Neolithic Art in the Ancient Near East

Around 9000 BCE, the ice that covered Europe during the Paleolithic period melted and the climate grew warmer. This gave rise to the Mesolithic period, which was marked by intensified food gathering and the taming of the dog. Then, the Mesolithic period transitioned into the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period (8000 BCE to 2300 BCE). Human learned how to use agriculture and stock raising for food sources and were thus able to settle down. Former hunter and gatherer societies settled down and formed villages surrounded by fields.

The oldest of such communities settled in an area called “the Ancient Near East”, (also known as Mesopotamia), which roughly corresponds to today’s Middle East region.

 

This area had the right conditions for the development of agriculture: native plant species, herds of animals, sufficient rain, fertility of soil, etc. So, I guess part of their success was just luck. Successful agriculture led to rapid population growth and attracted and inspired other groups to do the same.

Fascinating excavations have been made in Çatal Höyük, a plateau in Anatolia where Neolithic culture flourished and has been well preserved by nature. Through excavations, archeologists have been able to put together what the site must have looked like, a restored view one might say, from 7000 to 5000 BCE, in its days of glory…

How intriguing! I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to live in a community like this… The city gained its considerable wealth mainly by conducting trade with its neighbors. The regularity in the plan and architecture of the settlement suggests that it was constructed based on a predetermined blueprint. What’s interesting is that the settlement has no streets and houses were all connected to one another and had no doors. Openings in roof served as doors and chimneys. I imagine it would have been extremely inconvenient to live in such a settlement! But archeologists believe that it did offer critical advantages. Connecting all the houses made it more stable than freestanding structures and offered a good system of defense if the community were to be under attack. However inconvenient I think the architecture may have been, it must have been well designed because in this very location, we can trace the evolution of the culture for over 800 years!

What I find to be the most interesting and intriguing is not necessarily the restored view of the settlement. Rather, it is the plethora of artwork that archeologists have been able to excavate at this site and the striking changes in art of this new period. One example is a detail of a wall painting of a deer hunt, ca. 5750 BCE.

 

Like human depictions during the Paleolithic period, the human figures are depicted in composite view, with their heads in profile and their torsos in frontal view. Artists painted like this because it allowed them to fully depict every part of the human figure, not necessarily because it was the most accurate, natural, or lifelike way of depicting the human figure. But this is really where the similarities end between the depiction of human figures during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. A striking difference is that in the New Stone Age, exemplified by this painting, artists began to paint humans in their regular appearance and in groups. The figures exhibit a wide variety of poses and dynamic motions. Unlike Paleolithic paintings, it is very clear in this deer-hunt painting that the artist is depicting a narrative. From what I’ve gathered, another significant change in paintings during this time period is the subject matter: Neolithic paintings tend to deal with human concerns and actions and depict scenes in which humans dominate animals.

Another important development in the depiction of humans that should be noted is detail. Other paintings that have been excavated during the Neolithic period show a more detailed depiction of humans. For instance, features such as the nose, mouth, lips, eyes and eyelashes, limbs, fingers, toes, etc., have been seen in various artworks.

The technique of painting also changed significantly since older times. During the Neolithic period, pigments were applied to a background of dry white plaster and artists spent much time preparing the wall surface as opposed to directly painting on the rough surfaces of walls and ceilings of caves.

This type of work, style, and technique set the “rules” for artworks to come.

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