In 2013, Tom Wynn received a phone call from a Los Angeles-based artist who wanted to show prehistoric artifacts had artistic value. After nearly five years of research and travel, Wynn and Tony Berlant will open “First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone,” Jan. 27 at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.
Wynn is a UCCS distinguished professor in anthropology. A sculpture exhibit is far from his experience in the peer review process he’s used to in his multiple books and articles.
Berlant works in visual arts, but is active in archaeological conservation. He saw that among the millions of handaxes discovered, several were carved out of certain stones or carved in a purposeful way for visual appeal.
The two traveled to museums across the world to analyze and select the pieces that will be on display Jan. 27 through April 29. It is being called the first museum exhibition to present handaxes as works of art.
“My major interest has been in the evolution of cognition, but part of that has to do with aesthetic production,” Wynn said. “Tony and I hit it off right away in terms of the general goals of the exhibition. We hope that people know that human aesthetic experience is in fact, very, very old. Maybe modern art is not, but as Tony would put it, this urge to create something that is visually pleasing goes back at least 2 million years, and probably a bit further,”
Art history typically begins with cave paintings in Western Europe approximately 40,000 years ago. The pieces that Wynn collected range from 50,000 to 2 million years old.
In a visit to a small museum in France, the two nearly missed what could be the oldest discovered artifacts of animal sculptures.
“Tony and I were going through these handaxes in storage, and we encountered these very strange artifacts,” Wynn said. “I remember saying to myself ‘these are the strangest cleavers I’ve ever seen.’ I put it down, and then I looked at it out of the corner of my eye, and I realized that it was an animal. They had never been recognized before by archaeologists. So these are, we argue, the oldest zoomorphic artifacts ever discovered, and they’re probably 300,000 years old.”
While Wynn was able to provide the scientific background for the exhibition, the show is still an art display. Because of the different focus, it didn’t follow the same peer review standards in academic articles.
“For our purposes, it wasn’t necessary that we demonstrate that an artifact came from an excavated archaeological site from a particular time period,” Wynn said. “If we had good reason for concluding the artifact was from the appropriate time period, it was sufficient for us. I have to remind people, this is an art exhibition, not a scientific exhibition. Although the two overlap a lot, they’re not quite the same.”
The exhibit is made possible by the Lyda Hill Foundation and the Eugene McDermott Foundation. Hill is an active UCCS supporter and received an Honorary Doctorate in Human Letters in 2014.