Travelling by London Underground to the British Museum’s latest art exhibition proves just how far we’ve come since the last Ice Age – but it’s not as many stops along our ancestral line as you’d think.
The spot-lit displays in the deliberately dim, cave-like rooms are clues to the exhibition’s full title - Ice Age Art: the Arrival of the Modern Mind.
The Underground link to the Ice Age has nothing to do with the fact that much of the content was discovered in caves, sometimes complete with petrified mud footprints choreographing the dances which scientists believe were accompanied by music from the tiny flutes on show.
Anatomically correct pottery animals, artistic representations of fish moving through water and even what may be the world’s first puppet demonstrate that 20,000 years ago our ancestors could think as we think and make things as we make them.
But what really strikes home is that the iconic London Underground map we use today to match the Tube’s subterranean world with the capital’s surface reality has its own parallels across all those millennia.
For Harry Beck’s 1931 triumph in drawing up that familiar map was to realise that the surface locations of the stations were irrelevant to the traveller wanting to know how to use the underground system to get from one destination to another.
And incredibly, among the carvings which bring to life deer swimming across streams, clay models of oxen and statues of half-men, half-lions, there are intricate half-maps, half-plans of Ice Age Man’s world.
Carved in bone, the waves and whorls are thought to demonstrate the hills, valleys and rivers of the last Ice Age somewhere in central Europe where most of the finds come from – not as maps, but as icons showing topographical features in a way which was important in some unknown way to Ice Age Man.
The ideas of perspective, naturalistic representation and icons are all demonstrated to have been understood by Man long before the appearance of civilisations as ancient as the Greeks, and with just as much assurance and skill as classical art.
One example is a tiny carving of a fish caught in the act of being caught, with a hook in its mouth and waves demonstrating the rush of water as it is pulled to the shore.
The exhibition tellingly juxtaposes photographs of the animals represented to show just how spot-on our ancestors were – such as the way a lion clings to a moving bison as it attacks, and the comically deliberate manner in which a wolverine places its paw carefully on deep snow.
But it is inevitably the mysteries which excite the visitor: why do most of the figures of women – which the curators confidently assert were made by women themselves – have no faces and only rudimentary legs? What was the puppet-like doll used for – innocent play or dark ritual? Who were the lion-men?
And in an echo of Plato’s cave, there are even theories that suggest that some of the figures were used as shadow puppets.
London Underground had one last surprise. Emerge from the Tube into the capital’s West End theatreland, and right in front of you is the modern day equivalent of the half-man half-lion figure in the exhibition.
Only these days, he’s called The Lion King.
*Ice Age Art: the arrival of the modern mind – The British Museum until June 2. See www.britishmuseum.org.