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How Ancient Europeans Saw the World

How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    How Ancient Europeans Saw the World
    Book Description:

    The peoples who inhabited Europe during the two millennia before the Roman conquests had established urban centers, large-scale production of goods such as pottery and iron tools, a money economy, and elaborate rituals and ceremonies. Yet as Peter Wells argues here, the visual world of these late prehistoric communities was profoundly different from those of ancient Rome's literate civilization and today's industrialized societies. Drawing on startling new research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Wells reconstructs how the peoples of pre-Roman Europe saw the world and their place in it. He sheds new light on how they communicated their thoughts, feelings, and visual perceptions through the everyday tools they shaped, the pottery and metal ornaments they decorated, and the arrangements of objects they made in their ritual places--and how these forms and patterns in turn shaped their experience.

    How Ancient Europeans Saw the Worldoffers a completely new approach to the study of Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe, and represents a major challenge to existing views about prehistoric cultures. The book demonstrates why we cannot interpret the structures that Europe's pre-Roman inhabitants built in the landscape, the ways they arranged their settlements and burial sites, or the complex patterning of their art on the basis of what these things look like to us. Rather, we must view these objects and visual patterns as they were meant to be seen by the ancient peoples who fashioned them.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4477-7
    Subjects: Archaeology, Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. PART I: Theory and Method

      (pp. 1-17)

      A dramatic new style of imagery appeared in Europe twenty-five hundred years ago (Figure 1). Strange creatures, part human, part beast, were crafted onto gold and bronze jewelry and cast onto the handles and lids of bronze vessels. Metalsmiths created lush new forms of decoration—incised and relief ornament based on floral motifs such as leaves and petals, with spirals, S-curves, and whirligigs decorating objects ranging from pottery to sword scabbards.

      This style was a radical departure from the forms of representation and decoration that preceded it. Throughout the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, representations of humans and...

      (pp. 18-33)

      When you look at David Bailly’sSelf Portrait with Vanitas Symbols(1651), the first thing you see is the human figure, David Bailly, looming large in the left part of the painting, but your eye (your brain, actually) is quickly attracted to the objects on the table in the center and on the right. Why are the objects on the table so fascinating? We are drawn to them, wanting to distinguish each one from the others around it, to identify it in our minds, to feel the weight, texture, and apparent temperature of each. Then we look around, and we...

      (pp. 34-51)

      Except in broad daylight, everything looked different to the people who lived in Europe three thousand years ago from how it looks to us, and all because we live with electric lights. Our interiors are illuminated day and night. Only when we experience power outages, go camping, or otherwise intentionally limit ourselves to a few small light sources, can we begin to imagine what the visual world must be like for people who have no ready access to modern electric lighting.

      Some idea of what things looked like can be gained from paintings that show interior scenes in pre-electric contexts....

      (pp. 52-71)

      Figure 9 shows a cup made during the Early Bronze Age, around 1800 BC. It has a spheroid body with a small flat base, a constricted neck, and a flaring rim, and a single handle on one side. It is a relatively simple object visually, except for its elegant S-shaped profile and four deeply incised lines that run horizontally around the vessel at the top of the shoulder, stopping and ending in little holes at the handle. As an experiment, cover the lines with your finger and look at the vessel. It will appear much plainer and less striking. The...

  7. PART II: Material:: Objects and Arrangements

    • CHAPTER 5 POTTERY: The Visual Ecology of the Everyday
      (pp. 72-98)

      The object in Figure 12 is a portion of the wall of an Early Bronze Age jar. The two sherds of pottery glued together here were recovered in a pit, along with 523 other Early Bronze Age sherds, at the site of Hascherkeller on the outskirts of Landshut in Lower Bavaria, Germany. The object may not look like much to the uninitiated observer, but it can provide a wealth of information about the community that made, used, and deposited it.

      The pottery is darkish gray, with some patches of brown. What we see in this photograph is part of the...

      (pp. 99-111)

      Fibulae are charming. Of all of the common objects preserved from late prehistoric Europe, they are the most attractive, in the sense that even today people are drawn to them, finding them intriguing to look at. They are especially interesting to see in three dimensions—in museums cases, but even in photographs and drawings, they are usually the visually most interesting objects in an assemblage. Writing about later Iron Age brooches in Britain, E. M. Jope described their “pleasing tectonic ingenuity” and the way their forms “may sometimes serve to please the eye.” And, he noted, “brooches may . ....

