Vela Spila Pottery (c.15,500 BCE)
In 2006, while excavating Vela Spila cave on Korcula Island, off the coast of Croatia, archeologists found thirty six sherds of ancient pottery - most of them the remnants of animal figures - dating back to the era of Magdalenian Art (c.15,500 BCE). This cache of clay-fired prehistoric art is the second-largest and second-oldest collection of ceramics in Europe. The oldest and largest collection, dating to about 26,000-25,000 BCE, was unearthed in the Czech Republic. It included the famous clay-fired prehistoric sculpture known as "The Venus of Dolni Vestonice" - one of the best known "venus figurines" of the central European Gravettian. Archeologists believe that Vela Spila was the centre of a community of Stone Age artists and craftsmen who independently invented and produced high quality ceramic art for about 2,500 years (15,500-13,000 BCE), before vanishing completely from the archeological record. Eight millennia passed without any sign of ceramic activity in Croatia, before pottery-making reappeared during the Neolithic age, around 5,000 BCE.
To see how Vela Spila pottery fits in with the evolution of ceramics, from the Paleolithic "Venus of Dolni Vestonice" to the Neolithic "Thinker of Cernavoda" (5000 BCE), please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE). See also: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE - 1900).
The Vela Spila discovery confirms that the development of ceramic art was not a straightforward process. True, in China, pottery was practiced almost continuously from the time of Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE) and Yuchanyan Cave Pottery (16,000 BCE), and in Russia's Far East from the time of Amur River Pottery (14,300 BCE). In Japan, the oldest clay-fired ceramics began with Jomon Pottery (from 14,500 BCE). But in Europe it was a different story. Pottery-making begins with the Dolni Vestonice figurine way back in 25,000 BCE; then nothing for 10,000 years until Vela Spila; then nothing for 9,000 years until it arrives in the Middle East and Europe around 6,000 BCE. (See: Greek Pottery, from 3000 BCE; Mesopotamian Art, from 4500 BCE.)
Reading between the lines, it seems as though the art of ceramic pottery was invented, then discarded, then reinvented and lost again. Furthermore, early ceramicists seem to have been as interested in creating sculpture, as producing pots. Anyway, back to Vela Spila.
Vela Spila is a limestone rock shelter situated about 130 metres (400 feet) above the town of Vela Luka, on the western side of the Croatian island of Korcula in the central Dalmatian archipelago. Located on the south slope of the hill known as Pinski Rat, the cave consists of an elliptically shaped chamber that measures 40 metres (130 feet) in length, 17 metres (55 feet) in height, and is approximately 40 metres wide. There are two openings in the cave roof both of which were formed by rock falls. According to archeological evidence, the cave was occupied from the Upper Paleolithic period (c.18,000 BCE), to the Bronze Age (c.1500 BCE).
First referred to in the Korcula Statute (15th century), Vela Spila cave was first examined in 1835, by Nikola Ostoic, a local museum curator and collector of antiquities. A century then passed before scientific research of the cave began in the late 1940s. The first excavations were carried out in 1950, by Marinko Gjivoje; and in 1951, by Marinko Gjivoje, Boris Ilakovac, Vinko Foretic and Grga Novak. At this stage it was already clear that there were cultural links between the Neolithic artifacts found at Vela Spila, and the engraved and coloured Neolithic ceramics (4000-2000 BCE) found at Grapceva Spilja cave, on the nearby island of Hvar. Since 1974, excavations have occurred almost every year. The Stone Age art recovered from Vela Spila cave is now on display at the Centre for Culture in Vela Luka.
The oldest Stone Age art in the cave was made during the final phase of Paleolithic Art, and dates to 15,500 and 13,000 BCE. It consists of 36 terracotta coloured sherds of ceramic animal figures, the earliest art of its type in southeastern Europe. The collection is exemplified by a piece of pottery consisting of the torso and foreleg of a deer, which was carefully made with the minimum number of joins, in order to prevent breakage. Overall, the variety and sophistication of the collection indicates that Vela Spila was the heart of an active, if hitherto unknown, artistic tradition, that flourished for about two millennia in the Balkans, before suddenly vanishing around 13,000 BCE.
Ceramic material recovered from the cave includes items of Mesolithic art, dating back to 7400 BCE, as well as the earliest Impresso Neolithic pottery, together with examples of "Vela Luka Culture" pottery scored with triangles and grid-like motifs, and decorated with its distinctive paintwork. In addition to the Neolithic art, there is a large quantity of heavily engraved, highly polished black sherds of the Hvar Culture, plus thousands of red sherds decorated with spirals, curvilinear motifs, meanders, rhombuses, triangles and semi-circles. These abstract motifs are similar to those found in cave art throughout Europe during the preceding Upper Paleolithic era. Lastly, there are numerous ceramic artifacts from the artistically more austere Chalcolithic and Eneolithic periods.
For some of the oldest art in Europe, see: Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art.
For more about Magdalenian art, see: Altamira Cave paintings.
For more about parietal works, see: Cave Painting.
For more information about ancient pottery, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE