Art of Prehistoric Europe

As the Ice Age glaciers melted, prehistoric Europe bloomed with surprisingly sophisticated art. From Ireland to France, Scotland to the Greek Isles, we traverse that mystical world of mighty megaliths, torchlit cave paintings, magical goddesses, and wrinkled bog people. We stand in awe as a massive tomb is radiated by a dramatic beam of sunlight and listen to ritual horns that still play today.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. In this episode, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling wherever that theme takes us. And this time, it's the art of prehistoric Europe. The age? Stone Age! They were pre-historic because nobody could write about it back then — but they were dang good with massive stone calendars. Thanks for joining us!

[3] A lot was going on in Europe in prehistoric times, from painted caves in France five times as old as the pyramids to stone circles in England that still line up with the sun on special days. And plenty survives.

[4 Montage] We'll start as if going to an art gallery in the caves of those earliest Europeans. After finding meaning in mysterious stone circles, we'll explore massive burial mounds in Ireland, and venture north to stony underground villages in Orkney. A visit to a site that shows how prehistoric people may have lived humanizes these distant relatives. We'll look into the long-gone eyes of remarkably preserved bog people and ponder how prehistoric Europeans were fascinated with fertility, determined to pack smart for the afterlife, and made finely crafted ornamented horns that still play to this day.

[5 Map] While venturing all over Europe, we'll see Stone Age cave paintings in France, megalithic wonders in England, Ireland, and distant Orkney, prehistoric artifacts in Denmark, and fertility figurines in the Greek Isles.

[6, West Kennet Long Barrow, megalithic tomb, Avebury, England, c. 3500 BC] Once upon a time, some 30,000 years ago, when the Ice Age glaciers melted, people had time to do more than just survive. Stone Age people assembled rocks like these with a purpose. Eventually, civilization in Europe was born and with that…so was art.

[7] Prehistoric Europeans, because they were human, were driven to create. Even before there was architecture, there were caves. In the south of France, with its honeycombed limestone cliffs, early humans painted surprisingly realistic scenes on the walls of caves.

[8, Font-de-Gaume Cave, Dordogne, France] From about 18,000 until 10,000 BC, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth, prehistoric people painted deep inside caves in this part of Europe. These weren't just crude doodles, but huge and sophisticated projects executed by artists and supported by an impressive culture.

[9, Lascaux Cave facsimile, c. 18,000 BC, Dordogne, France] The most famous cave, Lascaux, now has a precisely copied replica next door, built to help conserve the original.

[10] It's easy to underestimate the sophistication of people 10 or 20,000 years ago. These long-ago societies captured the world they knew with extraordinary skills. Wild animals are impressively realistic caught in full motion — running…jumping…facing off. The canvas for these early artists was enormous — this cavern alone is a football field long — with over 600 animals life size or larger. By torchlight, they'd flicker to life.

[11] Guide: We are in the Oxen Room, the most spectacular room of Lascaux. It's a sacred place. We don't live in a church; they never lived in the caves. And it's a huge composition, it's a calculated composition, because they have taken advantage of the slip of rock to relate in a circle two groups of bulls facing each other. And in the center of this composition, they have united the three principal animals of Lascaux: horse, ox, and deer.

Rick: Is this a hunting scene?

Guide: No, it's not a hunting scene because on the walls the hunter doesn't exist. They never tell the everyday life; the meaning is more complex.

Rick: What is the biggest animal?

Guide: It is this bull — it is the largest painting in the cave: 16 feet from the top of the horn to the tip of the tail.

[12] While over 15,000 years old, this was not the work of crude "cavemen," but of a complex society that produced skilled artists. Flames from these oil lamps flickered in those art-covered caverns. Think of how impressive the engineering challenges alone must have been — hauling in materials, grinding paints, erecting scaffolding — all before that first prehistoric Michelangelo could reach up and paint the first stroke.

[13, National Museum of Prehistory, Les Eyzies, France] Surviving artifacts give insight into these people: Mourners draped delicate jewelry on the corpses of loved ones…necklaces of stag teeth and tiny shells strung together. These barbed spearheads and fishhooks would work well today. Finely carved spear throwers show impressive naturalism for something three times as old as the oldest pyramids.

