What am I doing? Why am I doing it? And where did it come from? A personal view by PIERRE

Gold Funeral Mask, Mycenae, National Museum Athens, c. 1200–1000 b.c.

Metals have been found in a natural state since prehistoric times. It was the discovery of the processes of metallurgy, the treating and smelting of ores and the making of alloys, which was the catalyst for the first industrial revolution. The discovery of metallurgy revolutionized the ancient world and helped transform Late Neolithic agrarian societies into city-states. Neolithic culture had used the same principals and technologies over many thousands of years. The most highly used materials for artists were stone, (the least perishable), wood, bone and textiles, (the most perishable). With the great invention of the loom, new types of art developed. Weaving was initially utilitarian in nature, and the provenance of women. Women quickly realized the potential of the loom as an artistic tool that could be used to help unleash their creativity. Essentially, throughout the history of art, new technologies would lead to new methods of working with new materials. This would eventually lead to new styles of art. The modern analogy of this is the advent of photography, computers, and video.

Ancient artists were influenced and inspired by the natural world around them. These influences were best expressed in simple graphic terms. The prehistoric artists had very limited materials to create with. The prehistoric cave painters had a few basic earth colours, a cave wall, a few simple arm movements and using their mouths to spray the paint. The prehistoric sculptor relied on found objects, such as stone, wood, and bone. Sometimes the found object itself would resemble and mimic an animal or figurine. By the simple addition of a few scratches or marks, a found object would be transformed into a work of art. To see a human or animal shape in a rock formation, or a found object an artist must have the ability to think laterally and in abstract terms. This thought process involves working from abstraction towards reality, or from reality towards abstraction. This is profound. It is the very foundations upon which modern art is constructed.

The concepts behind Duchamp’s “Fountain” 1917, and the prehistoric artist who would visualize a figurine or animal in a rock is the same. In essence, they are both found objects that have become works of art. There are however some significant differences. Firstly, the prehistoric artist discovered this concept many thousands of years before Duchamp. So perhaps Duchamp was not as radical, or original as people thought. A major difference is that Duchamp’s found objects came from within a modern industrial world. They were not objects found in nature itself. In other words, Duchamp’s found objects were created by other people. Who exactly were these people? Were they technicians or artists in their own right? Was Duchamp merely stealing someone else’s art, and then calling it his own? For the prehistoric artists their inspirations and influences came from within nature. The materials they worked with were provided, sculpted, and shaped by nature. It is only natural that the predominant subject matter for prehistoric artists would be drawn from nature itself. Prehistoric artists could not make an exact copy of their work; every work of art created was unique. This all changed with the invention of the Mesopotamian cylinder seal, the loom and metallurgy. For the first time art could be produced, and reproduced on an industrial scale, and an exact copy could be made.

What really transformed the art world and kick started the first industrial revolution, was the discovery of metal alloys. By using moulds and casting, exact copies of complex organic shapes could be made. Artworks could be created that were easy to copy, imperishable and portable. Once the infra structures of the maritime sea routes were in place, in conjunction with the existing ancient trade routes on the land, Artistic influences were quickly diffused throughout the known world. Metals also transformed the way that artists worked. The materials and quality of tools available limited Neolithic artists. They were constrained to keeping everything simple and graphic. The loom allowed for designs that were much more complex and allowed patterning which became a dominant influence in late Neolithic art. Metals allowed a greater depth of complexity to be attained. Artists had the ability to make copies of their own work, or someone else’s work. The artist was now free to not only copy and mimic nature, but also, to abstract it. Complex geometric shapes or organic forms could now become plants, animals, or humans.

As far as we know, the method used by prehistoric artists, was to work from abstraction, (a found object, or a fleeting glimpse of a subject), towards reality, (transforming the memory of the subject into a recognizable form). A process where the abstract shape of the object is fashioned into some sort of reality i.e.; an animal or female figurine. The prehistoric artist relied solely upon memory. Ancient metal artists could continue the tradition of working from memory, (abstraction towards reality). They could also work from what they perceived as reality, (where there was little memory required), towards abstraction. In other words, it was a conscious decision to abstract what they saw. The geometric shape or contour of a plant, an ocean wave, or an animal, could be abstracted into simple lines and shapes and become an integral part of the design itself.

