Looking daggers

Art - Ned Denny admires the sculptural sophistication of the caveman's tool kit

Neoteny, one of nature's odder mutations, is the process whereby a species matures sexually but remains in all other respects arrested at the juvenile or foetal stage. And where to find one of these underdeveloped freaks? Try looking in the mirror. Neoteny was crucial to the evolution of modern man - in particular, it allowed our brains to go on growing for years inside a soft, incompletely ossified skull. The downside was that it made the early hunter-gatherers vulnerable, as not only were they slow to maturity, but they had also become newly upright and left the relative safety of the treetops for the open savannah. Here lies the reason for the prevalence of weapons in "Prehistory: objects of power", the new permanent display at the British Museum. Lacking substantial teeth and claws, early man had to carve them from stone.

To say that figuring out how to do this took time would be something of an understatement. Between the earliest chipped pebbles to the delicate flint blades of the Upper Palaeolithic period, roughly two million years elapsed, a length of time in comparison with which modern history is the merest blip (the philosopher Nietzsche surmised that all the truly decisive events in the development of humanity took place in this unfathomable past we designate as "prehistoric"). The first crude "choppers" barely look like man-made objects at all, their surfaces no more suggestive of a shaping intelligence than the cracked rocks in a stream bed. But these developed, over a period of about 1.5 million years, into jagged, fanglike hand-axes that have an unmistakable malevolence about them. Some are so large as to suggest a symbolic rather than practical function - to form rock into a giant "tooth" is to posit the earth itself as the great devourer, the god into whose gaping maw we all slip.

As time passed - and, yes, a whole lot more of it did - the techniques for chipping away at stones to produce tools and weapons became increasingly sophisticated. Axe-heads on display from the Middle Palaeolithic (200,000 to 35,000 years ago) and Upper Palaeolithic (around 35,000 to 10,000 years ago) are no longer rough-edged fangs but cool stone tears whose perfect symmetry seems improbable and miraculous. Groups of arrowheads carved from blue, grey and green flint gleam like minnows, their slender sharpness a triumph of ingenuity over obduracy. By the time we get to the relatively recent past (about five thousand years ago, say), the sculptural quality of the carving has reached extraordinary levels of sophistication. The smooth, rounded shapes of axe-heads and mace-heads, so indefinably "right" in their proportions as to seem like pre-existing forms liberated from the rock, have an enigmatic simplicity reminiscent of modernist sculpture. One beautiful axe-head, a dark-green jadeite tear unearthed near Canterbury, could easily be taken for a Brancusi.

Here, too, are the original "pierced forms", flawless mace-heads in pale stone that, minus the rotted-away handle, look like miniature Barbara Hepworths. Or, to put things the right way round - sculptors such as Hepworth were surely echoing, unconsciously and on a monumental scale, these first abstract creations. (The work of the American artist Michael Heizer, who fashions huge concrete reproductions of prehistoric tools, makes this indebtedness explicit.)

And this, really, is why these bits and bobs from a caveman's tool kit have found their way into an art review. The Hepworth-like mace-heads are "objects of power" not merely because they look like they could split skulls, but because they bear the imprint, in their highly formalised shapes, of the workings of the human mind. As the carved stone "balls" found in Scotland testify - existing purely as enigmas, or as the bearers of a magical function whose workings are long forgotten - such objects did not necessarily have a practical purpose. But most of them are weapons, objects that, as metal was discovered, became more and more effective as means of gouging and tearing both animal and human flesh. Bronze Age daggers, spearheads and halberds look not only deadly but also peculiarly unearthly - it's almost more easy to imagine their sleek forms falling from a passing spaceship than emerging from the mud and woods of prehistoric Britain. They alert us to a culture immeasurably more sophisticated than we imagine, a culture capable not only of producing such immaculate blades, but also of restraining the violence they unleash. Remember, most of these weapons were found in the beds of ancient rivers, left as offerings to the water-spirits in whose soft embrace their sharpness was healed and contained.

"Prehistory: objects of power" is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1 (020 7323 8181)

Ned Denny is the New Statesman art critic

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Le Pen is mightier . . .