[14] Art is part of being human: we communicate and tackle problems, we imagine and evolve. What did the paintings mean? What emotions did they trigger? Did they worship these animals? Or capture them in paint to magically capture them in the hunt? We just don't know. But we do know that the people who painted these are like our close cousins. Compared to the beginning of humanity — born in Africa 3 million years ago — Lascaux was like yesterday.

[15] Since early nomadic hunter-gatherers were prehistoric, with no written histories, we only know them from the mysterious clues they left us. And none are more mysterious than their huge stone monuments found all over Europe. This is from the "megalithic" age — characterized, literally, by big stones.

[16, Stonehenge, c. 2500 BC, Amesbury, England] At Stonehenge, in England, huge carved stones — some over 20 feet tall and weighing 25 tons — stand in a circle. The stones were erected with Stone Age technology, before the advent of metal tools. As we look at the museums' simple artifacts and replica thatched-hut hamlet, it's hard to imagine how these humble early people managed it.

[17, Stonehenge Visitor Centre] Huge stones like this replica were quarried, carved, and then moved for many miles — some of them from as far away as Wales, 200 miles to the west. They barged them down rivers; they may have rolled them on logs like this — nobody knows for sure.

[18, demonstration at Stonehenge Visitor Centre] Marveling at these stones, we ponder the purpose of these stone circles. Perhaps sacred centers of ritual and worship. We know they functioned as celestial calendars. As this 360-degree theater demonstrates, the structure is aligned with the heavens — marking both the longest and the shortest days of the year. Four thousand years ago locals could tell when to plant — and when to party — according to where the sun rose and where the sun set. And even today, as the sun rises on the longest day of the year in just the right spot, it casts a powerful spell of wonder.

[19, Avebury, England] Nearby, at Avebury, visitors wander through a cohesive ensemble of ditches, mounds, and megaliths the work of people clearly on a mission. The huge circle — while now cut in two by a busy road and so big it contains a village retains its allure.

[20] Of the hundreds of Neolithic ruins that dot the English landscape, the Scorhill Stone Circle in Dartmoor is a favorite of mine. Tranquil and nearly forgotten — erected some 4,000 years ago by mysterious people for mysterious reasons — it's yours alone…the way a stone circle should be. It's just you and your imagination. Enjoy the quiet. Ponder the 40 centuries of people who've made this enchanting landscape their home, and the wisdom of today's English to protect it and keep it pristine.

[21, megaliths, Orkney, Scotland; Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, England; Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, England] Hundreds of these Stone Age calendars are scattered over the isle of Britain — each built by people working together…people doing more than merely surviving. My favorites are the ones that are tranquil and alone in a field…where you can reflect on the mysteries of who built them and why.

[22, Clava Cairns, near Inverness, Scotland] These earliest man-made stone structures were for the living and for the dead — most of what survives were tombs designed in a way that lined up with the heavens that seemed to indicate a kind of religion and a concern for the afterlife.

[23, West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, England; Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall, England] Long before the pyramids of Egypt, the powerful had stone tombs built to protect their bodies. The soil that buried this structure has long since eroded away.

[24, Newgrange and Knowth passage tombs, County Meath, near Dublin] These ancient peoples' lives were dictated by the seasons and the natural world around them. Again, the greatest tombs aligned with the rising sun.

[25, Knowth, c. 3200 BC] This is a "necropolis" — a city of the dead — built in Ireland, with several grassy mounds around one grand tomb. Being a passage tomb, it tracked the sun, with one tunnel facing east and one facing west — aligned so that on both the spring and fall equinoxes, rays from the rising and setting sun shine down the passageways, illuminating its central chamber.

[26, Knowth, near Dublin]

Guide: To give you an idea of the sweep of the history here, these sites were built approximately 5,300 years ago — approximately 3300 BC — which puts them 500 years older than the oldest pyramids in Egypt, 1,000 years older than Stonehenge in Wiltshire in England. So these people put a huge amount of energy and resources, and basically a huge amount of their wealth, into constructing these monuments. They were probably thinking not just about survival but issues around life, death, the story of their tribe, their ancestors; issues like rebirth, where did they come from, where were they going to.

[27, Newgrange, c. 3300 BC, near Dublin] Nearby is an even older sacred mound, also built for some kind of ritual of the sun. An impressively large structure faced with white quartz and decorated with abstract engravings, it's a testament to the engineering abilities and desire to ornament of people from over 5000 years ago.

