opened with.

At the point where the Republic turned into an Empire there were also changes to the religious landscape. Over his reign Augustus gradually set up the Imperial cult – partly by deifying Julius Caesar, and then adding “son of a god” to his own titles. And by setting up altars around the city which emphasised the divinity of the Imperial family, and encouraged people to make sacrifices to him. This was alongside the other gods & goddesses, but still served to help the political elevation of the Emperor as sole ruler.

An interesting programme, although I think that many of the details have escaped me – in part because it covered so much in just an hour.