Visual Arts Look-Up Logo

Neolithic Art & Culture

Dates, Pottery, Gobekli Tepe
Megalithic structures & spirals

Main A-Z Index

CONTENTS

Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa, an important Neolithic sanctuary
Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa, a Neolithic cult centre or sanctuary of major significance. The earliest known example of megalithic art and architecture. Image by Teomancimit. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What is the Neolithic?

In Stone Age culture, the term 'Neolithic' (New Stone Age), first coined in 1865 by the English polymath Sir John Lubbock, refers to the period when people and communities abandoned the hunter-gatherer culture of their ancestors, in favour of a more sedentary existence based on farming and animal husbandry.

It is the third and final stage of the Stone Age, and follows immediately after the Mesolithic.

The term 'Neolithic art' refers to the arts and crafts practised by these new 'settled communities'.

As in all eras of prehistoric art, what happens in everyday life has a major influence on the art of the period.

So, because 'settlement' was the key feature of the age, it was natural that pottery and other domestic items should predominate.

In addition, the need for temples and tombs led to the growth of monumental stone architecture, and associated megalithic art. At the same time, paintings and engravings as well as sculpture, were also created in caves and at open air sites.

The Neolithic Revolution

The Neolithic Revolution - a term coined by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in 1935 - was centred on the 'Fertile Crescent', where the first domestication of plants and animals occurred around 10,000 BC.

This new farming culture transformed the small, mobile bands of hunters and foragers that had come to dominate the Paleolithic, into sedentary communities built around villages and towns.

In many areas, the adoption of agriculture and the build up of food surpluses, led to rapid population growth - a process known as the Neolithic demographic transition.

The Neolithic Revolution in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of two major civilizations. In Mesopotamia, we see Sumerian art and culture appear from about 4000 BC, while in North Africa along the lower Nile, Egyptian art and culture emerged later, around 3150 BC.

Prehistoric Chronology More Flexible Than We Think

The lines separating the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages, are becoming more blurred.

For example, contrary to earlier beliefs, microlithic technology and the exploitation of coastal fishing resources, are no longer seen as the sole domain of the Mesolithic, but as a creation of the late Paleolithic.

Similarly, the use of pottery - once thought to be the diagnostic feature of Neolithic culture - is now known to have been prevalent during the later Mesolithic.

In particular, the nature and pace of the agricultural revolution varied significantly from region to region.

In some regions, the lifestyle of many early Neolithic people is now known to have been based on wild rather than domesticated resources.

A good example is the proto-city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, around 7,000 BC, where hunting continued to be a major food-gathering activity even though the inhabitants cultivated crops and raised livestock.

So early Neolithic people are perhaps better described as complex hunter-gatherers or foragers, rather than farmers.

When Was the Neolithic?

The exact dates for the Neolithic vary from region to region as it lasted for different periods around the world.

In general, it began at the end of the Mesolithic and continued until the Bronze Age culture, about 3,300 BC. Here is a short summary of the dates of the period around the globe.

As you can see, the the agricultural revolution took hold almost everywhere.

Although first seen in Iraq (Mesopotamia) in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, where farmers began sowing wheat and raising sheep and cattle, it soon spread to Asia, where people began to grow rice and millet, and domesticate water buffalo and yak.

Back to top

What Happened During the Neolithic?

During the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer bands spent all their energy on hunting for food, and procreation - as illustrated perhaps, by the cave painting at Chauvet and Lascaux, and by the nude sculptures known as Venus figurines.

But Neolithic farming communities discovered that the cultivation of crops and the raising of livestock made life more predictable and the future more secure.

As they gained control of their food supply and laid down food surpluses for the winter and other times of need, four things happened.

  1. Within 5,000 years, the population grew by a factor of 14, from 2 million to 28 million. By comparison, over 190,000 years during the Paleolithic era, the population grew by a factor of 6.6, from 300,000 (in 200,000 BC) to 2 million (in 10,000 BC).
  2. As numbers rose, communities became more protective of their 'territory'. At the same time, they often merged with other groups, thus creating larger settlements and (eventually) cities.
  3. The new enlarged settlements became more organized and more hierarchical. A tiered society soon emerged.
  4. Increased security, coupled with a need for legitimacy and greater formality, led to a belief in supernatural deities.

Tool Technology

The new farming culture needed new stone tools, which were produced not by knapping and flaking but by grinding and polishing, which has become the diagnostic tool manufacturing technique of the New Stone Age.

The two most valuable Neolithic tools were the polished stone axe for land clearance and the adze for wood working, as well as multi-purpose chisels and gouges (cutting chisels).

At the end of the period, around 3,500 BC, the smelting of copper and later bronze, led to the use of metal as the primary material for tools and weapons.

Eventually, around 1,100 BC, bronze was replaced by iron which reigned supreme until the late 19th century AD. For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

Neolithic Art

There were four main types of art produced during the period:

Pottery

Ancient pottery remains the diagnostic artifact of the Neolithic, despite the fact that the earliest Chinese, Croatian, Japanese and Russian pottery predates the Neolithic by at least 5,000 years.

