Exhibition in Prague shows "Mona Lisa of Prehistory"

Un modelo de mamut (Foto: autor)

In today's Czech Science we take you back to Prehistory. Right from the hustle and bustle of contemporary Prague we step into a prehistoric settlement from some 25,000 years ago, complete with the sounds and authentic smells.

Welcome to an exhibition titled "Lovci mamutu" or "Mammoth Hunters" which has just opened at Prague's National Museum.

The title refers to a well-known fiction by Czech author Eduard Storch, whose books set in prehistoric Bohemia have won the hearts of many children in this country over the years.

The civilisation of a people known as mammoth hunters inhabited these parts of Europe some 30,000-20,000 years ago and was one of the most developed civilisations in Europe and the world of that time. Petr Sida from the National Museum's Department of Prehistory is the curator of the exhibition.

"We know that the mammoth hunters were very skilful and they were just like us. They were the same people, with the same way of thinking and similar problems. Of course, they had a shorter life span because their knowledge of medicine was limited but certainly their life was in no way bleak life and full of drudgery."

The culture of the mammoth hunters is known as the Gravettian culture. We know very little about the hierarchy in the communities, and we only suppose it was a matrilineal society. The Gravettian lasted for 10,000 years and covered almost the whole of Europe. Compared to the short-lived states and artistic styles of the previous centuries, it was a very long era of spiritual integrity. With the sudden onset of a harsher climate after 10,000 years the civilisation moved east to today's Russia and Ukraine.

"The period of the mammoth hunters occurred towards the end of the last Ice Age. The weather then was markedly colder than today, but far from the usual stereotype of blizzards and freezing temperatures all year round. It is true that winters were harsh and long but they took turns with rather warm summers. Maybe we could compare it to the climate of Central Siberia, where temperatures in the summer reach 30 degrees Celsius and winter lows are minus 40 degrees."

The exhibition shows human bones uncovered from ancient graves around the country, which as a whole is an exceptionally rich site as far as the remnants of prehistoric civilisations are concerned. Petr Sida again.

"The amount of bone material from this age preserved in Moravia is the largest in the world. We know what those people looked like, as modern anthropology can work that out - they looked just like us. The question of ethnicity is impossible to answer. We can't tell the ethnic origin of the Bronze Age people, let alone these people from 25,000 years ago."

The comforting crackle of a fire invites the visitor into a tent made from hides and skins which give off a very strong odour. That's because they were processed in the same way as 25,000 years ago - buried under ground for two weeks and then stretched over a construction of wooden poles. The architect of the exhibition was Miloslav Cejka.

"We wanted the visitor to become a mute witness. We aren't asking him to be an interactive partner but only to experience the smells, the materials, the sounds. In the room devoted to hunting, you become a witness of the hunt. You see the figure of a hunter who has just spotted a mammoth, his heart beating fast. You stand just behind him, then you look up and realise you're in a trap and there is a prehistoric man throwing a rock at you from above."

The curator of the exhibition, Petr Sida, continues:

"The mammoth hunters surprisingly hunted mostly horses and reindeer. Of course, mammoth, too, but not so much in Bohemia as in Moravia. Mammoth herds migrated regularly through Moravia from today's Poland to Pannonia. As for plants, we don't know what they ate as that material has not preserved but we roughly know what plants grew around here and what they could have used."

Venus of Vestonice,  photo: CTK
A life-size furry mammoth grazing by a waterfall is perhaps one of the two main draws of the exhibition. The other one is the Venus of Vestonice, a shapely figurine of a nude female dated to 29,000-25,000 years ago. It is the oldest known ceramic in the world. The eleven-centimetre statuette, made of weakly burned clay, is believed to represent an idealised female figure of the age. The priceless artefact, once dubbed the "Mona Lisa of Prehistory" is shown to the public only on rare occasions and hardly ever leaves its home in the city of Brno. Petr Sida again.

"We display exhibits borrowed from the Moravian Regional Museum which were uncovered at the best-known sites in Moravia, such as Dolni Vestonice, Predmosti and Pavlov. We have a number of exhibits from sites in Bohemia, such as Lubna or Svobodne Dvory. But what is now Bohemia was rather a periphery of the culture. So we have beautiful locations, too, but they cannot be compared to the wealth of the Moravian sites."

The exhibition "Lovci mamutu" or "Mammoth Hunters" at Prague's National Museum lasts until the end of April 2007.