Ancient art reveals much about the values and beliefs of the cultures that created it. It is an integral part of the world’s heritage, inspiring a wide range of artists over the centuries. From the golden mask of Tutankhamun to the stunning reliefs in Egyptian tombs and temples, ancient art reflects a diverse cultural legacy. It also teaches us about religions, social structures and storytelling, which were all important elements of these early civilizations.
Whether it was a simple necklace of beads, an etched design on a stone slab or a carved statue, ancient art had meaning for its creators. It communicated ideas, symbols and events that were significant in their lives. For these ancient societies, art was not just a form of entertainment but an essential element in their everyday life.
Art emerged in the first human civilizations, and the ancient art of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Mesoamerica has shaped many of the aesthetic preferences we hold today. But what was it that made ancient humans choose to make art, and how did these preferences change over time?
Archaeologists agree that a preference for the aesthetic emerged at some point in the Paleolithic, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. This was probably prompted by the fact that making beautiful objects was considered a good way to express oneself, but other reasons have been suggested as well. For example, the symmetry and attention to detail found in some stone tools has led investigators to suggest that they may have been designed with artistic principles in mind.
The earliest known undisputed works of art are probably a pair of polished stone beads from the Aurignacian archaeological culture of about 30,000 years ago. These were most likely decorative, but some scholars have argued that they also served as signals to other members of the group about who was in charge. Later, when Homo sapiens began settling in permanent settlements and developing organized societies, the production of artwork took on more practical functions. The emergence of writing allowed for a more formal recording and documentation of cultural and religious traditions, and the production of art became a form of social expression.
Some of the most significant developments in the history of art occurred during the Neo-Assyrian, Hittite and Hellenistic periods. The Assyrians started out as Babylonian copyists, but gradually began to shake off these influences and developed their own style of architecture and sculpture. The carvings on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (825 BC) reflect this development, with a group of nobles bending over in reverence to the king.
During the Hellenistic period, which ended with the death of Alexander the Great and the Roman takeover of Greece, Greek sculpture moved away from its traditional refinement toward a more emotional and dramatic style. The famous sculptural group of the altar of Zeus at Pergamon is a fine example of this trend, with its scenes of terrible violence, frenzy and pathos.
The final chapter in the evolution of ancient art was played out during the Roman period (409 BC – 337 AD). Roman sculptors and painters modeled their work after Greek art, but went even further in idealizing the human figure. They also introduced a degree of psychological drama into their pieces, as in this larger-than-life marble sculpture of the goddess Nike or Winged Victory descending from the sky.