At the Beginnings of Art – Cradle of Civlisation

It was American born English playwright TS Eliot (1888 – 1965) who said ‘…the purpose of re-ascending to origins is so that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation’.

All cultures on earth, just like individuals, have distinct modes of existence and creation stories are something they all have in common in a logical attempt to rationalise the presence of humans on earth.

‘In the beginning’, the ancient Greek oral Poet Hesiod says somewhere between 750 and 650 years before the Christ event (BCE), ‘there was Khaos, vast and dark. Then appeared Gaea, the deep-breasted earth, and finally Eros, the love which softens hearts, whose fructifying influence would thenceforth preside over the formation of beings and things’

Adam & Eve in Garden of Pan NGV

Detail: Adam & Eve in Garden of Pan courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

Another creation story is about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which means a place of delight and pleasure. In the Garden of Eden are the Tree of the knowledge and Tree of Life.

The Tree of Knowledge is thought to represent man’s capacity for rational, ethical and moral judgment.

The Tree of Life represents the connection between our world and the paradise to come.

As a religious symbol it predates both Islam and Christianity.

It often takes on the form of a weeping willow tree, which is symbolic of sorrow and found growing alongside rivers. This enables it to feed from the source of all life, water.

Reconstruction of the Civilised city of Catalhöyük

During the 1950‘s British archaeologist James Mellaart discovered a township filled with neat plastered houses, evidence of a civilisation that dated from 7000 BCE. During excavations from 1961-1965 he also found pottery, remnants of textiles and metals, which proved they were an advanced society.

The Turks call the site Catalhöyük and since 1993 it has been a subject of further excavations and extensive research by a team of international archaeologists.

Early civilisations were sited on the plains of the Indus Valley of Pakistan, around the convergence of the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers and in the Nile Valley.

They practiced primitive forms of agriculture and animal husbandry at first hunting prey and then learning to tether and pen animals, look after grazing animals and sheep and goats were among the first to be domesticated.

They collected fruits and berries and raised their crops, propagating grasses as cereals. They learned to plait fibres and used them to make gathering bags to collect their produce and for fastening garments to protect themselves from the harshness of the elements.

Finally from being nomadic they established permanent settlements developing houses from simple mud and beehive huts to the more sound foundations of post and lintel construction.

From 5000 BCE the Nile Valley provided a place of refuge for wild life, as well as bands of hunters and gatherers.  It could be said the most potent force of ancient Egyptian culture from the beginning was their approach to, and understanding of their existence.

Their lives were interchangeable and interdependent because they did not seek, during their daily occupation, to separate themselves from their religion its faith, beliefs or actions.

The ancient Egyptians established a civilisation envied and admired for 3000 years.

They became very civilised, cultivating their fields, learning to store crops against times of famine and to gauge the rhythm of the river Nile, whose life giving waters were central to both the organization and political unification of their country.

The Nile flowed south to north and the energy of its waters rejuvenated and fertilised the earth from July to September during the season of akhet, when the Nile inundated the land depositing silt and preparing it for the season of peret, for that of planting and growth.

This happened from November to March and was followed by the season of shemu, the ripening of the grains and harvest, which took place in April, May and June.

Ancient Egyptians were mostly vegetarian with a reasonably healthy diet that included beer, which was a thick lumpy beverage filtered through a strainer. Resultant drunkenness was common with some early texts warning male students to stay away from beer halls, as well as women of ill repute.

Sound familiar?

Leisure activities included wrestling, fishing, athletics, acrobatics, fencing, archery, board games, ball games, bull fighting and playing with their pets.

They also wore decorative amulets to bring good luck or protection to their wearer. Throughout all of the history of ancient Egypt cats were of special significance. So much so, they were mummified at death.

However there is a small tile in the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University whose decoration depicts a man walking his dog on a lead.

It is indeed a rare and lovely insight into a human activity that even today, we can all connect with.