    • CHAPTER 7 STATUS AND VIOLENCE: Swords and Scabbards
      (pp. 112-130)

      The Bugthorpe scabbard is 60.8 cm long and between 4.6 and 4.0 cm wide along most of its length (Figure 26). The two plates thus form long, thin rectangles that narrow slightly from the top to the bottom, where the scabbard terminates in a chape. The outer plate is elaborately decorated over its entire surface with ornamental patterns incised with a burin ornament, which is built up of curving elements—S-curves and formlines—observes the edges of the scabbard precisely. Each curve ends just before the edge. There are large Scurves that extend over a third of the length, and...

    • CHAPTER 8 ARRANGING SPACES: Objects in Graves
      (pp. 131-154)

      The objects that were placed in the grave at Hochdorf, near Stuttgart in Germany, in about 525 BC were carefully arranged in a chamber built of hewn oak timbers that was subsequently covered with a large mound of earth. The deceased man was laid out on an elaborate bronze couch that was placed against the west wall of the chamber, its head end close to the south wall. Beyond the man’s feet, in the northwest corner of the chamber, was placed a 400-liter bronze cauldron, an import from the Greek world. A four-wheeled wagon, laden with nine sets of bronze...

    • CHAPTER 9 PERFORMANCES: Objects and Bodies in Motion
      (pp. 155-175)

      They threw swords into the lake at La Tène. They arranged bent and broken scabbards in the ditch at Gournay-sur-Aronde, and placed iron tools in the fire at Forggensee. At Snettisham, they buried gold neckrings. Prehistoric peopleperformedall of these actions, for they were indeedperformances,held in open spaces where they could be seen by others, in some cases by large numbers of them. And all of these performances involved objects, the seeing of which was crucial to the meaning of the ceremonies.

      Archaeological evidence is static. In the arrangement of objects in graves, the accumulations of pottery...

    • CHAPTER 10 NEW MEDIA IN THE LATE IRON AGE: Coins and Writing
      (pp. 176-187)

      The development of coinage in temperate Europe and the first regular signs of writing are innovations that share some important features. Both were introduced from outside the region, specifically from the Mediterranean world, toward the end of the Middle Iron Age. Although both had existed in the Mediterranean world for centuries before their introduction and adoption in temperate Europe, both appear in temperate Europe at about the same time, during the third century BC and more abundantly during the second and first centuries. They were both adopted at a particular time in Europe’s developmental trajectory, and under specific economic and...

  8. PART III: Interpreting the Patterns

      (pp. 188-199)

      In the preceding chapters, I have examined three categories of objects—pottery, fibulae, and swords with their scabbards—and two ways of manipulating objects—arrangements in graves and performances involving human bodily action with objects—over the two-thousand-year period from the Early Bronze Age to the end of the prehistoric Iron Age. My focus has been on visual aspects of objects, and my main subject the changes in their visual character over time.

      My argument is that by examining these categories of objects and their use by early Europeans, we can discern something of how prehistoric Europeans “saw” in both...

      (pp. 200-221)

      In 1994, archaeologists found a bronze statue of the goddess Athena in a pit at Dornach, a Late Iron Age settlement dating to around 70 BC, 10 km east of Munich. The figure, on a small cylindrical base of sheet bronze, stands 16.4 cm high. She is clothed in a wrap-around garment called achitonand wears a Corinthian-style helmet with a plume on the top and with a horn on either side. In her right hand she holds a bowl, in her left a cylindrical box called apyxis.Figures of gods and goddesses from the Mediterranean world are...


      (pp. 222-230)

      As I have argued elsewhere, the Roman conquest was not as comprehensive in its consequences for temperate Europe as many popular accounts would have us believe. In the preceding three chapters we have seen that the visual world of Late Iron Age Europe was already similar in important ways to that of Republican Rome. During the final two centuries before the conquest, Rome and temperate Europe were both participating in a “commercial revolution” that involved much of Asia and Africa as well.

      After the conquests—of Gaul by 51 BC, of lands south of the Danube in 15 BC, of...

    (pp. 231-248)
    (pp. 249-280)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 281-285)