The beginnings of an aesthetic approach
The prehistory of European art spans 30 millennia during which numerous artistic forms developed. The first artistic rendering of forms appeared in two-sided symmetrical objects, cutting tools in dressed stone (most frequently flint), manufactured 50,000 years ago by homo erectus. And although tombs and jewellery have existed since the age of Neanderthal man, the first evidence of art is considered to date back to the Aurignacian civilization, 30,000 years ago.
The development of art with a social function
This art very quickly developed using many different media: painting and engraving on the walls of caves, stone and ivory sculpture, clay modelling, terracotta decoration, etc… Art fulfilled three essential functions. Firstly a religious function: art reflected belief systems which made a clear distinction between male and female (female idols with exaggerated characteristics, probably venerated for their fertility powers), and designated the locations of ceremonial practice (large megalithic centres) which remain largely unknown today. Secondly an ostentatious function: its representations exalt the physical strength of hunters, then of warriors, and above all, as jewellery art flourished, the first symbols of individual identity appeared. Finally, its aesthetic function is particularly visible in the careful decorations which cover normal everyday objects (mainly crockery) and which also function as symbolic markers organizing society.
The emergence of sumptuous art
During this long period, two main periods can be identified. Firstly, the Stone Age comprises the Palaeolithic (age of dressed stone; period of hunter gatherers) and the Neolithic (age of polished stone; emergence of agriculture and livestock farming). Secondly, the age of metals, which includes the Copper Age (known as the Chalcolithic), the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. At the same time as the emergence of metals, protohistory (a phase during which a culture or civilization has not yet developed writing, but other cultures have already noted its existence in their own writings) was characterized by a growing social structure. At the same time, an increased hierarchy of power, the development of an advanced economy and the earliest settlements emerged. This period also saw the emergence of Barbarian princes who supported the establishment of trading networks with ancient cities in the Mediterranean world. In particular, these supported the production of sumptuous art used to promote power, of which many examples of jewellery have survived, intended to enhance the prestige of leaders and sometimes celebrate gods.