[28, Newgrange, near Dublin] A narrow passageway leads to the central chamber under a 20-foot-high stone dome. Bones and ashes were placed here under a massive mound of stone and dirt to wait for that special moment when, as the sun rises on the shortest day of the year, a ray of light shines into the passageway and for 17 minutes it lights the center of the sacred chamber.

[29] Perhaps this was the moment when the souls of the dead would be transported to the afterlife via that mysterious ray of life-giving and life-taking sunlight.

[30] Long before the earliest pyramids of Egypt, across Europe, the last part of the Stone Age was marked by tribes settling down…shifting from hunter/gatherers to farmers. This was the Late Stone Age — also called the Neolithic Age — still before the advent of metal working.

[31] You'll find wonders from our distant past — both Stone and the later Metal Ages — far and wide. About as far south as you can go in Europe, on the Mediterranean island of Malta, the landscape seems timeless and is dotted with prehistoric ruins dating back an astounding 5,000 years. Megalithic sights like Ħaġar Qim are evidence that in roughly 3000 BC, settlers from Sicily arrived in search of arable land. While the humble mud-brick village that once surrounded this temple is long gone, stones from the temple still stand. Archaeologists believe this was a temple to a fertility goddess and that it functioned as a celestial calendar. But it seems most of Europe's oldest wonders are in Britain and Ireland.

[32, Clava Cairns] Scotland is littered with reminders of prehistoric people. At Clava Cairns, three Bronze Age burial chambers date from about 4,000 years ago. Each was once buried under turf-covered mounds and surrounded by a stone circle. The central "ring cairn" has an open space in its middle. The two "passage cairns" each have an entrance shaft that — on the winter solstice — lines up with the setting sun. Visitors are caught up in the peaceful wonder of this ancient and sacred site.

[33] Enjoy the mystery of this place: Were these stone circles part of a celestial calendar? Was the soul of the deceased transported into the next life when the sun was just right? Nobody really knows.

[34] On the remote Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, a main attraction is the 2,000-year-old fortress of Dun Aengus, which hangs precariously on the edge of a cliff 300 feet above the Atlantic. The concentric walls of this mysterious Celtic fort are 13 feet thick and 10 feet high. As an added defense — effective even today — the fort is ringed with a commotion of spiky stones called "Frisian soldiers." Sticking up like lances, they're named after ancient soldiers who used a wall of spears to stop a charging cavalry.

[35] Little by little, as the cliff erodes, the walls of this circular fort fall into the sea below. Dun Aengus can be mobbed by day-trippers. I make a point to be all alone here, where the crashing waves below seem to say, "You've come to the very edge of Europe."

[36] And on Scotland's dramatic Isle of Skye, if you know where to look, you can find the scant remains of past civilizations. Just a short hike from a handy parking lot is Skye's best-preserved Iron Age fort, Dun Beag. Exploring this prehistoric stone tower connects us with Skye's distant past. Judging from these stones, the tower once stood much taller. I love scrambling through ruined castles — and this one is particularly evocative.

[37] Colin: Well, people have been living on the Isle of Skye for thousands of years. And this place, if you imagine it, probably had a timber frame inside, three stories high. They would get in here under times of attack. They could gather in here, the community — men, women, children, and their domesticated animals. And we think this was built around about 2,000 years ago.

[38, Maeshowe Chambered Tomb, c. 3500 BC, Orkney, Scotland. Guide: Kinlay Frances of Orkney Uncovered] On the isle of Orkney at the far north of Scotland, in what seems like just another field, is a remarkable burial mound, or chambered tomb. For 5,000 years, people have lowered their heads to enter this sacred space.

Rick: Wow! This is great. Tell me about this place.

Guide: This is a burial chamber, and to our right and our left, and behind you, are three tombs. On winter solstice, at sunset, the sun streams through this position here, and illuminates the back chamber.

Rick: Wow!

Guide: The stone is sandstone, and it's been hand-carved and corbelled, vaulted into position, to make this beautiful chamber. And how Neolithic man managed to build this structure, no one really knows.

[39, Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland, c. 3100 BC] Orkney is dotted with monuments recalling when it was a center of civilization, back in the Stone Age, with more people then than there are on the island today. Imagine a community here, hunkered down in subterranean homes, connected by tunnels.