At what point in history did the technician become the artist? Or conversely, did the artist become a technician? This is a classic chicken and egg question. There is no doubt, that prehistoric artists were technicians. A piece of found bone has been transformed into a weapon, a spear thrower. There is a sound understanding of physics here. The technician realized that the shape of the bone was perfect for fashioning a tool, (a spear thrower) that would maximize the velocity of the weapon, (the spear). As he fashioned the tool, he realized that the shape of the bone mimicked a prancing horse. There is a perfect synthesis between technician and artist, who created a tool; (utilitarian and functional) that was also a work of art, (aesthetic beauty). Cave painters were also technicians. They discovered that charcoal from a fireplace made a good drawing instrument. They had local prospecting knowledge to know where to locate and excavate the best earth pigments. They needed to know the correct amount of blood or saliva that was required to manufacture a binder best suited to mixing the pigments. They needed to know the best methods of applying the paint and at what angle to spray. They realized that putting the paint in their mouth and blowing it gave them the best control for spraying the paint. They discovered the concept of masking off areas of the work by using their arms, hands, and fingers. Furthermore, they began to explore positive and negative shapes. We begin to see that the deceptively simple process of cave painting is actually quite complex. We can never know precisely how prehistoric peoples discovered all these techniques. Most likely, they came about them through a tedious process of trial and error.

As the level of artistic complexity increased, so did the need for technical skill. Conversely as the level of technical skill increased, so did the ability to create artworks that were more complex. If we could draw a graph, we would see that there were quantum leaps in technical ability in conjunction with the introduction of new technologies, such as the loom, cylinder seal, and metallurgy. The processing of alloys is incredibly complex and requires a high degree of technical skill. It has been argued that the first precise industrial engineering took place in the Middle Ages with the production of the bells for the great Gothic cathedrals. I would argue that the first precise industrial engineering actually occurred with the discovery of metallurgy. With the advent of metallurgy, the roles of artist and technician began to merge. Early metal artists could not create to their full potentiality unless they had sound knowledge of the processes of smelting and manufacturing alloys. They also required an intimate knowledge of the alloy they worked with. Again, through a process of trial and error they would have uncovered the subtleties of the alloys and the best ways to manipulate it. This is what art is about; experimentation and exploration coupled with technical skill. The technical skill releases and empowers the creative process. The same applies for the ancient metal artists, just as it applies to the artists of today.

Technical and artistic skill raises another interesting question, when did we see the creation of a class of experts? In prehistoric times, were the same cave painters or sculptors called upon repeatedly, because of the high quality of their work? We cannot answer these questions for sure; after all, there are no written records apart from the work itself. It is plausible however, that galleries of cave paintings were produced as a team effort. Someone to mix the paint, hold the light source, find and mix the earth pigments, make the drawing and apply the pigment. Each specializing in their own field of expertise. The only possible way that the monumental architecture and statues of the Late Neolithic and Ancient Egypt could have been produced would have been through a disciplined and structured team effort. This requires high organizational skills and the mobilization of entire communities.

The loom is interesting because it is traditionally associated with matriarchal societies. The women of the community became the experts in weaving, but why the women and not the men? Simply, it takes a long period of time to produce textile and cloth. The women were the ones that had the time to weave. It was still a collaborative effort, because the men cared for the stock that provided the fiber. By relinquishing the creative duties to the women, the textile art produced was dominated by organic female influences. These influences would eventually become incorporated in pottery, sculpture, and painting. In hunter gather societies, the food for the day could sometimes be gathered in just a few hours, leaving the rest of the day free to do other things. In agrarian societies however most of the day was taken up with farming and looking after stock. For the men there was little time to do anything else. The key role for the male in agrarian matriarchal societies was to be as a predictable provider. With the discovery of alloys, there was a shift back to a patriarchal based society. By the time of the Bronze Age, the advantages of new alloys over stone and copper tools were obvious. Knowledge of metallurgy was empowering and a great wealth creator. Metallurgy became the domain of a male class of experts who created superior weaponry that could be used to conquer and colonize. The balance of power shifted back to a patriarchal based society, who controlled the resources and the wealth. The subtle organic art of the matriarchal society was gradually replaced by archaic geometric male influences.

