The oldest piece of figurative sculpture in the world is making news again with the opening of a new exhibit at the British Museum, entitled 'Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind'. The 'Lion Man' is a carved piece of mammoth ivory found in the Stadel Cave in the Swabian Alps, in southwest Germany.
The modern story of this ancient sculpture is thrilling. 'Lion Man' was discovered in 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II, indeed, discovered on the day that the archeological dig was to be closed due to the impending war. You can read more about it here and here. Part of the figure was damaged in the archaeologist's haste to recover the artifact before the dig closed.
The 12 inch high sculpture was assembled in 1970, with 30% or so of the pieces missing. More pieces were found and added in 1989. Recently 1000 or so more pieces were excavated in the Stadel Cave, which help complete the piece's right arm and neck. It has actually grown a few centimeters taller. A replica of the 'Lion Man' is being shown in the British exhibit because staff at the Ulm Museum, the lion's home, are reconstructing the figure using computer modeling to place the fragments. They hope to exhibit the original this November.
Originally dated at 32,000 years old, carbon dating of bones at the site has revised its age to around 40,000 years old. The piece was originally thought to be a male figure, but some of the markings raise speculation that it is a female. As the 1,000 new fragments are put into place, there may be an answer to this riddle.
The 'Lion Man' represents the carver's ability to mentally conceive the combination of a human and animal in one figure, a surprising achievement for early humankind. As Martin Bailey has written in The Art Newspaper:
"What was striking about the sculptor of the Lion Man sculptor is that he or she had a mind capable of imagination rather than simply representing real forms. As Cook says, it is “not necessary to have a brain with a complex pre-frontal cortex to form the mental image of a human or a lion—but it is to make the figure of a lion-man”. The Ulm sculpture therefore sheds further light on the evolution of homo sapiens."
I just love the friendly face and jaunty stance of the 'Lion Man'. It is fun to speculate about the life of its creator, and how it might have been received and revered by the other members of the tribe. I am looking forward to updates on the re-assembly of Lion Man / Woman.