Ice Age Art and the question of sex

There are many old friends in the British Museum’s must-see Ice Age Art exhibition. As a research student in the early 1970s I worked for several months in the Ulmer Museum in southern Germany. Every day on my way into the storerooms to measure more Palaeolithic reindeer teeth I passed the ivory statuette of the Löwenmensch, the Lion-headed-man.

There was less of him in those days. His muzzle had not yet been handed in and big chunks of his back were missing. There was just a bit of an ear and a lot of guess work about it belonging to either a bear or a lion. There was also a big controversy over his sex. Kim Hahn who had stuck him together from a thousand fragments went for the male. Christa Seewald and Elizabeth Schmid took the female perspective. It all came down to what you made of a small triangular flap located in the crucial area. Over time the boys have prevailed as shown a week ago at a big meeting organised by curators at the British Museum. As Kurt Wehrberger put it “The Lion-man has returned”. No-one disagreed.

In another case at the exhibition are my favourite Palaeolithic women, the female figurines from Kostenki. I first saw these in 1989 on a visit to what was still Leningrad. President Gorbachev arrived in a fleet of black cars to fire the Mayor of the city. I will always remember being shown them by Nikolai Praslov, the latest in a distinguished line of archaeologists excavating at the site. We carefully lifted these ladies of the Don out of their protective boxes.

What Nikolai was showing me was exceptional and new. Shapes and carving that added much more detail to this group that is usually, and crassly, lumped together as ‘Venus figurines’. “These Clive are the Crown Jewels” Nikolai proudly told me in between puffs on his cigarette.

A week later along with a handpicked group of American archaeologists we were the first Westerners to stand on the chalk hill above the site and walk around the excavations. How I got there is another story but it was all due to these old friends.