Hands of Time 05.02.2019

05 Feb

Recently my wife and I watched a TV programme in which the sculptor Antony Gormley (the creator of The Angel of the North amongst many other works) explored how far back in time mankind’s urge to create art could be traced. The focus of the film was on rock and cave art which since the mid 19thcentury was known to stretch back 12000 years to the last ice age.

In recent years however mankind’s artistic prehistory has been shown to extend much further back in time, before even the arrival of Homo Sapiens in Europe about 15000 years ago!  It has always been the accepted belief that Neanderthal Man would not have possessed the intellectual capacity to create art, but in recent years this assumption has been questioned with the discovery of European rock and cave art now known to be 30000 and even 40000 years old.

How can scientist be sure that these painting, engravings and stencils are so ancient? The formation of crystals over the top of the artwork enables accurate carbon dating - and with this came another truly startling discovery. Across the globe from our origins in Africa to the edge of the ice sheets of Europe, from the islands of Indonesia to the remote centre of Australia and the depths of South America, a common art motif has been documented - “The Human Hand”. A further puzzle is that in multiple locations and separated by thousands of miles, early humankind used an almost identical technique for hand paintings – that of the charcoal blown stencil.

The television programme revealed the work of a distinguished French archaeologist who had been studying early rock art for most of his life and who demonstrated how these hand stencils could be faithfully reproduced using charcoal and human saliva repeatedly blown by mouth onto a hand pressed firmly against the rock face, leaving an indelible outline when the hand is then removed. Such “paintings” exist deep within ancient caves, alongside prehistoric animal pictures and engravings.

The question that then arises is what was the underpinning drive in mankind which gave birth to this art form simultaneously across the world and which seems to declare “I am alive, I exist, I was here?

To me the answer lies in the dawn of self awareness. The ability of the human species to stand outside of itself and to question the nature of existence, the purpose of life, our destiny and life’s meaning. The ability of mankind to create art is not therefore an idle pleasure but an intrinsic sign of our uniqueness in creation.

My Bible tells the creation story with God speaking all of the universe and all living things into being, but when it came to mankind the Bible says that God took the dust of the earth and breathed His own life force into it to create the first human being, in much the same way that it is was the artist’s breath, tens of thousands of years ago, that created the image of his hand that we can stand in front of today - in humility, awe and wonder!

Hands of Time

The hands of time reach out

Across the globe

And down through ages.

Echoes of consciousness

Born in mankind’s genesis.

Our Maker’s marks

Thumb prints of deity

Sprayed on rocks

Concealed in holy darkness

For millennia.

Creation’s call

To mark and make

Imprinted in the human heart

Upon the very breath of God

Our shared inheritance.

Through a thousand generations

And across all nations,

We are humankind

His image bearers

His feet and dark stained hands.

© Martin Wild 2019

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