The warmth of ice: art in the Ice Age

Sally Prue, author of Song Hunter, on the very beginnings of art and creative thinking, including her experience of visiting the British Museum exhibition on Ice Age Art.

(This is an expanded version of a piece first posted on Sally’s Song Hunter blog.)

9780192757111_SONG_HUNTER_CVR_JAN13Making up stuff is important.

No, really: life and death important.

Writing a story or painting a picture may seem different from, say, designing a new app that tells you how many people in your town are currently dying of plague, but it’s essentially the same thing. It’s conjuring up something out of nothing.

Essentially, it’s magic.

But how do people start making up new stuff? And why?

It seems first to have become a habit about 40,000 years ago, at the start of the last ice age. The world was changing, and people had to make new stuff fast or else die in the increasing cold.

More or less all there was to eat was big game. That meant people lived in small groups in large territories. Any contact with other groups involved trespassing on someone else’s land.

Did art, which wasn’t anything to do with territory, make sharing every sort of new idea possible? I think it did. I think it proved vital.

Song Hunter is a book about the when and how and why of the very beginnings of art. The fact that its publication has coincided with an exhibition on the same subject at the British Museum looks like deep commercial guile and forethought (though actually it’s pure coincidence).

The problem, of course, is that by the time this marvellous resource became available to me my book was long finished. That didn’t mean, though, that I’d lost interest in the subject. Far from it: part of my heart was still bound up with Mica and her family. I couldn’t help but hope that in this exhibition I’d catch a new glimpse of them.

I hoped to hear their voices; but at the same time I was afraid that the ancient sculptures on display would be dumb and stiff and dead.

So what did I find?

I found, in dozens of tiny spaces, the gift of vivid life. The delicate step of an ear-twitching deer; the fierce thrust of a goose’s neck; the arch of a proud horse; the massive threat of a bison’s shoulders…

…and more, and more…

…the stillness and contemplative fragility of women huge with child; the smugness of a well-fed lion; the wide-eyed anxiety of a swimming reindeer.

Why was this art so good? Have these things come from a time when all art was true? When all art was beautiful, honest, and yet still full of secrets.

I saw a flint blade perhaps 20 cm long but only 0.6 cm deep at its thickest part. Imagine the delicacy of it.

Imagine a flute made of a bird’s bone, and then imagine music and singing and dancing.

Imagine a people both 40,000 years away and yet close enough to feel their breath on your cheek.

On the way out of the museum we came across a table of treasures to pick up and hold. There was a Greek vase made 2,400 years ago; a piece of clay incised with cuneiform writing; and a flint hand axe.

The axe was 350,000 years old.

350,000 years. Older than Homo sapiens, then. Far older. It came from the time of the Neanderthals.

And, oh, but it was a fine thing, carefully made and effective.

Once more, the millennia melted away…

It’s been an honour and a privilege to be able to spend a year in the company of Neanderthal man, but now I must make my way back to the present, to Homo sapiens and to the world we’ve made for ourselves.

It’s sad in some ways, but I’ve gained a lot. Mica and the people of Song Hunter have made me see the world – even myself – anew.

You see?

All that sort of stuff is vitally important.

The exhibition on Ice Age Art at the British Museum runs until 26th May.

Song Hunter is out now.


sally prue

Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction.

Her novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase prize and the Smarties Silver Award, and The Truth Sayer was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize.

Her day jobs have included being a Time and Motion person, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher.

Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire.

Sally can be found at The Word Den blog, Song Hunter blog, and at