Are 800,000-year-old tools from North Africa sculptures? The Nasher Sculpture Center, a Dallas-based museum, certainly thinks so.
The museum is currently displaying Paleolithic stone artifacts that are so old they were created by a different species. The exhibition, titled “First Sculpture,” is a curated collaboration between anthropologist Dr. Thomas Wynn and artist Tony Berlant. It opened on Jan. 28, 2018 and will remain on display until April 28, 2018.
Some of the stones on display were collected by Neanderthals, while other stones were carved into hand axes 300,000 years earlier. The oldest “sculpture” on display is a rounded bauble collected by Australopithecus 2.5 million years ago.
Although these stones and tools were not recently found, their exhibit at the museum as “sculpture” is a new take on what art once was and can be.
“Though you may have seen tools like this in natural history museums, the proposition of ‘First Sculpture,’ from its title onward, is that these are not merely instruments, but art; that they were crafted not just for functional reasons but for aesthetic ones,” says Brandon Thibodeaux in his New York Times article, “Was Australopithecus an Artist?”
While many of the artifacts were created primarily as tools, many of the artifacts have naturally-occurring patterns and shapes that mimic nature, such as faces and animals.
“Prehistoric people recognized these shapes, and augmented their mimetic qualities through additional carving,” reads the Nasher Sculpture Center’s description of the exhibit.
Aesthetic choice is most prominent in the displayed hand axes, one of which has curved edges that would’ve offered little benefit technically. Others have holes or shells in the middle of the axes, and alternating colors, that also serve no purpose beyond beauty.
In the depth of a museum of dinosaur bones and relics, these axes and other instruments might have been viewed monolithically, as tools. But, in the light of a modern art center, these artifacts are appreciated also as ancient design and art.