What are the 'dark arts' of history?
For tens of millennia after leaving Africa, humans expressed their culture with bone and stone carvings, paintings, and other means. Art and symbols emerged.
As the Ice Age receded and people became more adept at technology and trade, their symbolic artworks became more numerous and varied.
To our ancient ancestors, there was no such thing as "art for arts' sake". Everything they decorated (which wasn't a tool or device) held symbolic meaning. Rug patterns. Rock art petroglyphs. Sculptures. Ceramic stamp seals and figurines. Tattoos and body art. All of it was alive with information about who they were and what they thought, expressing their identities and cultures. Knowledge and skills. Magic, shamanism, and sacred beliefs. Eventually, myths and legends with gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters.
At Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey where hunter-gatherers built the world's earliest-known ceremonial structures, wild beasts and insects comprised the symbols. This coincided with the rise of an elite shaman cult, also the earliest widespread use of agriculture. From being exclusive hunter-gatherers people also became farmers and potters, and central to this transition was their symbolic art and architecture.
At left is the belt carved on Pillar 18 at Göbekli Tepe. The same 'C'-shaped symbol occurs repeatedly on a stone stamp from Aşikli Höyük, a nearby community. They are separated by several centuries around 8200 BC, so this sign was very important for these hunter-gatherers. What purposes did they assign to it?
Symbolic arts and signs are among the most important innovations in history. Their use was crucial to human development, for they evolved in parallel with agriculture, ceramics, metallurgy, writing, trade networks, and complex societies. They were the main means by which people communicated in tandem with, but quite distinct from, spoken language.
Even for thousands of years before the invention of writing.
These periods are the 'Stone Ages', the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, or Neolithic, but these titles belie the importance of another vitally important craft. One that had a massive influence on cultures from the most ancient of eras.
Weaving. Woven articles such as clothing, rugs, and baskets easily perish, but their symbolic by-products survive in more resilient forms. This is the first reason why this book is called Dark Arts, since the craft of weaving is hard to directly observe in archaeology. It must be inferred from other evidence – rather like 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' in the universe. For example, the world's oldest needle from 50 000 years ago was recently found in a Siberian cave.
These replicas of clay stamp seals bear patterns typical of 'Old Europe' (or Danubian civilization), a sophisticated network of societies that flourished in eastern and central Europe between 5500-3500 BC.
Old Europe stamp seals
c. 4500 BC
Now look at these traditional handwoven textiles from Transylvania and Cambodia. See how the patterns of zigzags and nested chevrons on the fabrics are echoed by the stamp seals. These examples are over six thousand years apart, yet the symbolic inspiration for the stamps is the same source of weaving that is still practiced in the traditional way.
Handwoven textile, Romania
Handwoven textile, Cambodia
Basketry also lends itself to the same universal patterns of zigzags, chevrons, and lozenges, as in this splendid example by Pacific Northwest Coast Haida people. Fabrics and basketry are among the oldest and the darkest of the real 'dark arts' of history because they are so fragile and perishable. The history of weaving is bound with the history of symbols, as are other skills like hunting and farming, mining and metallurgy.
Traditional Haida basketry, British Columbia
As historians are starting to realise, symbolic arts, crafts, and indeed myths are not a dead end for enquiry. Symbolic decorations acted as a kind of code, even up to fairly recent times, much as modern logos do. Though embellished, myths are often founded on historical events and people. And myths and symbols are often inextricably linked.
Ancient art 'movements' and subcultures signified eras of prodigious invention and craftsmanship. Social transformation and mobility. And times of iconoclasm and upheaval.
The Tărtăria Tablets with undeciphered signs
Let us realise that “symbolism” is not a personal affair, but ... a calculus. The semantics of visible symbols is at least as much an exact science as the semantics of verbal symbols, or “words.”
Anand K. Coomaraswamy
Stamp seals from Çatalhöyük
Symbolism in ancient art and myths provides glimpses into the lives of immensely skilled and innovative – and yet largely nameless – people. It represents one of the last great unexplored frontiers of historical enquiry. Like dark matter is to the universe, so too is symbolic art to history.
Hence 'dark art', which has nothing to do with the kind of magic that Professor Severus Snape teaches Harry Potter and his friends to defend against, although it is often to do with magic. Just not that kind.
Even now little is known about many examples of ancient art, which constitutes one of the last great unexplored frontiers of history. Why is that? And what can we gather to make sense of it and the people who used it? DARK ARTS The Secret History of Cultures by their Symbols deals with the real dark arts, giving a new perspective on the grand sweep of human history.
Vinča culture artefacts with 'Danube Script' signs
DARK ARTS The Secret History of Cultures by their Symbols will be available in early 2017.