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2.2: Women Artists in Early Art (45,000 BCE – 5000 CE)

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    Throughout history, the immense contributions of women to the world of art have been undervalued and underrepresented. However, archaeological and historical evidence suggests that women have been creating art for thousands of years. In fact, during the Paleolithic period, women played a crucial role in creating art, as evidenced by the discovery of smaller and more delicate handprints in many caves. These findings suggest that women may have created the paintings for ritual or storytelling purposes. Women were also skilled in creating clay vessels, weaving fabric, making paint, and painting fresco walls. Despite their incredible talents, women artists have historically been underrated, and their work has often been misrepresented and attributed to men. It's important to recognize the significant contributions of women artists and give them the credit they deserve in the art world.

    Prehistoric World (45,000 – 5,000 BCE)

    For thousands of years, women have been integral to the creation of art, serving as a testament to the evolution of cultural anthropology over time. While the question of how and why humans first began creating artwork remains unanswered by archaeologists, each new discovery of ancient sites sheds more light on the creativity of our ancestors. As archaeologists uncover artifacts from ancient settlements, they meticulously piece together the meaning of the art and its significance to the culture. The discovery of the foundations of great buildings prompts researchers to study architecture, imagining how these monumental structures were designed and constructed without the aid of modern technology or heavy equipment. The construction of the great pyramids and Stonehenge poses a fascinating question that warrants further exploration: what specific role did women play in the design, engineering, construction, and decoration of these awe-inspiring structures? Examining the contributions of women to these monumental feats of engineering and artistic expression highlights the significant role that they played in shaping ancient societies and offers a new perspective on the role of women in human history.

    The term "prehistoric" typically refers to the time before humans had developed a system of writing. However, this does not diminish the value of history. The prefix "pre" simply indicates a period prior to the discovery of written language. It's possible that there may be undiscovered evidence of written language that could change our understanding of prehistoric times. Prehistoric eras are generally divided into two categories: the Paleolithic period, which occurred from around 2.6 million years ago until 12,000 BCE, and the Neolithic period, which began around 12,000 BCE and lasted until 4500 BCE. During the Paleolithic period, climate and geographical changes had a profound impact on human societies around the world. Based on archaeological evidence, the final era of prehistoric times is further divided into three distinct ages: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

    The Stone Age is the largest of the tripartite system, where humans primarily used stones as tools to make arrowheads, jewelry, small sculptures, and clothing. Lasting about 2.5 million years, the Stone Age ended around 9600 BCE with the advent of human skills in metalworking. Following the Stone Age, the Bronze Age was characterized by using bronze, an alloy combination of tin and copper. Bronze allowed the beginnings of urban civilization, metal tools, government, and proto-writing. The third age, Iron, was the transition to smelting different types of metal to create Iron and steel for weapons and tools for agriculture, ending around 600 BCE.

    Drawing may have helped the indigenous people make sense of their world and offer a way to communicate with others, and in some caves, the pictures were simplistic, others more complex and sophisticated. A simple drawing is depicted in the Coliboaia Cave in Romania (2.2.1), the red ochre drawings contrast against the whiter walls of the cave, but the figures are not complicated. If the caves had been open and exposed to the elements instead of sealed off, the artwork would probably have been destroyed or subjected to natural forces like mold, causing them to vanish over time.

    Painting of a kangaroo and a hunter on the side of a rock outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Rock painting of a Kangaroo and Hunter (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

    According to National Geographic, women created most cave paintings over 30,000 years ago. An analysis of the handprints left in paint on the walls suggests women, not men, were the Stone Age artists. Unsurprisingly, most scholars, who are traditionally men, assumed the artists were men. This discovery has overturned decades of archaeological dogma.[1] Analyzing handprints found in over eight caves, the archaeologists compared the length of certain fingers of the handprints and found that women made three-quarters of the handprints. Women artists have been involved with art throughout history; however, their contribution has been overlooked, undervalued, and often misappropriated. Traditionally the Western Cannon only values artwork created in the West based upon the classical work of literature, philosophy, art, and music. This work has been studied and accepted as exemplary, rendering all other creative work ranked inferior or entirely left out of art history textbooks. There are recent discussions about including more women and minorities in the Western canon, though the wheels of change turn slowly.

    The assumptions over the last Century concluded that men produced the art on the walls since they were animals they hunted while 'women cared for children, cooked, and cleaned the cave.' "Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between the people of the Paleolithic and us," archaeologist Paul Pettitt, "We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is." [2]

    Women have been creating art for millennials; we see the evolution of cultural anthropological time through their hands. How did humans initiate their desire to create art, and why? Undoubtedly, archeologists will never resolve this query; however, the more ancient sites are discovered and excavated, the more our discovery of humans and their creativity continues. When an ancient settlement is established, archeologists take great care in removing artifacts, piecing together what the art meant to the culture. If the foundation of a great building is discovered, researchers study architecture, imagining how significant buildings were designed and built without the aid of today's technology or heavy equipment. How were the great pyramids constructed? How were the stones moved to build Stonehenge? What role did women play in design, engineering, construction, and decoration?