The key point is that pottery only became a universal product during the Neolithic. Why? Because of two important inventions:

Back to top

Near East

Pottery production in the Near East is usually categorized into four main periods:

Europe

Pottery arrived in Europe from the Near East during the early seventh millennium BC. Thessalia in Greece was the first region to make pottery, around 6300 BC.

From here, it spread to central Europe, after which it fragmented into three separate traditions: (1) one ceramic tradition spread north to Poland and then west into Germany, France, Belgium and the Low Countries; (2) a second spread along the Black Sea coast to Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukraine; (3) while a third moved along the Adriatic/Mediterranean coastline, into the Balkans, Italy, and the French Rhone Valley.

China

Early Neolithic Chinese earthenware (7,500-5,000 BC) consisted of red-coloured pots, hand-coiled and fired in bonfires.

Decoration was confined to simple patterns applied by stamping and impressing techniques.

Decorative patterns were typically abstract or geometric in nature, although in southern China, it appears that Chinese potters soon started to produce a range of delicate, polished vessels for more ceremonial purposes.

These first appeared in several Neolithic cultures which flourished along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys.

They included: the Dadiwan (6,000 BC), Pan-po (5,000 BC), Yangshao (5,000-3,000 BC) and Miao-ti-kou (4,000-3,000 BC) cultures, as well as the more advanced Longshan (3,000-1,900 BC) and Dawenkou traditions (4,500-3,500 BC).

By 3,000 BC, Neolithic pottery in China had attained a craftsmanship and elegance which was quite exceptional for the time.

As a result, it soon became associated with social status.

The burial mounds of wealthy individuals typically contained fine pottery, as well as jade carvings and other precious items.

This growing form of Chinese Neolithic art was further enhanced by the early development of bronze metallurgy, and lacquering techniques.

Japanese Early Pottery

Ancient Japanese earthenware began around 14,500 BC with the Jōmon pottery tradition.

Early Jōmon pots (Jōmon means 'rope-patterned') were hand-made, without the aid of a wheel.

The potter built up the vessel from the bottom with successive coils of soft clay.

The clay was combined with various adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibres, and crushed shells.

Once the vessel was shaped, the outer and interior surfaces were made smooth. When dry, it was fired in an outdoor bonfire to approximately 600–900 degrees Celsius.

Most Jōmon pots are small and have rounded bottoms. Typically, they would be used to boil food.

Later Jōmon pieces are more complex with decorated rims, especially those produced during the Middle Jōmon period.

Neolithic Jōmon cultures include:

Back to top

India: Neolithic Pottery

India had 4 main pottery cultures:

Africa: Neolithic Pottery

Sculpture

The more sedentary lifestyle triggered a rising demand for domestic decoration and ornamentation.

New art forms evolved to meet this demand, including a range of prehistoric sculpture, notably in stone and terracotta.

Specialist crafts emerged, such as jade carving (from 4900 BC) and Chinese lacquerware (from 4,500 BC). Some examples include:

Back to top

Megalithic Art & Architecture

Neolithic settlements along with growing religious beliefs spawned a new form of megalithic architecture involving large stone structures used as holy places, shrines or tombs.

Once erected, many megalithic structures were then decorated with a variety of mostly abstract rock engravings and relief sculpture - collectively known as megalithic art: a term coined by Elizabeth Shee Twohig.

The most famous sites of megalithic architecture from the Neolithic, include:

Back to top

Rock Art

In less populated regions, the Neolithic is characterized by a diverse range of rock art, including rock engravings, as well as a diminishing amount of cave painting, typically hand stencils and abstract symbols.

Here is a short chronological list of the most famous examples.

Next: Ancient Art (including early civilizations from 3,400 BC).

References

(1) "The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Society". William K. Barnett and John W. Hoopes, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, p 19.
(2) Athenian Vase Construction: A Potter's Analysis Toby Schreiber, (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999): p 12-13.
(3) "Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence." Moorey, Peter Roger Stuart (1999) [1994]. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. p. 146. ISBN 9781575060422
(4) "Göbekli Tepe. Eine Beschreibung der wichtigsten Befunde erstellt nach den Arbeiten der Grabungsteams der Jahre 1995–2007" (A description of the most important findings based on the work of the excavation teams in the years 1995-2007.). In Schmidt, Klaus (ed.). Erste Tempel – Frühe Siedlungen. 12000 Jahre Kunst und Kultur, Ausgrabungen und Forschungen zwischen Donau und Euphrat (in German). Oldenburg: Florian Isensee. ISBN 978-3-89995-563-7.
(5) "Megalithic Art of Western Europe." Shee Twohig, E. 1981. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
(6) "Early millet use in northern China". Xiaoyan Yang (2012). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (10): 3726–3730.
(7) "The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka, c. 6500 BCE – 200 CE". Coningham, Robin; Young, Ruth (2015). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139020633.

Back to top


Home