07 March 2011

A polymorphic sculpture: ape, lion, duck, egg, elephant and face "mask"

Ape head, right facial profile

A polymorphic sculpture:  ape, feline, duck, egg, primate face "mask" and proboscidean

This likely prehistoric polymorphic sculpture came to my attention by an internet visitor to Portable Rock Art as a possible intended “ape” icon.  The base it now stands on has been cleanly cut by a power saw in modern times apparently to facilitate standing display of the stone, which is quite interesting and beautiful not considering the imagery.  It was gifted to a rock collector without any records.  There is no provenance on the stone, it has modern alteration and it must be duly qualified.  Nonetheless, it is quite interesting and I think suitable for introduction and discussion here.  In addition to the ape, I have interpreted four additional creatures in this sculpture.

Anyone familiar with the stone material and its possible origin, which seems like a type of banded onyx or marble, is invited to comment or send an email.  It is very heavy for its size so the stone density is high. It is best to warn others of its unexpected weight when handing it over to them or they tend drop their arm and swing it back like they’re ready to “bowl” the artifact across the room. The surfaces, other than the cut part, are in excellent condition.

Feline head left profile.  The black band is the cat's jawline, her mouth, at lower left of photo, is represented by an excavated hole to suggest a snarl out of the side of the mouth.

There is also a depiction of a "sitting  duck" integrated into the image of the lion's head.  The duck is sitting on the jawline's wide black band which becomes like a shore's edge, facing left, bill tucked to its breast, with the black spot at the top of the stone representing the duck's eye.  There is an incised triangular wing.  The tail of the duck, if there was one, has been lopped off by the saw cut.  The duck is depicted as sitting on a likely symbolic "cosmic egg," source of life.  The lion and/or facial mask,  depending on the view direction, is positioned to spit out the the egg, a regenerative theme in early European stone art described by archaeologist Jan van Es of The Netherlands.

The appearance of at least five creature images at each of the four cardinal-type views of the artifact suggests its likely prehistoric intended iconography.  It was probably naturally suggestive to an artist or artists who made alterations to follow those suggestions to further refinement.  They are interpreted as a feline’s snarling head (like a lion), a primate (ape or human) seemingly depicted with a traumatic injury to the left side of the face, an ape-like right facial profile, a standing probiscidean (elephant, mammoth, mastodon family) and a duck.

The rather obscure public recognition of the roles of these five  "morphs" in ancient stone art make it unlikely someone would intentionally manufacture such a stone in current times.  It seems very likely only someone with great exposure to stone material offered by a hunter-forager's intimate relationship with and knowledge of lithic resources, as well as a great culturally-driven desire to express these five creatures simultaneously, could produce the final form seen here. It is a combination of iconography and a craftsmanship of another time.    

The most obvious human activity documented besides the saw cut is drilling and expanding of the lion’s mouth to manufacture a look of “snarl” or “grrrrrrr”  out of the side of the mouth.  There is a definite area of focused multiple percussive blows on the forehead of the ape, just above the right eye.  The ape's mouth line seems partially incised.  The ape's eye area was excavated down to black stone and recessed under a natural stone inclusion serving as a hard brow line.  White stone was removed to access black stone underneath to make the two eyes of the elephant. The primate face mask has two ground stone nostrils. The duck likewise has white stone removed to depict an eye in exact location.

The piece appears polished, maybe resulting from a combination of environmental rolling, intentional polishing of breaks made to enhance the final form and smoothing and patination from human handling of the stone.

Primate (ape/human?) "mask" with grotesque/missing left facial depiction.  Two nostrils are visible at the tip of the nose here, face is being viewed straight on.  Each serves as the singular nostril for the profile views of the lion and ape.
(for orientation, ape on photo left side, lion on photo right side)

The idea of a lion taking a bite out of the head may be found in the “Four Memes…” article by James B. Harrod seen in the links panel on the right side of your screen.  Such stone faces, or masks, are often depicted with visual distortion on the left side, often indicating an open mouth, a closed or missing eye- perhaps suggesting the horror of a lions bite.  This artifact could be an expression of a “stratigraphic overlay” of three world “memes” or packages of cultural information (1) "hit the baboon (ape here) on the head," first identified by Mary Leakey at Olduvai, (2) “lion's bite out of the head” and (3) “mask of the opacity of suffering” to borrow James B. Harrod’s concepts and terminology. 

Standing elephant, head at photo left side, rump at right 

A slice of the stone was cut off by power saw in current times, about parallel to the horizontal plane of the standing elephant, where the lower 1/4 or so of the elephant, such as the bottom of the trunk, the bottom of legs and the feet, if they were ever there, are gone now.

Head-on view of elephant, eyes depicted in black stone

Apes are a known subject of European stone art.  There may have been human networks from Europe into Africa or Asia which provided information to Europeans about apes.  Some Europeans were very familiar with baboons which they had to contend with on the Iberian Peninsula and along the Mediterranean coast.  It may be that the remains of bones, such as those of Gigantopithicus which went extinct about 100,000 years ago, were traded into Europe from south east Asia as novelties of a much larger but similar species. 

Please use the links here for images and more information on the ape topic in ancient stone art.  Right click your mouse to have your browser translate languages if needed.

Ursel Benekendorff, Germany

Hans Grams, Germany

Jan van Es, The Netherlands

Petrified wooden polymorph from Java.  Jan van Es collection.

-kbj 

1 comment:

  1. Hello Ken, I was referred here by MeetMaker from the Arrowheadology site for research into a cat visage I posted. He called it correctly! I thought it was human, and still, there is a possibility of a polymorph combo of human/cat /cerimonial Aztec/ and Clovis Point killed Bison, but before I can look anywhere and right off the bat I see a familiar symbol on the Lion/Hyena sculpture that I see on a few items here in MN. I call it a three tear design, with the griever being the fourth entity. But, I usually see it around the eyes, usually along the bottom, but I have seen it above too, and it is usually as prominant as the one your feline piece has in the second picture down. Oh wow, I just the duck on the lions head...You used it as the eye, yep, something is going on. The face I am here because of is like MeetMaker said, a spotted leopard with chisel marks that we could compare. I also have a 6-8 headed chief/face effigy or as I call it, an oral traditions stone, that has the symbol you used for the eye of the duck. I posted it on Arrowheads.com and got negative feedback, but now, seeing the same symbol here, I got a hunch. Thank You, Scott WahinkpeWakan@gmail.com

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