Alexander Marshack: 1918-2004

By Bahn, Paul G. | Antiquity, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Alexander Marshack: 1918-2004


Bahn, Paul G., Antiquity


Alexander Marshack was America's foremost specialist in Ice Age art, despite being entirely self-taught in that subject. Born in New York City in 1918, he received a Bachelors degree in Journalism from City College there in 1943, and subsequently worked as a producer-writer in radio and television, and also as a photo-journalist, for example reporting for LIFE magazine in March 1960 on "The Art of Russia that Nobody Sees'. In 1958 his book on the Geophysical Year, The World in Space, was a great success.

It was while he was doing research for a second book on the US space programme in 1963 that Marshack became intrigued by incised marks on a bone from the Mesolithic site of Ishango (Congo), dating to about 6500 BC, which he came to think might represent some kind of lunar notation. He then extended this idea into other marked pieces from the Ice Age of Europe (c. 30000-10000 BC), and published his first paper on the subject in the journal Science in 1964. His work attracted the attention and support not only of Professor Francois Bordes in Bordeaux, who published Marshack's first book on the topic, Notation dans les gravures du Paleolithique Superieur (1970), but also of Professor Hallam Movius of Harvard, then America's leading specialist in the European Ice Age. As a result, Harvard's Peabody Museum was to support Marshack's research for the rest of his life. He was able to travel very widely, examining at first hand the Ice Age art objects from numerous European countries and, through his microscope, using new techniques to establish the ways in which images had been incised and, in some cases, reworked.

Bringing his photographic skills, as well as an enormously enquiring mind, to the world's oldest art, Marshack revolutionised its study. His book The Roots of Civilization (1972) was a milestone in the subject, featuring breathtaking close-up photographs of early engravings in bone, antler and stone. It caused scholars virtually to re-discover these often well-known art objects, while his controversial theories about notation and lunar observations aroused intense debate, while also raising important questions about the mental capacities of early humans. In the mid-1970s he was able to extend his research to the Soviet Union, thus providing Western scholars with their first good documentation of the amazing Russian finds from the Ice Age. Much of his interpretative work focused on the variety of symbol systems, such as meandering 'macaroni' lines and net-like motifs, as well as what he believed to be depictions of seasonality in the animal images.

Marshack also studied the cave paintings of the period in France and Spain, and was a pioneer in using infra-red and ultra-violet light and fluorescence in the caves to see beneath calcite and investigate the pigments more closely: some of the spectacular results of this work were presented in a now-classic article in the January 1975 issue of National Geographic. …

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