reflections on the past

Reflections on the past

The earliest human response to our condition in this universe is marked by the decorative art found in caves and objects. These first human gestures are what have been left behind; our shared history. It has always been true: some people scream and shout, some roll about in the dust and others create; any kind of creation involves observation, knowledge and interaction with your environment.

From the start the decorative art developed a language which employed: colour, texture, form and luminosity or reflection to create a narrative which although they have come from independent cultures with thousands of miles between them and no knowledge of each other, shared a common vocabulary.

Our early creative vocabulary  would have been informed by the immediate natural world and the extent of communication with any neighbouring cultures. The most simple geometric designs employ light and dark with an apotropaic intent, these geometric designs would be seen as marking the threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead. The practice of using these type of geometric designs which not only trapped your line of vision,but also harmful forces , was used to protect people; with amulets, body painting, tatoos and clothing. The idea that such designs could neutralize malevolent forces was also later applied to buildings with paint and relief work.

There was a shared understanding for the significance of colour:

  • White (spiritual world) life, newness, creation (semen, milk)
  • Red (liminal world) transitional states (blood, mother to son, war, fire)
  • Black (the world of the living) an imperfect human world ( earth, rain clouds, faeces)

ʺHis robe is the black of the last bloodTed Hughes, King of Carrion

There are so many, but one of my favorite examples of these colours in action from the ancient world are the columns from the site at Ninhursag, close to the city of Ur (2500BC)

Ninhursag Columns

Ninhursag Columns,British Museum

Also found in Mesopotamia is the earliest known use of glass , reflective material which eluded Europe for a few thousand years, until like so many things was ‘brought by the Romans .’

Reflective materials like copper, glass, shell were seen to signify otherworldly presences, or an ʺaesthetic of spiritual powerʺ Murphy (1992). This creative language can be seen in cultures from Australia to pre-Columbian America.

The modern decorative language borrows heavily from this early spiritual narrative, on occasions it has been regurgitated with no regard for its past , or future , but other examples are lovingly crafted and add life to the original idea.

Slumped glass, a method of slumping clear float glass over a carved mould to produce a textured glass, can produce some very interesting layers. Glass traps light in a very special way; as a material glass is described as an amorphous solid a state of matter, so no surprise it affects the light passing through it.

This unique ability to capture light and yet transmit , layered with colour and form , can present a very special material, something that retains a sense of ‘otherworldliness’ that the ancients must have felt.



Trading in Colour

Living in Barcelona one day I decided to visit Gava, a charming small town situated between the Natural park of Garraf and the mediterranean sea. I discovered this area also has an extensive neolithic mine complex running underneath for many kilometres. The mines are beautifully demonstrated through the Parc Arqueològic Mines de Gavà, which is designated a National Cultural Heritage site.

These mines were created to extract GREEN in the form of variscite, a gem stone possibly linked symbolically with the regeneration of life. This green mineral was crafted into ceremonial and decorative ornaments and traded throughout the Iberian peninsula of the time; through France and into Northern Italy, all of this 5000 years ago!

The mines are dated between 4100-3400 BCE and have an extensive network of tunnels with over 100 entrances to date excavated. The semiprecious green mineral is located here in seams of slate, within layers of limestone and dolomite(used in creating green celadon glaze for ceramics)the miners became familiar with the companion rocks and experts at discovering new seams.

ʺMeaning does not inhere in symbols, but must be invested in and interpreted from symbols by acting human beings. Interpretation is the product of a series of associations, convergences and condensations established through praxis.ʺ (Moore 1994: 74)

This may be true but there are symbols which have had seemingly universal and long-lived interpretations; colours are among the first. Green is a mixture of blue and yellow, symbolically heaven and earth combined, Spring, the triumph of life over death and spring over winter. The small variscite jewellery found in some of the burial sites , tells us how valued these objects would have been. The evidence of trading throughout such a large area encompassing many different peoples with their own cultural values, illustrates how colour had a physical and symbolic value in the form of green variscite.