    Paleolithic Period

    Throughout the Paleolithic era, women played a significant role in producing various forms of art, such as figurines, carvings, and cave paintings. One of the most notable examples of their artwork is the Venus figurines, which depict women with exaggerated features such as large breasts and hips. These figurines have been found scattered across Europe, indicating women's involvement in representing the female form through art. Among these figurines, the Venus of Willendorf (2.2.2) stands out as a small yet significant piece of prehistoric art. Created during the Paleolithic period, which spanned from around 30,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE, the figurine is believed to be over 25,000 years old. Although it remains unclear whether a man or a woman created the figurine or if it was the work of multiple individuals, its importance in the history of art cannot be overstated. Discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy in Austria's Willendorf village, the Venus of Willendorf is made of limestone and is approximately 11 cm tall. Scholars have suggested that the figurine was created as a fertility symbol or a representation of a goddess. Another scholar also suggested that the “Venus of Willendorf” was created by a woman, but that the over-exaggerated body parts stemmed from the way in which the woman viewed herself, describing it as a “the foreshortening effect of self-inspection.”[3] Regardless of its original purpose, the Venus of Willendorf provides valuable insights into the prehistoric era and the role of women in shaping the art and culture of that time.

    Small carving of a woman with a large midsection
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Venus of Willendorf (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

    Neolithic Period

    Moving forward to the Neolithic period (around 8000 to 3000 BCE), women continued to create art in various forms. One notable example is the pottery produced by women in ancient cultures such as the Minoans and Mycenaeans. These pots were often decorated with intricate patterns and designs; many were used for practical purposes such as cooking and storage. The creation of pottery was a highly skilled craft, and women played a central role in its development and production.

    The Minoans and Mycenaeans were two ancient cultures that emerged on the island of Crete and the Greek mainland, respectively, during the Bronze Age (around 3000 BCE to 1100 BCE). These cultures were known for their artistic achievements in various media, including pottery, sculpture, and fresco painting. While men played a significant role in these creative endeavors, women also made important contributions as artists and craftspeople.

    In the Minoan culture, women produced pottery, textiles, and metalwork. It's intricate designs and vibrant colors characterized Minoan pottery, and many pieces were decorated with scenes of daily life, religious rituals, and mythological figures. Women were involved in every stage of the pottery-making process, from digging the clay and shaping the pots to firing and decorating them. In addition to pottery, women played a significant role in producing textiles. Minoan textiles were made from wool, flax, and silk and were often decorated with intricate patterns and designs. Women were responsible for spinning the fibers into yarn, weaving the fabric, and dyeing it with natural pigments.

    Minoan women were also skilled metalworkers, creating jewelry and decorative objects from gold, silver, and bronze. The Minoans were known for their intricate metalwork, and many pieces were decorated with abstract designs and natural motifs such as animals and flowers. The Mycenaeans, who emerged on the Greek mainland around 1600 BCE, were also known for their artistic achievements. Like the Minoans, women were essential in producing pottery, textiles, and metalwork. Mycenaean pottery was characterized by its simple shapes and bold designs, and many pieces were decorated with scenes of warriors, chariots, and other symbols of power and authority.

    Mycenaean women were also skilled in producing textiles, creating clothing, tapestries, and other decorative objects from wool and linen. Like the Minoans, Mycenaean textiles were often decorated with intricate patterns and designs. In addition to pottery and textiles, Mycenaean women were also skilled metalworkers, creating jewelry and decorative objects from gold, silver, and bronze. Mycenaean metalwork was characterized by its use of repoussé and granulation techniques, which created intricate patterns and designs on the surface of the metal.

    Despite the significant contributions of women to Minoan and Mycenaean art, their role in these cultures has often been overlooked or downplayed in favor of the achievements of men. This is partly due to the patriarchal nature of ancient societies, which often relegated women to secondary roles in the arts and other spheres of life. However, recent scholarship has begun to challenge this view, highlighting the significant contributions of women to ancient art and culture. By recognizing the role of women in Minoan and Mycenaean art, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of these cultures and the rich artistic traditions they developed.

    [1] Hughes, V. (2013). Were the first artists mostly women? National Geographic. (10) (9). Retrieved from:

    [2] Ibid

    [3] Meyer, I. (2022). Venus of Willendorf. Retrieved from:”