The Stone Age people who invented ceramic technology 26,000 years ago created delicate clay figurines not as long-lasting works of art but as images designed to explode in the kiln, according to anthropologists who published a study on the prehistoric potters today. The finding that the first use of ceramics was not for the creation of practical and permanent objects but more likely a kind of prehistoric performance art, or perhaps even a religious ceremony, has added another dimension to the enigmatic personality of prehistoric humans, who lived by fashioning tools of bone and stone, hunting the giant woolly mammoth and gathering nuts and berries. It now seems that the paleolithic hunters and gatherers who roamed Eastern Europe preferred to use their invention of pottery to create exploding images of wolves and bears rather than to manufacture such mundane objects as clay mugs and jars. Indeed, the first useful clay objects did not appear until 14,000 years after the invention of ceramic technology, when fired pots appear in Japan. The anthropologists speculate that the person firing the clay figures might have known which objects would explode and which ones would not. Perhaps the first potters were priests or shamans of some sort. The scientists say the act of making and firing the clay figurines may have served some divinational purpose. If one figure blew up and another didn't, for example, or if a figure shattered in a certain way, future events may have been foretold. Ever since the 1920s, when large caches of fragmentary figures were first unearthed at Dolni Vestonice in Czechoslovakia, scientists have wondered why almost all the clay objects produced by the first potters were shattered. Of the more than 10,000 fragments uncovered over the years in Czechoslovakia, only a few small pellets and a single figurine of a wolverine are unbroken. "Why is everything broken? Were these people, who apparently invented ceramic technology just awfully bad potters? Or were they making objects for some kind of ritualistic purpose?" asked Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois at Urbana, who with Pamela Vandiver of the Smithsonian Institution and Czech colleagues Bohuslav Klima and Jiri Svoboda published the study on the prehistoric potters in today's issue of the journal Science. Soffer and her co-workers believe that the prehistoric hunters and gatherers who lived in Eastern Europe and invented ceramic technology knew what they were doing and that the fragments were not simply primitive mistakes but intentional destructions. Soffer said the hunters and gatherers were creating their diminutive figures of animals and women in such a way that the objects would explode during the firing process. While these same people were capable of making long-lasting tools and jewelry of stone and bone, their pottery was apparently important to them more for the ritual of making, firing and detonating the clay pieces. The figures would have been only a few inches tall. Some were intricately carved. Most depicted animals -- wolves, horses, foxes, birds, cats, bears -- or women with swelling hips and large breasts. Indeed, one of the classic prehistoric figures of the fecund female, the so-called Venus, was found at the Dolni Vestonice site in Czechoslavia. The Venus, too, is fragmented and missing a leg. The researchers' analysis of fragments shows that the Stone Age potters almost surely intended to blow up their handiwork, since the clay they used is a type that is relatively hardy. The clay, called loess, is highly porous and resists expansion, making it particularly resistant to thermal shock in the kiln. Soffer said the prehistoric potters may have wetted their figurines to allow water to be trapped in the clay before placing the objects in a hot kiln. The larger pieces with water trapped in the clay would have exploded in a hot kiln. Smaller pellets, which were also placed in the ovens, would have steamed and sizzled. The result would be a kind of paleolithic fireworks display. There would be sighs, pops, whistles, sparks and explosions as the pieces shattered. "We must entertain the possibility that these workers were not trying to produce durable ceramic images and that the earliest use of ceramics may have been for their special and unique fire-related properties rather than for a function based on their visual appearances," the researchers conclude. At another, much later site in France, researchers have found figures that were decapitated. But the work with the hunters and gatherers of Czechoslovakia would be the earliest evidence that man created imagery only to destroy it.
William Booth William Booth is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami. Follow