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Prehistoric Art: Fertility Figurines, Bog People, and Artifacts


Societies from the Stone Age and into the metal ages created figurines that indicated a concern for the mysteries of life — fertility, birth, death, and what lies beyond. Bodies and artifacts discovered in bogs and tombs from Ireland to Denmark offer a peek into these people’s lives and deaths.

Complete Video Script

[31, Avebury, England] While little remains from these prehistoric people, it seems clear the timeless mysteries of life — birth, death, and what lies beyond — were on their minds.

[32, Venus of Willendorf, c. 25,000 BC, Natural History Museum, Vienna; Cycladic figurines, c. 3000 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens] From the very earliest times, the most common art created was small statues of women. Historians call them "Venus figurines." Whether bountiful or lean, they have similar features: arms folded, generic faces, and stylized breasts and pubic area. By emphasizing women's life-giving traits, they were likely fertility symbols — worshiped as a way to gain Mother Nature's favor for having a child, a good harvest, or rebirth.

[33, West Kennet Long Barrow, near Avebury, England] Amazingly, early people created such art before writing and before metal tools. The prehistoric era is divided into ages, defined by ever-more-sophisticated technology: from the Stone Age, to early metal-working in the Bronze Age, to stronger objects of the Iron Age. It's by their tools and weapons that we know how advanced a society was. And as prehistory progressed from stone to metal, art also took a step forward.

[34, Grauballe Man, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark, c. 390 BC] The so-called "bog people," whose bodies, weapons, and treasures were preserved in peat bogs, give us an intimate peek at prehistoric lives. As early people believed the gods lived in the bogs, that's where they tossed their sacrificial offerings. After defeating your enemy, logically you'd sacrifice him and toss his weapons to the bog gods. Because of the oxygen-free environment, this 2,300-year-old "bog man" looks like a fellow half his age. Archeologists think he looked like this in happier times. He sprawls out in his glass tomb as if to welcome visitors old and young to marvel at his skin, nails, and even the slit throat he was given back at his sacrificial banquet.

[35] This elderly woman from Denmark — whose coffin, carved out of an oak tree, was preserved in a peaty bog — must have believed in an afterlife. Imagine her loved ones tenderly placing these precious possessions with her. Still wearing her original wool blouse, she packed a finely carved horn comb, bronze jewelry, and a dagger.

[36] Despite their simple technology, early people created some richly decorated objects. All of these artifacts are unnecessarily beautiful and ornate. The creative spirit of humankind becomes evident very early on.

[37, Artifacts and Lur Horns, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen] These were ritual objects, made by sun worshippers. This "Chariot of the Sun" from Denmark illustrates how the sun was dragged across the sky by a divine horse. These horned helmets were worn by the ancestors of the Vikings as pagan priests sounded these horns, adding atmosphere to this now eerie ritual. While 3,000 years old, they still play. The ornamental disc is a sun symbol — perhaps as if these horns played the magical music of the sun.

[38, Mycenean gold, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] From Ireland to Greece, prehistoric societies invested in art. These precious artifacts — from golden jewelry to finely decorated implements of daily life — are more reminders that those earliest Europeans had an eye for beauty and a passion for art.