In the beginning a select few held the knowledge of metallurgy. They became experts/specialists in their field. Gradually metallurgy developed into an industry. People began to specialize in prospecting, mining, transportation, smelting, processing, fabrication, ornamentation, and precision engineering. Art became a manufacturing process. A collaboration between the technical expert and the master artist, who sometimes would be one and the same. The advent of metallurgy was as profound to ancient peoples, as the invention of the microchip was to modern peoples. In fact, we would not even have a computer-based society today without the discovery of metal alloys. Due to its low tensile strength, copper did not have a huge impact in Neolithic Europe, but the metallurgists persevered and eventually the alloys brass and bronze were discovered. Bronze and iron, which have a much higher tensile strength than copper, replaced the stone artifacts of the Neolithic. Artisans were free to choose to create small portable objects or immobile monumental art. They now had the tools to do both. With bronze, artists could use moulds and casting, which helped create “in the round,” near perfect human form. All these technical advances flowed into every aspect of society, but especially into weaponry.

The discovery of metallurgy happened in three successive stages:

1. Hammering wrought working.
2. Smelting of metal in its crude form.
3. Alloying copper and tin, or copper and antimony, creating bronze, a material harder than stone.

With these discoveries, the traditions of the Neolithic were gradually superceded. However, it did not happen quickly. It took a thousand years for the knowledge of metallurgy to spread from the mountainous regions of Anatolia down into the steppes of Eurasia and into the Fertile Crescent. It took a further thousand years for metallurgy to spread into Europe. The major innovations and profound changes in art at this time were principally the after–effects of technical discoveries, and there consequent social changes. Metals created an artistic revolution. Metallurgy first spread into a world where agrarian Neolithic societies existed side by side with societies already at the urban stage. Artisans and craftsmen had unique materials to work with. Materials that required new techniques, such as damenscing, moulding, casting and forging.


This has been called an intermediate period between the late Neolithic and the Bronze Age, characterized by the use of copper tools. It was a period in the development of technology when metals were first used regularly in the manufacture of tools and weaponry. Pure copper and bronze, (an alloy of copper and tin), were used indiscriminately at first. The earliest use of casting or founding, (shaping of metal by melting and pouring into a mold) can be deduced from clay models of weapons. Casting or founding, was certainly established in the Middle East by 3500bc, and perhaps as early as 4000bc, in Asia. Following the Neolithic period, the development of a metallurgical industry coincided with the rise of urbanization. The organized operations of mining, smelting, and casting undoubtedly required the specialization of labour and the production of surplus food to support a class of artisans. The search for raw materials stimulated the exploration and colonization of new territories. This process culminated in the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Sumer. Later, the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations opened extensive trade routes into central Europe, where tin and copper were mined. This activity fostered native industries and political unification. It laid the foundations for the Iron Age civilization, which was to follow under Greek, Etruscan, and Scythian influences.

Copper was one of the first metals widely used by humans, owing to its malleability and durability. Like gold and silver, copper could be easily fashioned into many shapes, but it proved to have greater strength. Copper-headed maces were first cast in Mesopotamia in the third Millennium BC. Iron also began to find limited use around this time; due mainly to its great abundance, though many centuries passed before it claimed its place as the preferred material for tools. Yet, despite the availability of these materials, not all weapons made an immediate transition from stone to metal. Bowmen, for example, continued to use stone arrowheads throughout the Copper Age because they were sufficiently lethal and much easier to produce.

Another defining phenomenon of this epoch was the explosion of agriculture. The ability to farm enabled people to settle in one area – a necessary condition for the emergence of civilization. The earliest known civilization arose in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, during the fifth Millennium BC. In addition to growing crops like barley, wheat, and grapes, the Sumerians domesticated animals for meat and other materials, as well as providing power for plows and carts. By the end of the Copper Age, agriculture had spread from the Middle East and throughout most of Europe. The use of pure copper in the fourth and third millennium had hardly brought any advantages over Neolithic implements. Only the invention of bronze and the birth of metallurgy capable of compounding the alloys slowly led to the relinquishing of traditional stone weapons and implements.


The Aegean world played a crucial role in the diffusion of civilization and the knowledge of metallurgy into the heart of Neolithic Europe. In prehistoric times, Europe was penetrated through the Northern Aegean via the Bosphorus. Later, with the rise of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations the Aegean Ocean provided the sea routes into Europe. The island of Crete became the ideal stepping stone for commercial and technical exchanges. The Aegean with its unique geography and ethnology became the crossroad into Europe and provided a vital link in the chain between the more technologically advanced civilizations of the Orient, and the agrarian Neolithic cultures of Europe.

