The Boston tea party

Rayners Lane


Enamelled bronze pan

Park Royal

Hoa Hakananai’a

A walk down Portobello (part two)

Lambeth North

Richmond railway bridge


Bronze head of Augustus

Tower bridge (part five)

Cranberry and lemon scones

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Тhe oldest examples of art in the Museum are images of the natural world. These ancient carvings on antler, bone and ivory from the Ice Age (c. 40,000-8000 bc) include images of animals such as reindeer and mammoth that shared the world of these early human communities. Objects such as the spear thrower from France in the form of a mammoth suggest that these images were not simply examples of a desire to illustrate the natural world. They show that from the beginning of human 'art', images of the natural world were also used to convey ideas and ideals. These animals were as important to think about as they were essential to hunt, eat or wear. Such examples of Ice Age art were probably not purely decorative but, as in later human cultures, were also symbols associated with stories and myths, perhaps even the physical manifestations of gods and spirits. The tiny rib from Robin Hood Cave is one of the oldest pieces of art to survive from Britain. It is engraved with the image of a horse, now hard to make out, but showing evidence of wear and polish from 10,000 years ago. This little bone fragment must have been much handled, suggesting that the image was far more than just a doodle or a picture of a horse.


Cresswell horse from Robin Hood Cave

Images such as the Ice Age horse engraving reflect the long history of our relationship with the horse, although at this period horses were not ridden but hunted for food. It can be compared with much later images by European painters such as Stubbs or, as here, Toulouse-Lautrec, but also the many other images of horses from across the world, including the two examples here from Rome and Tang dynasty China. However, other examples can be found in other chapters of this book: riding horses or using them to pull chariots was often the privilege of the richer and higher status members of many societies, and these were also the people who tended to be depicted in art. For example, horses were an integral part of the image of medieval European knights and of the equestrian class in ancient Rome. On the other hand the dog, although the first animal to be domesticated by humans and our companion for over 10 000 years, is much less commonly depicted across world art.

The importance of animals as symbols and in myth is common to many cultures represented in the galleries of the Museum, and their images can be seen on objects ranging from massive sculptures to tiny coins and seals. Small images of scarab beetles were very common in ancient Egypt, where the scarab was associated with rebirth and the daily rising of the sun. Most are only a few centimeters long, but the Museum also has one of the largest known images of a scarab from Egypt. Other objects in this chapter also represent animals from myths and religious stories, such as the famous “Ram in the Thicket” from the Mesopotamian city of Ur or the animals depicted on ancient North American smoking pipes. The mythical roles played by animals make their images recognizable symbols of individuals, groups or communities. The owl could signify the ancient Greek city of Athens because of its close association with the city’s patron goddess Athena. Animals were used as heraldic symbols for European families and rulers, as seen in the small medieval Dunstable Swan. Animal images have also frequently been employed in a wide range of allegories and metaphors, both to glorify and satirize aspects of human society.


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