The ‘Lion Man’; Upper Palaeolithic Art from Germany
The statuette you see in the picture is about 38,000 years old, and is probably one of the oldest sculptures in the world. The statuette is called ‘the lion man’, due to the fact that it depicts a human being with the head of a lion.
In Europe, the earliest forms of artistic expression are associated with the Aurignacian of the Upper Palaeolithic. Included among the oldest forms of artistic expression in Europe are the painted rocks from the Grotta di Fumane and possibly some cave paintings in Spain like the stippled red disk from El Castillo. In France we have examples of what A. Leroi-Gourhan defined as Style I from the Aurignacian. Included among these examples are the depictions from La Ferrassie and Belcayre. Also dated to the Aurignacian is the small figurine of a dancing woman from Stratzing in Austria, carved from green schist. At least some of the paintings from Grotte Chauvet were also created during the Aurignacian, even though the age of these cave paintings has more recently been called into question.
Finds from Baden-Württemberg in south-western Germany play a special role in interpreting the artwork from the Aurignacian. Complex stratigraphies in some of the caves of the Swabian Jura have also yielded important Aurignacian find horizons. There are four caves among these that are especially important: Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels in the Ach Valley, and Vogelherd and Hohlenstein Stadel Cave in the Lone Valley. Works of art were uncovered in the Aurignacian layers from those caves. The works are not paintings but figurines carved from mammoth ivory and depicting animals and human beings. Among these are well known objects such as the horse figurine and the small mammoth from Vogelherd, the Orans from Geißenklösterle, the Lion Man from Stadel Cave in Hohlenstein, as well as the oldest known representation of a woman, the “Venus” from Hohle Fels. Additionally, flutes made from bird bones or mammoth ivory were found at three of the four sites. Dates from the find layers in question place the artworks and the flutes in the time span between 35 and 40 ka calBP. New dates indicate that the oldest statuettes may in fact be as old as 43 ka calBP. Thus, the figurines provide some of the earliest proof of figurative art in the world. Moreover, the flutes belong to the oldest known examples of musical instruments.
Hohlenstein (hollow rock), a large rocky massif, is located ca. 25 km northeast of Ulm, in Baden- Württemberg (Southwest Germany), on the southern edge of the Lone Valley and in the township of Asselfingen (Fig. 1). At Hohlenstein there are three sites with Palaeolithic find layers (Fig. 2). On the western part of the massif is the Bärenhöhle (cave of bears) with mostly Middle and Upper Palaeolithic find material. Further east is the rockshelter Kleine Scheuer (small barn), where Late Upper Palaeolithic artefacts were discovered. In the east we have the Stadel Cave or Stadel (barn, shed), which is beyond doubt the most important of the three sites.
The most important find from Stadel Cave was the Lion Man.
The Lion Man figurine was made from the right tusk of a mammoth. The figurine is standing upright, with arms resting at its sides. This static posture is determined by its dimensions and position within the length and the circumference of the tusk. The tusk was fully developed, bending slightly left as a result of its natural growth. The head of the figurine is oriented towards the tip of the tusk. The tip of the pulp cavity is found in the groin of the figure. The outer sides of the arms are formed by the outer cement layer. The outside of the upper portion of the back is also formed by this cement. This indicates that the circumference of the tusk decreases slightly from the feet to the top of the head of the figurine while the entire tusk was used in the carving. The statuette is made essentially of massive dentine. In the groin of the Lion Man the nerve canal is visible as a small point that extends through the figurine to the head.
The ivory figurine has corroded over thousands of years of being under the surface and the collagen is in places fully decomposed. Therefore the material is brittle. The statuette broke along its natural growth layers into numerous fragments. The dissolved and in part worn away original surface of the figurine is mainly due to the influence of water.
According to our current knowledge, we can assume that the figurine was intentionally deposited in the small chamber of Stadel Cave and that over the course of thousands of years it fell apart in the sediment into numerous fragments. Supporting this notion of erosion in the sediment is above all the indication of numerous manganese deposits found on the inner surfaces of the fragments.
The statuette reveals some remarkable details. Head, shoulders, elbows, knees and heels have been carved in a very naturalistic fashion. They prove that the artist had been very observant. By contrast, the paws, the groin and the feet appear strikingly stylized.
The left side and the right side of the Lion Man are differently formed. The left side of the figure is very carefully worked, while the right side appears rougher. This is particularly recognizable in the shaping of the right arm, which in contrast to the left arm appears very coarse or crude. Also the right ear has been formed simply through rough scraping while the left ear is perfectly set apart from the head. This could suggest that the carver began with the right side, perfecting his work on the left side.
The front, as well as the back, of the statuette was not uniformly carved, but rather in graded form down to the legs. This design element could indicate the belly fur of a large cat. It could also be possible that this is the clothing of a human with a lion skull and adjoining fur and legs.
The Lion Man figurine possesses ornamental elements in three places, all found on the left side of the body. An explanation for this could be that the side with the heart was supposed to be particularly emphasized. The left ear is decorated from behind with more than 12 parallel scratch marks. The exact number of lines cannot be determined due to the poor preservation of this area of the body. These scratch marks are clearly distinctive from the production traces such as, for example, those on the left side of the snout. Besides this, the left arm reveals seven deep horizontal notches that, in correlation with the lightly raised areas between them, produce a flat relief effect.
These notches could be interpreted as representing a tattoo or decorative scarring. Finally, at least eight, relatively poorly preserved, parallel scratch marks are recognizable on the sole of the left foot at a right angle to its orientation. These can also be distinguished from the normal production traces left by manufacture.
With a height of 31.1 cm, the Lion Man is to date the largest known statuette from the Upper Pleistocene. There are three other known figurines made from ivory that are similar in size. A male figurine from a grave in Brno (Czech Republic) is at least 20 cm big, and the Venus II from Willendorf (Austria) is ca. 23 cm. Both statuettes date to the Gravettian and are then almost 10,000 years younger than the Lion Man. Furthermore, a stylised female figurine, which was discovered at the Magdalenian open air site of Andernach Martinsberg (Germany) is about 20 cm big. It is more than 20,000 years younger than the Lion Man. Thus, the idea of making figurines out of large pieces of tusk is documented several times for the Upper Palaeolithic. Despite this, figurines made from ivory are generally seldom larger than 20 cm, making the Lion Man very much a unique specimen in the context of Upper Pleistocene statuettes.
[NovoScriptorium: The reader should know that the ‘lion’ mentioned herein belongs to the species Panthera spelaea]
[Source: “The Smile of the Lion Man. Recent Excavations in Stadel Cave (Baden-Württemberg, south-western Germany) and the Restoration of the Famous Upper Palaeolithic Figurine”, by Claus-Joachim Kind et al.]
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides