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6. The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger

I finished this back in January so most of my thoughts are long gone.

A little-studied element of prehistoric art is the symbols that appear alongside the other figures. Von Petziner is one of the first people to make a systematic study of them. As this is a book aimed at general readers, there's a lot about life in the paleolithic and stories of the discovery of the art of that period. There's also a lot of description of crawling around in muddy caves to verify and better record the symbols which have often been overlooked. She makes it sound like great fun.

Her theory is that art and symbols developed in homo sapiens before they left Africa and just doesn't survive (or hasn't been found) because it emerged so fully formed across Europe at about the same time. Makes sense to me. Along with the art, people developed abstract symbols, a sort of precursor in writing. She doesn't hazard a guess at what individual symbols meant but is cataloguing them to look at distribution over time and place. She also takes a great interest in how the art/symbols were actually made and what that tells us about their makers.

This was a really interesting read, a good addition to my cave art collection.

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First, a word about membership. Free entry at any time to the major exhibitions is nice, but where membership really came into its own was the free cloakroom and the members' cafe and lounge - as I don't live in London and I'm invariably making my way to or from wherever I'm staying, I always have a big bulky bag in addition to winter clothes. Being able to stash these for free, without queuing with the rest of the world - priceless. Ditto for being able to eat and rest my feet in peace before making my way back into the hordes (Japanese tours and European school groups) that were making the Great Court practically impassible.

If the exhibition itself had been heaving I would have come back at another time, but it wasn't too bad. It was busy, but nothing like the crush at the Babylon exhibition.

Anyway, I'd been really looking forward to this, and the BBC Culture Show special made me even more excited, so even though it was very good, I felt kind of let down. I guess because seeing actual cave paintings a couple years back was a life-changing event, I had ridiculously high expectations. Also, an exhibition where all the objects are tiny and in low light is possibly not best viewed when completely exhausted.

While the human figures are of moderate interest to me (especially the really early ones, which have heads but not faces despite the level of skill showing that the artist clearly could have carved a face - there's something profound and ritualistic about that), the pieces that I found most moving were all animal representations. They're most like the cave paintings in the way that they portray movement very effectively. The lion headed man (one of the oldest carvings) is really evocative and the thought that we've been able to be so abstract and ritualistic for that long is pretty mind boggling.

I didn't buy the book - the photography is stunning, but it's expensive and doesn't contain any text but what accompanied the exhibition. If they'd thrown in a few extra essays I'd have bought it.

I'm really glad I went, even though it was a bit of a letdown.

I had plans to take in some of Ancient Near East rooms when I finished (as I always do), but between the screaming hordes and already sore feet, I retreated straight to my hotel.


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