The Aegean was an insular world, surrounded by continents whose civilizations were easily transmitted and diffused via hundreds of islands. The Northern shores of the Aegean remained barbarian for a long time. Along the Western coastline was Greece. The Eastern Coastline was Asia Minor, (modern day Turkey). Trade routes ran up the Greek peninsula, which led directly into Europe via the Balkans. Civilization advanced from the Southern regions into the Northern regions of Greece, but it was from the barbarian north of Greece that the incessant invasions came, bringing with them depopulation, disease, and chaos. Caravan routes also connected Asia Minor with the metal civilizations of Anatolia and beyond into Mesopotamia. Goods flowed through Crete from Europe, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia.

Prehistoric Greece gradually acquired a rural way of life. The introduction of copper into this Neolithic civilization does not seem to have constituted a revolution. The appearance of bronze had a far greater impact. Bronze asserted itself in the Aegean between 2300bc and 2000bc. This coincided with an age of great transformation and the beginning of the first fortress towns. Early modern looking Cycladic marble idols hinted at the beginnings of what Greek plastic art would one day become. They are mainly nude female figures built up by the superimposition of geometrical decoration: a stylized head, round or elongated at the top of a long neck, with a strong nose, a trapezoidal torso on which the arms are crossed, broad flanks and strictly parallel legs. The types are almost unvaried. These are examples of a very stylized form of sculpture, which derived from the Neolithic plastic arts. Although these idols appear revolutionary, they are merely a continuation of archaic Neolithic traditions, but in an extreme form. Cycladic sculpture would have a huge impact on modern art. Picasso admitted he was influenced by the deconstruction and flattening of perspective contained within Cycladic art. These influences can be seen in early Cubism.

At this time, the Greek mainland was relatively poor. Crete however became a wealthy civilization, most probably attracting jealousy and envy from its poor neighbors. Minoan wealth was based on direct trade links with Egypt of the Old Kingdom, Syria and Mesopotamia. Minoan art was polychromatic with early influences from Egypt and Anatolia. This art quickly developed into a unique and original form. Gradually Crete came to play a leading role in the Aegean world. The flowering of its civilization is one of the great achievements of Aegean protohistory. It is symbolic as one of the first advanced civilizations of Europe. Minoans were quick to learn from the much older civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. They synthesized and integrated ideas and concepts that would ultimately become uniquely their own. The aesthetic of the Minoans was far more successful in design and colour than in the plastic arts. They had no equivalent to the great statuary of other nations.

Minoan painting was an extraordinary revelation. The themes of decorative painted work are more varied and less utilitarian than Egypt or Asia. Even when the fresco has a religious nature, the figures have a freedom, which is found nowhere else. On the other hand, man who was to be most successful isolated on his own, in Greek painting, is set in a natural background in Minoan art. The Minoan artist preferred the play of spontaneous colours to the truth of actual colours. They did not paint like sculptors as the Greek painters did, nor did they aim at accuracy like the Egyptians. They preferred to capture the appearance of movement rather than anatomical exactness. Their figures became outlines with free vivid movements. Scenes of plant and animal life are also common. Minoan art was the product of an original and unique civilization. It did not try to copy or imitate the monolithic sculpture of Egypt or Mesopotamia. There is a total absence of any major plastic arts, in which the Greeks were later to excel. They restricted themselves to works of small dimensions. They had little liking for translating forms into volumes. They preferred sculpture in relief, which is closer to painting. The artist’s vision is rapid, shrewd, and unthinking, preferring the fantasy of creation rather than careful realism.

By 1400bc, which has been called the late phase of the Bronze Age, the Minoan Civilization began to collapse. Gradually it succumbed to the Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece. The Mycenaean civilization superceded and exceeded the Minoan Empire. Through the Mycenaean Empire, the development of the European Bronze Age was accelerated. Mycenaean art was derived from Minoan art but it evolved towards stylization. Pottery tends towards linear abstract decoration and incorporates themes and motifs previously rejected, such as human figures, animals, and chariot processions. Mycenaean art shows the influence of the severe geometric abstraction associated with a male dominated society. Painting concentrated on the more violent themes such as war and hunting. By the 12th century BC, just as iron was appearing, the Mycenaean civilization, amid turmoil and mass migration, began to decline. Around the same time, most of the late Bronze Age techniques disappeared.