We would not have wine at all without the Vitis Vinifera, the grapevine that emerged in an area around the Black Sea sometime during the Quaternary, a period that ran from about a million years ago, included the Upper Palaeolithic period, ending when the Neolithic period (8500-4000 B.C) began.

Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum

In Hajji Firuz in Iran, one Neolithic house dating from 5400-5000 B.C has yielded six wine jars with a residue of wine still in them. The Vitis Vinifera’s stock provided the basis for most historical wine, and still does for many varieties today.

Nearly all early cultures developed some sort of intoxicant to help them face the harsher realities of life; poppy juice, fungi, dried flowers of cactus to name a few, although none could compare in economic and social dominance with alcohol, which is surely the most pleasant of all the benign poisons we imbibe.

The grape vine was one of the first plants domesticated, although its nature required certain conditions of geography and climate for it to flourish and produce fruit. ‘A little wine makes glad the heart’…and there is many that would agree with that observation, including Noah, who the Book Genesis tells us was a man of the soil, the first to plant a vineyard, drink the wine and become drunk.

At the time this was an experience that would have left him, not only worse for wear, but also ashamed because in early cultures it was not considered hospitable by your peers to overindulge in the juice of the grape.

Wine was meant to be enjoyed in an air of conviviality and communion and over the centuries became an instrument of religious experience, a practice that continues unabated to the present day.

Wine making developed, alongside a variety of food processing techniques. This was made possible when nomadic groups of peoples began permanent settlements.

Staying in one place allowed time for experimentation and a variety of food processing techniques slowly evolved. These included producing bread, an array of meat and grain dishes, as well as beer. Crafts, important for food preparation, storage and service advanced hand in hand with Neolithic cuisine.

Storage vessels made from local clays were crudely made at first however, as time went on production was gradually refined, their surface becoming a vehicle for individual self-expression.

The Old Testament of the Bible tells how the river that watered the Garden of Eden flowed out of the garden and divided to become four rivers, two of which were the Tigress and the Euphrates.

In ancient times date palms thrived in their fertile valleys, which lay at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa in the ancient Near East, corresponding approximately with the area we would today call the Middle East.

The palm tree, an early symbol of fertility grew in sacred temple gardens in the Euphrates and Tigris basins, as well as in Egypt where it gained a special significance as a metaphor for hospitality, providing dates for food and offering the weary traveller a place to rest in its shade.

Gradually the introduction of more sophisticated methods of irrigation meant higher crop yields. This in turn supported growth of population and the economic foundation of the whole Euphrates area was irrigation agriculture, based around the Twin Rivers that gave Mesopotamia its Greek name, (meso -potamos) quite literally
‘the land between the rivers’.

Mesopotamian history is dominated by the rise and fall of great empires, interspersed with invasions and periods of anarchy. Sumer was a collection of city-states that from c3800 to c2000 BCE clustered around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq.

It’s innovative approach led to a trade network being established that eventually stretched from southern Turkey to eastern Iran.  The Sumerians were the first linguistically identifiable inhabitants of Southern Mesopotamia, the first urban literate society – and one of the first documented in human history.

With the invention of writing during the 3rd millennium BCE at Sumer, information about higher crop yields could at last be recorded in a retrievable form and this in turn facilitated the efficient administration of other activities becoming an essential aspect of urban life.

The organisational system was a theocracy, a form of government in which the rulers and their policies identify with the leaders of the dominant religion.

A theocracy can also be exercised directly by the clergy (eg Iran) or, indirectly through a King, who is also the head priest (Gk).

This system once established offered a measure of prosperity and for a long time there was peace. Economic life flourished and improved agriculture permitted the support of an increasing population while urban life, in its turn, allowed play for a greater specialisation in the arts and crafts.

However, as is the case in the histories of all early civilisations when one city or kingdom was seen to flourish and perceived to be successful, along would come one warlord, or another, to conquer or destroy it…

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011




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