05 January 2012

The Kempen Stone Face: human and animal images on a Lower Palaeolithic tool from Belgium are an earliest example of complex symbolic art

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Contact Ken Johnston, kennethbjohnston@hotmail.com

The Kempen Stone Face: human and animal images on a Lower Palaeolithic tool from Belgium are an earliest example of complex symbolic art

The discovery of a tool also having a human facial profile was announced December 26, 2011 on portablerockart.com by archaeologist L. Jimmy Groen of The Netherlands and Kenneth B. Johnston of The United States.  Groen is a professional field archaeologist who recovered the artifact in situ in August, 2011, along with hundreds of pebble tool artifacts in the Kempen region of Belgium.  Groen dates the artifacts at 450,000 to 300,000 before present.  Groen noticed a human facial image resulting from work on the stone and brought the artifact to the attention of Johnston, who studies and collects prehistoric portable rock art. 

Johnston has now recognized the "Kempen Stone Face" as a familiar sculpture type of the Low Palaeolithic period already documented and described by Jan van Es of The Netherlands.  Johnston also detected additional subtle imagery on the stone which may depict a rabbit, an egg with a crack and a lion with a kitten. 

“This artifact is significant because it is datable and there is little room for controversy over the artificiality of the piece or the surety of intent of the prehistoric artist to express certain motifs in a stone sculpture,” says Johnston.  “In addition to already described Low Palaeo motifs, there are other images which appear intentionally depicted in the stone.  It was found amongst tools, in situ, and is evidenced as having been used as a side scraper itself.  From what I can determine, the Kempen Stone Face is one of the most complex pieces of art attributable to the Low Palaeo period.  It might be thought of as an elaborately decorated tool.”

According to Johnston, the sculpture represents a human head with face in left profile and a feline head, presumably lion, in right profile, both joined at the back of the head and looking away in opposite directions.  Thus, the head has a human face and a lion face.  “It’s what one would call a ‘polymorphic sculpture’ because it incorporates multiple creatures into the one piece” says Johnston.

“Roughly contemporaneous possible art pieces like the Venus of Berekhat Ram (Isreal, 230,000 BP minimum) and the Venus of Tan-Tan (Morocco, 300,000 to 500,000 BP) are notable for their simple likeness to human body shapes. The Kempen Stone Face has a real palpable human facial image, with mouth agape, and a more subtle lion face comprised partially of faded markings. Because humans and lions don’t really share heads, this piece may be thought of as quite symbolic.  The Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan figures seem to be representative of real things, reflections of life-figures, rather than a composition of seemingly interrelated real and non-real creatures as are found in the Kempen Stone Face  polymorphic sculpture.”

"From Face to Venus" drawing by Jan van Es predictively illustrated the art motif Johnston detected on the Kempen Stone Face
 
The two known motifs Johnston detected in the Kempen Stone face have been described by Jan van Es of The Netherlands.  Van Es is an artist and amateur archaeologist with forty years experience collecting and studying Palaeolithic art.  First, van Es describes a motif as “From face to Venus” where the profile outline of a human face may also be interpreted as the profile outline of a corpulent feminine form.  So the same shape can alternate between a face outline and female figure outline, depending on how one focuses visual attention on it.  Van Es has made a drawing available at his web site in which he creates a kind of composite drawing of the ideal “from face to Venus” form.  It is made available here for comparison to the Kempen Stone Face artifact.  


Also available is a Homo heidelbergensis skull side profile to compare the sculpture outline to the skull profile form, especially the brow ridge.



Van Es has made a comparison of a Low Palaeolithic “Venus” figurine (at left in photos above) he discovered in The Netherlands, compared to the famous Venus of Willendorf from the Upper Paleolithic, <40,000 before present.  These artifacts are separated by hundreds of thousands of years according to van Es, but their proportional and morphological similarities are quite remarkable, such as possible head hair details on the older sculpture. 

Second, van Es describes the prominence and importance given to the “egg shape” in the Paleoart he has studied. Van Es writes, “During all those years of research I noticed that, besides all forms nature offers in rocks, trees, fruit, animals etc., the egg-shaped rocks were considered as the most ideal kind. The big cosmic egg, the germinal force and origin of life, seems to have been a very important notion and turns out to be a main line in the images.”

The Low Palaeo figure features this egg shape at the chin, as if being dropped by the mouth of the face/ or the vulva of the female figure.  Perhaps by the time of the Upper Paleolithic Willendorf example the “cosmic egg” was more explicitly expressed by the large belly of the woman.  The same egg shape may be seen comprising the chin of the Kempen Stone Face.


Ken Johnston illustrates the graphic images detected on the Kempen Stone Face

The entire surface of the Kempen Stone Face, 12cm tall plaque, is utilized as part of a series of interwoven images, somewhat like the graphic image nesting affect of the Hidden Pictures game feature in the American magazine “Highlights for Children.”  “Can you find the kitten emerging from the egg?” asks Johnston.  Johnston describes the relevant graphic features he has detected on the artifact as:

1) Face to Venus motif on left edge profile
2) Egg motif, chin of human is also an egg, compare oval shape to computer generated oval egg
3) Rabbit head, with nose and eyes features at crest of head facing left 
4) Egg is “cracked” open by a quartz vein running from the bottom of the chin to the crest of the head and defining the center of the human face
5) Kitten emerging from egg looking at viewer face-on
6) Lion upper face comprised of stone cortex.  Lion mouth line and lower jaw defined by stone removal (not part of cortex surface). Lion “tooth” covered by skin, foretelling of actor Bert Lahr’s costume in The Wizard of Oz.  The tooth is implied by the skin flap.
7) Lion nose and eye were made of now faded markings, highlighted in the illustration
8) Kitten held in mouth of mother lion as it emerges from the egg, lion’s tooth space is also space between kitten’s ears.  The kitten’s chin is also the shared chin of the mother cat.

"It seems possible the quartz vein was recognized by the artifact maker and deemed to be potentially symbolic of a crack in an egg which led to the egg form" Johnston says.

“John Feliks has demonstrated the intelligence and creativity of humans from this era was certainly on par with ours today in his falsifiable geometric proof studies in his paper ‘The Graphics of Bilzingsleben.’  In addition to the geometric prowess of these early humans, the Kempen Stone Face polymorphic sculpture now places complex figurative and symbolic art squarely in the hands and minds of people living 300,000 to 450,000 years ago” Johnston emphasizes.

“I think most all of the world’s missing art history remains to be found on stone pebbles and plaquettes and the like.  We’ve got to closely examine all the lithic material from archaeological sites or we may be overlooking most of the information available to us about these early people.  Astute archaeologists like Jimmy Groen can be rewarded for sharing their finds with amateurs, who may be able to bring some unique observations and knowledge to the table for consideration.”


-kbj

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