Art History Background
The title of this piece really tells your eyes where to look and what to see, that is why I like to sometimes leave the titles out of my presentations. I want to students to really look at the piece without the title “telling” them what is believed to be represented. But for the sake of this post, let’s use the title as our starting point: Running horned woman.
How to represent action over time in a still 2D image? Although we may automatically look at the main figure and see someone “running” I do like to point out to my students that we have been trained over time to see someone with their legs portrayed this way as someone who is running. We’ve seen lots of pictures or videos of sports to know that is what someone looks like mid-run but think about the Prehistoric artist. This artist chose to represent someone s/he has seen in real life this way to best relay the action of running to his/her audience. Now of course the figure could also be dancing, but we can say this is a running-like motion (perhaps part of a larger set of actions or ceremony).
Well this one is pretty descriptive and obvious but why horns? What do the horns mean? Why would someone wear a set of horns?
In art history & archaeology, when we do not know the answer we call something “ritualistic.” Calling something a “ritual” basically means that the events depicted are outside the monotony of daily life. We can pretty safely say that this person probably doesn’t wear horns everyday. I’m sure they are cumbersome and heavy and probably knock into too many things. Therefore, the main figure has these on for a specific reason other than practicality. Since we cannot guess at their spiritual beliefs and practices, we label this generally as some kind of “ritual ceremony.”
Typically, special events or ceremonies require specific garments, costumes, or props. Could it be that this main figure is dancing(?) in a spiritual(?) ceremony(?) OR a goddess figure(?) – lots of question marks there but we based this conclusion on the visible facts with a healthy dose of speculation again! 🙂
Read more: The Human Figure in Prehistoric Art
You are probably wonder how in the world we can tell this is a woman. Let’s see if you can find her lady parts (in a non-pervy kind of way)!
She is covered in what looks like to be white dots of paint (go back to the ceremonial costume part if you are confused why) and you can see one breast under her front arm that is also decorated. Keep in mind this is meant to be stylized, so it is not going to look like a naturalistic female figure. If she was a man we can assume the identifying male parts (i.e. a penis) would be emphasised and it is certainly not here.
In class, I focus mostly on the main figure because she is the most decorated and largest, thereby we can assume she is the most important (vocab word to insert here: hieratic scale) but I do like to point out to my students the figures surrounding her. There are simply and stylistically drawn, nothing to compare to the main running horned woman. You can spend a while speculating scale of the figures in comparison to the main woman or why the style of depiction is so different or what the heck they are all doing. Prehistoric art provides lots of time for speculation! 🙂
Although, outside the 250, we can also look at other paintings from the same site to glean information about the environment during the time the rock paintings were made. Some of these other paintings show boating scenes, hunting in grasslands, and other glimpses into their daily lives. Tassili n’Ajjer is now located in the Sahara Desert, however it was obviously not the same climate when these paintings were made.
I find it fascinating how we can get information about Prehistoric geology from the artworks they left behind. No doubt the person who drew this did not expect us to care what the rainfall was like or the temperature but that is exactly what fascinates me about this. Imagine taking a photograph today at the beach or a lake and in 1,000 years someone tracks down the location of your photo and it is dry bed. Your photo (and these rock paintings) are all that is left of the memory of that environment.
- Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 15th edition, pg. 542
- Khan Academy: Running horned woman, Tassili n’Ajjer
- Khan Academy: Rock art in North Africa
- UNESCO: Tassili n’Ajjer
- A daily dose of art history: Running Horned Woman
- Charles van Santen: The Tassili Prehistoric Rock Painting
- Youtube: Tassili n’Ajjer (UNESCO/NHK) (2:11)
- The Metropolitan Museum, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: African Rock Art: Tassili-n-Ajjer (?8000 B.C.–?)
- The Metropolitan Museum, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: African Rock Art of the Northern Zone
- World Heritage Sites: A Complete Guide to 1031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 7th edition, pg. 145