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Blombos Cave

pen and ink on paper
21 x 29.7 cm

Notes on this work

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Nothing stretches the mind more excitingly than the contemplation of the first stirrings of the artistic impulse in prehistoric man. Three quarters of a million years ago there were already handaxes of such crafted refinement that they still give balanced pleasure to sight and touch alike: when I was curating the Royal Academy’s Africa The Art of A Continent I examined many such. One or two of them indeed were of a size far beyond utility, referred to by their academic guardians as ‘prestige’ or ‘ceremonial’ goods. Uselessness as we know is a sure warning sign of the presence of art and its mad purposes. Earlier this year I had in my hand one of Britain’s primal artefacts, a characteristic shaped hand axe that had been made 600,000 years ago near what is now the Wolvercote roundabout on the Oxford ring road. It rests at present, its work of cutting and shaping long done, in the Ashmolean Museum where we can imagine the satisfaction that its gently swelling form and its delicately nuanced outline (made up of a series of self-correcting serrations) might have given its initial owner. It is still a compact lesson in aesthetics.

Of man the maker of signs and marks we do not have such early knowledge. Perhaps his initial designs were of an all too ephemeral nature like body markings or outlines made with a stick in the soil or sand. All we have been made aware of is the great blossoming of cave art some 35,000 years BC, which is where the art books start their accounts with pictures of Lascaux murals or engravings on antlers. However, a thrilling discovery was made only months ago which set the clock back yet again. Pliny said famously that ‘out of Africa comes always something new’, but in my lucky lifetime it has rather been something of great and ever greater age. The new finds at the Blombos cave site near the cape in South Africa are an example, the most important of them being the picture I have transcribed here. Its original is a piece of ochre less than a handspan wide on which is delicately engraved, with a tool on a prepared surface of the soft stone, a complex network of diagrammatic marks. The artefact can be securely dated to a period around seventy seven thousand years ago, emerging from a culture that had already been shown to produce, many generations before, the first known jewellery, in the form of necklaces of pierced shells. This unique engraving effectively doubles the history of man made drawing.

The more I looked at photographs of the object the more I was intrigued and, taking advantage of quiet days at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, I made the transcription above, reliving in a series of tiny dots the marks that this ancestor had made. Such a slow procedure of copying allowed me to relish each line and to explore the coherent web they made, which gradually lost all scale as I worked. Once well into the task I could have been inhabiting a linear maze of epic proportions, walking its paths and speculating on its intersections and their significance.

Copying can be a form of meditation and here I found myself pondering the (finally unknowable) meaning of what I was transcribing while continuing to relish its force as an abstraction, an infinitely distant prefigurement of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. It seemed, as I meandered through it, to contain all the calligraphic potential of letter forms, ornamental devices, map making, the lattices derived from nature, computational schema, mnemonic systems, engineering structures, musical notation; all in fact that human beings have needed to record or conceptualise, from ‘X marks the spot’ to the explorations in quantum electrodynamics of Feynman diagrams. Art history is fond of attribution and I have à la Berenson confidently ascribed this elusively purposive drawing to an ur-artist called Og of whose work I shall always remain an awestruck and devoted fan.