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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Eynan/Ain Mallaha (12,500–10,000 B.C.)

After the last Ice Age, as the climate became warmer and rainfall more abundant, the nomadic population of the eastern Mediterranean began to establish the first permanent settlements. The site of Eynan/Ain Mallaha, situated between the hills of Galilee and Lake Hula in the Levant, was inhabited during the Natufian period. Eynan (in Hebrew)/Ain Mallaha (in Arabic) is one of hundreds of Natufian settlements known from the eastern Mediterranean, where remains of a rich and dynamic artistic tradition have been discovered.

Excavations in the Levant, including at Eynan/Ain Mallaha, were undertaken with great enthusiasm by European and American archaeologists in the years following World War II. During this period of scientific exploration, hundreds of sites were uncovered, not just Natufian but also from preceding and succeeding periods. These archaeological activities contributed enormously to our current understanding of the prehistoric record of this region. Jericho, well known for its defensive walls described in biblical accounts, is another important Natufian site that was discovered at about the same time as Eynan/Ain Mallaha.

The Natufians were the first people of the eastern Mediterranean area to establish permanent villages. Prior to the Natufians, bands of people had moved seasonally, to follow animals for hunting and to gather available plants. The Natufians, while still hunters and foragers, settled in villages year-round, relying on the natural resources of their immediate area. These resources included gazelle, wild cereals, and marine life. The latter, abundant in the region, was used for food as well as for making tools, art, and body ornamentation. Shells collected from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were commonly used for jewelry and headdresses, typical status markers.

The Natufians are also the first documented Levantine group to have produced artistically decorated utilitarian objects such as pottery and ostrich-egg vessels. These objects have been found in scores of Natufian sites. Their decoration of geometric motifs almost surely served as a form of visual communication, perhaps to demonstrate ownership of the objects by an individual or to indicate affiliation with a particular group or geographic area.

Natufian art, while it follows some of the same representational conventions of the European Paleolithic in its naturalistic and sensitive portrayal of animals, reflects a new awareness of individual identity and social life. Natufian burials, often placed in close proximity to the homes of the living, contain elaborate jewelry made of bone, shell, and stone. These materials, readily available in the Mediterranean landscape, were fashioned by skilled artists and marked the social standing of the Natufians’ buried ancestors. At Eynan/Ain Mallaha, for example, an exquisite headdress made from hundreds of delicate, tusk-shaped dentalium shells was found in a woman’s burial.

Natufian representations of humans are both schematic and naturalistic. The stone head from Eynan/Ain Mallaha illustrated here was carved from limestone using flint knives and chisels. Traces of the artist’s tool marks are still visible. The eyes, formed by three concentric curving lines, dominate the lower portion of the face, which has been bisected by a broad horizontal band across the center of the stone. The eyes are disproportionately large and yet there was no attempt to delineate pupils. The nose and forehead are exceptionally broad. The upper portion of the head, slightly damaged, is incised with diagonal lines, which may represent hair or ornamentation. The base is flat, indicating that it was probably intended to sit upright.

Natufian art, it is believed, was linked to the practice of rituals and ceremonies. In their newly settled hamlets, the Natufians may have used their superbly carved sculptures, animal figurines, and jewelry to represent beliefs commonly held across communities, and to differentiate status among individual community members. The emergence of Natufian art in the Levant, where previously almost none had existed, appears to indicate a shared ideology and visual culture that probably derived from the Natufians’ shared environment and newfound life as settled hunters and gatherers.