How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times

How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times

How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times

How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times

Synopsis

The peoples who inhabited Europe during the two millennia before the Roman conquests had established urban centers, large-scale production of goods such as pottery and iron tools, a money economy, and elaborate rituals and ceremonies. Yet as Peter Wells argues here, the visual world of these late prehistoric communities was profoundly different from those of ancient Rome's literate civilization and today's industrialized societies. Drawing on startling new research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Wells reconstructs how the peoples of pre-Roman Europe saw the world and their place in it. He sheds new light on how they communicated their thoughts, feelings, and visual perceptions through the everyday tools they shaped, the pottery and metal ornaments they decorated, and the arrangements of objects they made in their ritual places--and how these forms and patterns in turn shaped their experience.



How Ancient Europeans Saw the World offers a completely new approach to the study of Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe, and represents a major challenge to existing views about prehistoric cultures. The book demonstrates why we cannot interpret the structures that Europe's pre-Roman inhabitants built in the landscape, the ways they arranged their settlements and burial sites, or the complex patterning of their art on the basis of what these things look like to us. Rather, we must view these objects and visual patterns as they were meant to be seen by the ancient peoples who fashioned them.

Excerpt

If you want to know how someone once perceived and understood
the world then you need to know what they saw and what they made
(formed) from it. (Stafford 2007:17)

Why does an Early Bronze Age cup look different from one made in the Late Bronze Age? Why were Middle Bronze Age sword scabbards decorated only with simple vertical lines, while those of the Middle Iron Age were incised with sweeping S-curves and haunting animal heads? Why were Late Iron Age brooches plain and mass-produced, whereas those of earlier centuries had been handcrafted into enchanting forms ornamented with bizarre creatures?

To pose the question more broadly: why did the visual character of objects change so fundamentally during the final millennium of European prehistory, the last thousand years before the Roman conquests brought writing and literacy to the lands now occupied by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the rest of western and southern temperate Europe? And what can these changes tell us about how early Europeans perceived their world and their place in it?

When the peoples of temperate Europe first appear in written historical sources, such as Caesar's account of his war in Gaul and Tacitus's description of the peoples he called [Germans,] they had already developed into complex societies. The archaeological evidence shows that efficient techniques of agricultural production, elaborate religious practices, long-distance trade, the mass production of goods, and fine art styles had all developed well before Caesar's armies entered Gaul.

The complex societies of temperate Europe emerged without creating a system of writing. We members of twenty-first-century societies are accustomed to studying the past through written history, but most of us are not as well versed in understanding how to reconstruct and understand the past on the basis of the material evidence of archaeology. For most of the million years that humans have inhabited Europe, however, the only evidence we have . . .

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