Ice Age art
arrival of
the modern

7 February – 2 June 2013
Exhibition closed

Henry Moore Foundation logo

Recommend this exhibition


Lion man

The sculpture from Stadel Cave on the Hohlenstein is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

This mammoth ivory sculpture depicts a man with a lion’s head and dates to around 40,000 years ago. The combination of human and animal features shows the capability to imagine something that does not exist. Through this invention, the artist expressed ideas rather than the real world. This required a creative mind and is evidence of the arrival of fully modern people of our own species, Homo sapiens, in Europe.

Lion man sculpture

Photo: Karl-Heinz Augustin © Ulmer Museum


Swimming reindeer

This masterpiece has no obvious practical function. It is made from the tapering tip of a mammoth tusk and the sculptor took advantage of the shape and diameter of the material to create a composition in which a larger male reindeer follows a female.

Both animals have antlers so there is no doubt that they are reindeer and the scene is set in autumn. The engraved detail on the face and body of the female confirms an autumn-winter depiction by showing the texture of the thick pelt and its colour variations. Posed with their chins up, antlers back and legs outstretched, the animals are seen swimming as they do on migrations to their mating grounds and winter pastures.

Reindeer were a walking larder and source of raw materials. Human communities had to follow their prey. Journeys bring new encounters, surprises and difficulties. They are a source of stories, sagas, histories, myths and legends set in the real world or imaginary realms. The reindeer sculpture may have been a prop, prompt or illustration of such a story used to explore and bind communities, or to express their faith and develop their hope, through something beyond their ordinary existence.

Swimming reindeer

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other. At least 13,000 years old, from Montastruc, France.

Oldest known puppet or doll

This male figure is sculpted from mammoth ivory and was found with a burial in Brno in the Czech Republic. The grave was isolated from the big encampments in the area and contained the skeleton of a man who had died aged around 40 years old. The head and arms fitted onto the body on pegs so that they could be moved into different positions, as on a doll or puppet.

On loan from Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute

First ceramic technology

Performance art

Around 27,000 years ago the world’s first ceramic technology was developed at Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic. The vast majority of clay objects found at this site were broken during the baking process (breakage was due to thermal shock). To investigate why, an international research team experimented with baking clay from the Ice Age archaeological level, to reconstruct the processes of making. The clay produced good models, but when it is put into the heat while still wet, the models would hiss with steam and then explode sending clay pellets everywhere. Deliberately exploding clay sculptures may have been a performance art.

Detail of the pelt on the swimming reindeer

A variety of line shading was used to show body contours, colour and texture variation in the pelts of the swimming reindeer.


Imaginative mind

Images of women dating from the later part of the last Ice Age are quite different from those of the earlier period. Many follow a convention of abstraction and minimalism that reduces the female form to reflect the essence of its sexuality and identity.

Such abstraction occurs in modern art, and the sensual curves of the lower torso, hip and thigh are often used today to attract the eye in advertising cosmetics. This is often interpreted as erotic, but its varied Ice Age forms suggest something more iconic.

Abstraction certainly required an imaginative mind able to symbolise and give meaning to form without being realistic.

Female figure


The female body was a frequent subject for the Ice Age sculptor’s art. Made from mammoth ivory, antler, stone or baked clay, images of women appear right across Europe from France to Eastern Siberia. Most are naked except for some jewellery. In a period of harsh cold when clothing was a necessity this suggests that nudity was an artistic convention.

The nudes represent all the potential stages of a women’s life. Some are youthful and flaunt their sexual potential. Others are pregnant or giving birth, and for a few their child-bearing years are in the past. The focus on the reproductive body raises the possibility that these expressions were made by women for women, or were an iconic reflection on the origins of life.

Top of the head of the Dolní Věstonice sculpture

The holes may have held decorative studs. Baked earth figure blackened by firing. At least 27,000 years old.

Anthropos Institute, Moravian Museum, Brno, CZ


Artistic skill

Ice Age drawings on bone were often conceived and produced like drawings from more recent times. The artist prepared by selecting a suitable piece of bone, antler or stone. A stone tool with a special tip was made to engrave the drawing. Like the modern engraver’s tool this is called a burin and its skilled use produced the same variety of marks. Artistic skill is often expressed by the confident execution of the incised line.

Drawing of reindeer on a piece of selected and prepared bone. From La Madeleine, France.

Oldest known portrait in the world

This portrait was made from mammoth ivory and is about 26,000 years old. It shows a woman possibly wearing a fur hat, or more likely with her hair drawn up on the top of her head, with a fringe across her brow. The distinctive features of the face suggest this is a portrait and gives us a rare glimpse of an individual from so long ago.

Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute


Portable art

Many of the sculptures and models made at the end of the last Ice Age 40,000-10,000 years ago are miniatures. Ice Age people were hunter-gatherers, who were often on the move in search of food and materials. Being reduced in size, they could easily have been carried around, worn, hung on a post, or tucked away somewhere safe.

Psychologically, miniatures may have made the world feel more intelligible and easier to control. Whether concealed or displayed as protective, magical devices or spirit helpers, they were not just ornaments, but active in their owners lives. There is also something enchanting about tiny images, that mean they are often impossible to ignore.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old.