[40] Guide: It was a big community — 150 people living here at one stage. A third of the village remains. Two-thirds were taken away by the North Atlantic. People lived under the ground, in stone-type igloo buildings with turf roofs, and they lived under the ground to keep the weather out, to keep them warm. They were powered by oil lamps, with whale oil and whalebone basins, and a very nice-looking community.

[41, Avebury, England] While little remains from these Prehistoric people, it seems clear the timeless mysteries of life — birth, death, and what lies beyond — were on their minds.

[42, Venus of Willendorf, c. 25,000 BC, Natural History Museum, Vienna; Cycladic figurines, c. 3000 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens] From the very earliest times, the most common art created was small statues of women. They have long been called "Venus figurines." Across many ages, whether bountiful or lean, these have similar features: arms folded, generic faces, and stylized breasts and pubic area. By emphasizing women's life-giving traits, they were likely fertility symbols — perhaps worshiped as a way to gain Mother Nature's favor — for having a child, a good harvest, or rebirth.

[43, West Kennet Long Barrow, near Avebury, England] Amazingly, early people created such art before writing and before metal tools. The Prehistoric era is divided into Ages, defined by ever-more-sophisticated technology: from the Stone Age, to early metalworking in the Bronze Age, to stronger objects of the Iron Age. It's by their tools and weapons that we know how advanced a society was. And as prehistory progressed from stone to metal, art also took a step forward.

[44, Grauballe Man, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, Denmark, c. 390 BC] The so-called "bog people," whose bodies, weapons, and treasures were preserved in peat bogs, give us an intimate peek at prehistoric lives. As early people believed the gods lived in the bogs, that's where they tossed their sacrificial offerings. After defeating your enemy, logically you'd sacrifice him and toss his weapons to the bog gods. Because of the oxygen-free environment, this 2,300-year-old "bog man" looks like a fellow half his age. Archeologists think he looked like this in happier times. He sprawls out in his glass tomb as if to welcome visitors old and young to marvel at his skin, nails, and even the slit throat he was given back at his sacrificial banquet.

[45] This elderly woman from Denmark — whose coffin, carved out of an oak tree, was preserved in a peaty bog — must have believed in an afterlife. Imagine her loved ones tenderly placing these precious possessions with her. Still wearing her original wool blouse, she packed a finely carved horn comb, bronze jewelry, and a dagger.

[46] Back in Britain, we're driving deep into Scotland to learn how some of the original Highlanders lived. Across Scotland, little round islands on lakes are the remains of pre-historic fortified homes. These are called "crannogs" — and date back centuries before Christ. Here at the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay one's been rebuilt, using mostly traditional methods, and now welcomes visitors.

[47] Docent: This is the Scottish Crannog Centre. It's a reproduction of a 2,500-year-old crannog that archaeologists are excavating, as we speak, in Loch Tay, right now. It was built out in the loch itself for defensive purposes. In Scotland then, you had bears, you had wolves, you had big cats — called "lynx," other people roaming the countryside. And if you're out here in the water, there's only one way in and out, and that's the walkway. So, if you can keep that secure, you yourself,in here are going to feel a lot safer.

Guides demonstrate Iron Age technology — turning a lathe…grinding flour…

Docent: Just grinding these two stones against each other with the grain.

And even starting a fire the really old-fashioned way.

Rick: Whoa.
Docent: That's how you make a fire.

Rick: You can give the tools a try yourself — and discover how easy the guides make it look.

[48] Despite their simple technology, early people created some richly decorated objects. All of these artifacts are unnecessarily beautiful and ornate. The creative spirit of humankind becomes evident very early on.

[49, Artifacts and Lur Horns, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen] These were ritual objects, made by sun worshippers. This "Chariot of the Sun" from Denmark illustrates how the sun was dragged across the sky by a divine horse. These Horned Helmets were worn by the ancestors of the Vikings, as pagan priests sounded these horns, adding atmosphere to this now eerie ritual. While 3,000 years old, they still play. The ornamental disc is a sun symbol — perhaps as if these horns played the magical music of the sun.

[50] From Ireland to Greece, prehistoric societies invested in art. These precious artifacts — from golden jewelry to finely decorated implements of daily life — are more reminders that those earliest Europeans had an eye for beauty and a passion for art.

[51] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the people who created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the highlights of prehistoric Europe. And prehistoric Europe is just the beginning of a fascinating story. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!