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Museum of Masterpieces Made for a Coffee Table

Jan 13, 2008 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Imagine walking through a museum filled only with masterpieces from all periods and regions in the world — going back to the dawn of man.

It's an ambitious dream that editors at publishing house Phaidon Press undertook in their new coffee table book, 30,000 Years of Art. The massive tome presents 1,000 great works of art arranged in chronological order. From a figurine carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk in southern Germany around 28,000 B.C., to artist James Turrell's unfinished Roden Crater — still being built in Arizona's Painted Desert — the book examines the vast range of human artistry.

Liane Hansen spoke with Editorial Director Amanda Renshaw about the masterpieces gathered in Phaidon's book. Renshaw describes four works from 30,000 Years of Art in detail below.

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Dabous Giraffes (c. 4,000 BC)

The Sahara Desert is not the first place one might expect to see giraffes, but north of Agadez in Niger, in the Air Mountains, there is one particular rocky outcrop where giraffes gather.
Hundreds of the animals are engraved on a gently sloping rock face known as Dabous Rock. They range in size from the quite small to the life-size male and female animals shown in this book. The couple faces left, the female behind the male, as if following her mate across the desert. These graceful animals are around 20 feet tall and must have taken a certain amount of skill to make; however, we know very little about who made them. The site was no doubt chosen because of the slope of the rock: At certain times of day, when the sun is low in the sky, dramatic shadows form on the red sandstone, displaying the mighty figures to their best advantage.
The giraffes were made with a combination of techniques, their outlines deeply carved, and the markings speckling the giraffes' bodies carved in low relief to a depth of about an inch. Other sections have been polished smooth or scraped to form patterns. It is hard to put an exact date on petroglyphs like these, but it is generally thought that they are in the region of 6,000 years old. At this time, the climate in the Sahara area was much wetter than it is today, and the grassland that existed was rich with wildlife.
Many examples of these animals are to be found in other rock engravings in the Air Mountains, but although such carvings are relatively common in the region, these particular giraffes are thought to be unique in their subject matter, style and scale. A World Heritage Site, the fragile spot is also listed as among the world's most endangered monuments. To assist in the preservation of the carvings, in 1999 a mold of the rock was taken, and a cast is on display in Niger. A copy is also on permanent exhibit at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

Lioness Demon (c. 2,900 BC)

With the head of a lioness and the muscular body of an Amazonian woman, this tiny, hard, limestone sculpture, illustrated on Page 51, is small enough to fit comfortably in a hand. At around 3.25 inches tall, its size does nothing to reduce its power and intense physical presence.
Although she was discovered at a site near Baghdad, archeological evidence suggests that she was created by the Proto-Elamite culture, which was based in what is now Iran. Made around 5,000 years ago in what was Mesopotamia, and is today Iran, this hybrid of human and feline features is shown rearing up on her hind legs. She stands with her front paws clenched together over her muscular torso, her head turned in profile, gazing impassively over her heavy left shoulder. This pose, and the holes drilled into the back of her head, suggest that she was designed to be worn around the neck, perhaps as a charm to ward off evil spirits.
The cool white limestone and the minimal style with which she is carved make the lioness seem as if she could have been carved in the last 100 years, not 5,000 years ago. However, it is likely that all those years ago she originally would have been far more colorful, probably painted, and perhaps decorated with semiprecious stones. Her legs, now missing from beneath the thighs, are thought to have been made of a different material, possibly gold or silver.
So who is this lion lady? While she is often referred to as a demon, she may actually represent an aspect of the most important female deity of ancient Mesopotamia, the goddess Inanna. The symbol for Inanna's name, which is thought to mean "Lady of Heaven," is called a ring-post — a reed stalk tied into a loop at the top. This symbol is carved twice on the figure's shoulder blades.
Until recently, the piece had been on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It was part of the Guennol Collection, established by Edith and Alastair Bradley Martin, and had been loaned to the museum for some 60 years. The decision was made to sell the piece, and the auction house Sotheby's expected it to fetch between $17 million and $18 million.
When the auction took place in early December 2007, the bidding exceeded all expectations. The lioness eventually sold for more than $57 million, making it the most expensive sculpture sold at auction. The price is fitting for a piece described by one art historian as "the finest sculpture on earth."

Prince of Marlik (c.1,200 BC)

On Page 133 there is a figure made from pure gold, with a long nose and wide mouth, his arms crossed over his chest. He is known as the Prince of Marlik.
The figure was found in the cemetery of Marlik, near the Caspian Sea in northern Iran. His identity is unknown, but it is possible that he might represent a member of a royal family. According to the tradition of the times, the dead were buried along with their most prized possessions. The archaeologists who excavated the rich tombs of Marlik unearthed a multitude of treasures, such as clay and bronze vessels, decorative buttons, arrows, swords, spears, statues, daggers, helmets and the Prince of Marlik.
The shape of his chest, with its two circular points, has made art historians wonder whether the prince is, in fact, a woman. However, it is generally agreed that the detailed markings on the torso represent chain mail, which suggests an elite male, and the points on the chest have been interpreted as elaborate buttons of a kind found during the excavations. His oval face is topped with delicately curling hair and a crown, and in one ear he wears an earring made of gold wire. It is assumed that there used to be two earrings, since both ears are pierced. Originally a flat piece of gold, the Prince of Marlik would have been hammered out from the reverse — this technique is called repousse.
Other examples of very elaborate metalwork from Marlik come in the form of dishes and cups. Other human figurines, made in pottery or bronze, are quite different in form and far simpler, and have virtually no surface detail. As a result, the Prince of Marlik is one of only a few objects that reveal anything about the clothing or jewelry of the people who were buried in Marlik's tombs. They are believed to have been nomadic and, as with most nonsedentary populations, very little of their material culture survives. This nomadic lifestyle, however, may go some way toward explaining why the valley in which the tombs were found was abandoned and lay undisturbed for three millennia. The original excavations took place in the early 1960s before being abandoned, and have subsequently suffered damage from looters and farmers.
Excavations have recently resumed, and there are hopes to reconstruct some of the tombs and turn the area into an open-air museum.

Kneeling Archer (c. 214 B.C.)

Kneeling on one knee, clad in protective armor, his arms positioned as if holding his crossbow at the ready, the life-size warrior on Page 269 is one of some 8,000 soldiers that were buried close to the Emperor of China when he died some 2,217 years ago.
Peaceful and focusing on the task in hand, this kneeling archer looks gently ahead, still intent on protecting his master in the spirit world. Located near Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, the immense tomb complex erected for Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi is fitting for a man with vast ambition and great vision. It remained undiscovered until 1974, when farmers drilling a well stumbled upon it; excavation continues today.
Considering the size of the army, the figures were made with astonishing attention to detail. Their limbs, heads and bodies were molded and fired separately before being joined together, and their hair and armor were modeled out of wet clay. Some figures still have traces of the colored paint that completed them. As in a real army, each soldier had his function: In this case, the man was an archer. The remains of a wooden bow and bronze arrowheads found nearby, and the position of his arms and hands, suggest that he once held a crossbow and arrow.
The archer's expression is one of rapt concentration, and his kneeling posture suggests that he is ready to spring into action at any moment. The exquisite detail with which these figures were made has enabled historians to better understand the weaponry, armor and organization of what was one of the world's most ruthless military forces.
The man who is protected by the terracotta army and who founded China's first imperial dynasty (221–206 B.C.) was also responsible for the construction of the Great Wall around his country's northern frontiers. Ruthless and despotic as he is supposed to have been, he nevertheless conceived an empire on a more advanced scale than any previous ruler in Chinese history.

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