Mesolithic pottery design


It is not the Necessary but the Beautiful that appeared first. Not the food containers, but the figurines. Archaeologists unearthed older clay figurines than earthenware. Even more: the earthenware was not only functional but also decorated with geometric incisions. No matter the continent, people invented pottery almost together with decorating patterns. (Paleo) beauty comes first.

The earliest clay artefacts, which we undeniably recognize as art, have been discovered in a village near Brno (Czech Republic), in Dolni Vestonice. An abundance of animal and human figurines show us that people inhabiting the earth some 27.000 years ago took time (even pleasure, who knows?) to produce clay objects that were not satisfying urgent needs. It might well be the case that figurines fulfilled a need unknown to us, maybe some spiritual need. Yet, in that freezing weather (don’t forget that they were experiencing the Last Glacial Maximum) food and shelter seem top-priority, don’t they?

Dolni figurines are lions, rhinos and mammoths (what an exotic European fauna!) and some far-from-beautiful women. They are either obese or mutilated (one of them lacks an eye). We call them art today. They might had been made with some purpose in mind. Yet, they display ordered rows of dots and lines incised in clay, along with impressions of ropes. These are purely creative additions, geometric patterns that we’ll find later on ceramic jars, bowls, and plates.

Continuous and dotted lines adorn the women’s arms, chest, backs, and bellies. Ropes impressed in wet clay garnish rhinos’ bodies. What is the geometric patterns’ added value? These patterns may amplify certain meanings. They may be symbols. Yet, they may also make the difference between utilitarian and decorative values. The statuettes might have a specific ritualic purpose, whereas the geometric pattern just a decorative one. If this is the case, then the conscious search for beauty began with the first modern humans.

Gravettian figurines
Woman’s back with incised lines (left). Woman’s front with dotted lines emphasizing the neckline, belly button and arms.

Much further east from Dolni, in Xianren cave, on Dayuan river in China, similar dots and lines decorate the earliest (to be claimed by now) earthenware. The pottery shards found are some 20.000 years old. Their surface is impressed with vertical and horizontal strings. Some of their rims are impressed with a double row of dots. Despite their being 10.000 km farther east from Dolni, the Chinese pottery shows similar decorations, as if someone taught humans how to impress textiles in wet clay and how to abstract geometrical shapes from nature.

Paleolithic decoration
Geometric patterns decorating 20.000 years old pots. China, Xianren cave.

The probability that decoration trends diffused from an Eurasian side to the other in those freezing times is too low. A better guess is that humans share an innate tendency toward geometric order. Straight and curved lines, ordered dots and circles have been perceived by all of us, in all times, as ordered patterns. We have used them to ornate our surroundings since Paleolithic. The results are beautiful. Psychologically pleasing. Why so much waste of energy if not for a reward as important as food and shelter?

Think of this essential geometry of lines as the grammar of language. We are not aware of grammar unless we consciously study it in school. Yet, we notice immediately bad grammar. The same with beauty: we are not aware of composition techniques unless we study arts. But we quickly spot ugliness. This makes beauty part our being in the world.