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Mobiliary Art

Portable Paleolithic artworks
Carvings, figurines, engravings

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Aurignacian mobiliary art, Vogelherd Cave, Swabia
Horse figure, carved out of mammoth ivory. (29,000 BC) One of several sensational items of mobiliary art discovered at Vogelherd Cave, Germany. Image by Wuselig. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is Mobiliary Art?

In Stone Age culture, the terms "mobiliary art" or "portable art" (French: art mobilier) refer to any prehistoric art that is moveable.

This includes most types of prehistoric sculpture, notably the venus figurines that spread across Europe during the Gravettian period, as well as engraved bone tools, antler and ivory carvings, and items of jewellery.

Mammoth ivory mobiliary art, Zaraysk, Russia
Zaraysk Venus No 1 (20,000 BC). Image created by Vash Alex Kun. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The converse of mobiliary art is parietal art, which refers to cave art - like painting or engraving or relief sculpture - which is part of the fabric of the cave (the walls, floors and ceilings), and cannot therefore be moved.

Is mobiliary art a form of rock art? No. The term rock art describes artwork that is painted, scratched or carved on the surface of the rock. By definition, this is not moveable.

Please be aware that the term "art" should not be accepted in its contemporary definition, since paleolithic art embraces a wide range of archaeological remains not instantly recognizable as finished works.

This applies, in particular, to art from the Middle and Lower Paleolithic.

Other Stone Age Terms

Early History of Portable Art

The world's oldest mobiliary art are the Trinil Shell Engravings, which were created between 540,000 and 430,000 years ago on the island of Java. Consisting of zigzag patterns incised onto freshwater mussel shells by Homo erectus, they show that engraving simple motifs was already within the cognition and neuromotor control of early humans in Asia.

The next oldest mobiliary art of the Stone Age, is the series of Bilzingsleben Engravings, which were discovered in Thuringia, Germany, in 1972.

Created around 350,000 years ago, they consist of 14 parallel lines etched onto an elephant's shin bone by a Neanderthal or Homo heidelbergensis engraver.

After this, come two modified objects known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram, found on the Golan Heights; and the Venus of Tan-Tan, found in Morocco.

These humanoid figures were created by nature but then modified by Neanderthals during the Acheulean era, around 200,000 years ago, to look even more human.

For the earliest artworks, see: Oldest Art in the World.

Mobiliary Art During the
Middle Paleolithic

Examples of portable art from the Middle Paleolithic include:

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Mobiliary Art During the
Upper Paleolithic

The Upper Paleolithic is divided into four stylistic periods:

The arrival in Europe of Cro-Magnons from the Middle East, led to an uptick in portable art across the continent during the Aurignacian.

This was followed during the Gravettian period by a series of portable figurative sculptures (venuses), made from a variety of materials, including: amber, clay, jasper, jet, limonite, mammoth ivory, quartzite, serpentine, soapstone steatite, and animal bone.

Later, we see the emergence of numerous items of applied art (mainly engraved tools), plus a variety of personal jewellery.

Here is a short chronological list of portable Upper Paleolithic art, down to the end of the Magdalenian.

For more about the chronology of portable art, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Dating Mobiliary Art

Precisely because portable art is moveable, it is rarely discovered in the location where it was created. As a result, dating the soil, rocks and artifacts in the layer in which it was found, or other materials in the immediate vicinity, is useless. Which rules out most indirect dating methods.

Direct dating is often no easier. Engraved stones can be impossible to date because they rarely contain organic (dateable) substances. Even if the stone can be dated, who can say when it was actually engraved?

Comparative or stylistic dating methods don't usually work either. Why not? Because they only work when art being tested can be compared to similar style of art which has been definitively dated. And as we've seen, direct dating of portable sculpture and the like, is seriously problematic.

The latest dating methods offer more hope than regular radiocarbon dating. Uranium-thorium dating, for instance, can determine the age of calcium carbonate materials; dendrochronology is used for dating trees, and other wooden objects; while cosmic radiation dating methods are used to determine levels of Beryllium 10 in rock.

References

(1) "Paleolithic Art: A Cultural History." Abadía, Oscar Moro. Journal of Archaeological Research, Manuel R. González Morales, Volume 21, Issue 3, SpringerLink, January 24, 2013.
(2) "Lost and found: the remarkable curatorial history of one of the earliest discoveries of Palaeolithic portable art." Bello SM, Delbarre G, Parfitt SA, Currant AP, Kruszynski R, and Stringer CB. (2013) Antiquity 87(335):237-244.
(3) "Perspective: Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change." Richard J. Johnson, Miguel A Lanaspa, and John W. Fox. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2021 Jan; 29(1): 11–15.
(4) "Towards a genealogy of the concept of "paleolithic mobiliary art". Moro Abadía O, and González Morales MR. Journal of Anthropological Research 60 (3):321-339.
(5) "Upper Paleolithic Portable Art in Light of Ethnographic Studies." Volkova YS. Archaeology, Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia 40(3):31-37.

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