We tend to think of art as a critical component of humanity, and especially of civilization. But artistic styles are rarely a component of fantasy stories. When they do make it into a fantasy world, it tends to feel like a direct "port" of a particular period of art history, for example the patron-based portraiture of L. E. Modesitt's Imager series. I wanted to think about fantasy art a little differently, so I went digging...
- Minoan and Mycenaean art from around 2,000 BCE was more realistic and technically sophisticated than later Greek art, which tended to be very abstract in the Archaic period.
- Egyptian wall paintings generally have a very Cubist style, although Akhenaten temporarily introduced a more realistic art style before his legacy was destroyed following his death.
- In 5000 BCE Africa, the main visual art of the Niger-Congo civilization was wooden sculptures, whereas the Afrasan and Khosian cultures focused on rock painting and engraving.
- The ancient Egyptians didn't have a word for 'art.' They considered sculptures and statues to be religious tools. This was relevant for my recent story Acumen.
- Sulawesi, the 11th-largest island in the world, is home to some of the oldest art ever found by archaeologists. The cave art found there is older than Lascaux (France) and Altamira (Spain), and it's also the site of the oldest bas-relief artwork found outside of Europe.
Mosaics do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of decorating the floors of Ancient Roman villas, such as those found in Pompeii. The most famous shows a battle between Alexander III of Macedon and Darius III of Persia, but other mosaics are a bit more mundane. My favorite depicts an aggressive dog wearing a collar and chain, teeth bared. Its purpose was probably to declare "beware of dog" to visitors.
I used to be confused about why artistic, painted pottery was so often by archaeologists to learn about ancient peoples, until I realized it's less likely to degrade than many other materials, and painted amphorae are functionally the equivalent of tractor trailer trucks with advertisements and art decorating them, or the logos painted on wine bottles. Commercial art tells us a lot about commerce.
Art is not limited to places with social hierarchies and complex economies. 27,000 years ago, prehistoric people in Central Europe were creating art. In addition to decorated shells, they made decorative ceramics. One ceramic lion's head was styled by pressing reindeer hair and textiles against the clay to create a sense of texture.
In Ancient Greece, most of the known female painters were themselves the daughters of artists. But understanding the role of "art" in history is in some ways a classification problem. The line between "fine craftsmanship" and "beautiful art" is blurry and in many ways political. This has implications for the status of things like "women in art."
📗 ICYMI: If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy the last time I touched on art and amphorae. Check out the ceramics edition to find out what pottery has to do with ancient sewers & knockoff turquoise.
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🧭 Next week's topic? Wayfinding! Do you know any obscure folk tales involving navigation, or weird algorithms involved in path finding? If so, please reach out and let me know.