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Episode 7 - Ain Sakhri or 'The Lovers'

Ain Sakhri lovers figurine (made around 11,000 years ago). Stone sculpture, found near Bethlehem

As the last Ice Age came to an end, somebody picked a pebble out of a small river not far from Bethlehem. It's a pebble that must have been tumbled downstream, banged and smoothed against other stones as it went, in the process that geologists poetically describe as 'chattering'. But about 11,000 years ago, a human hand then shaped and chipped this beautifully chattered, rounded pebble into one of the most moving objects in the British Museum. It shows two naked people literally wrapped up in each other. It's the oldest known representation of a couple having sex.

'Well it's the classic thing that we always imagine that we discovered sex, and that all other ages before us were kind of rather prudish and simple, whereas in fact obviously human beings have been emotionally sophisticated since at least 8,000 BC when this sculpture was made, and just as sophisticated as us, I'm sure.' (Marc Quinn)

'And I think it's clear that sexuality was a very very important part of the symbolic and social world.' (Ian Hodder)

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed up across the world, humans gradually shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled way of life based on farming - and in the process, our relationship to the natural world was transformed. From living as a minor part of a balanced ecosystem, we start trying to overcome nature - to take control. In the Middle East the warmer weather brought a spread of rich grasslands. People had been moving around, hunting gazelle and gathering the seeds of lentils, chick peas and wild grasses. But in the new, lusher savannah, gazelle were plentiful and they tended to stay in one place throughout the year, so the humans settled down with them. And once they were settled, they deliberately collected grass grains still on the stalk, and by collecting and sowing the seeds, they almost inadvertently carried out a very early kind of genetic engineering: they slowly created the world's great staple crops - wheat and barley. With this more stable life, our ancestors turned to new gods, and they made images which show and celebrate the key elements in their changing universe; food, power, worship, sex and love. And the maker of the 'lovers' sculpture was one of these people.

In the Manuscript Saloon at the British Museum, most people walk straight past the case that contains the statue of the lovers. Perhaps it's because from a distance it doesn't look very much; it's a small, muted, greyish stone about the size of a clenched fist. But when you get nearer to it, you can see that it's a couple, seated, their arms and legs wrapped around each other in the closest of embraces. There are no clear facial features, but you know that these two people are looking into each other's eyes. I think it's one of the tenderest expressions of love that I know, comparable to the great kissing couples of Brancusi and Rodin, and I asked the contemporary British sculptor, Marc Quinn, what he thought of it:

'It's incredible to be in the presence of this object, which is from so long ago. To me, what's incredible about this sculpture is that when you move it and look at it in different ways, it changes completely. And so here you have this thing - from the side, you have the long shot of the embrace, you see the two figures. From another side it's a penis, from the other side a vagina, from another side it is breasts - it seems to be formally mimicking the act of making love as well as representing it. And those different sides unfold as you handle it, as you turn this object around in your hand - so they unfold in time, which I think is another important thing about the sculpture - it's not an instant thing. You walk round it and the object unfolds in real time. It's almost like in a pornographic film, you have long shots, close-ups - it has a cinematic quality as you turn it, that you get all these different things and yet it's a poignant, beautiful object about the relationship between people.'

But what do we know of the people captured in this lovers' embrace? Well, the maker - or should we say the sculptor? - of the lovers, belonged to a people that we now call the Natufians, who lived in a region that straddled what is today Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, and our sculpture came from the area south-east of Jerusalem. In 1933 the great French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil and a French diplomat, René Neuville, visited a small museum in Bethlehem. Neuville wrote:

'Towards the end of our visit, I was shown a wooden casket containing various items from the surrounding areas, of which none, apart from this statuette, was of any value. I realised immediately the particular significance of the design involved and asked the source of these objects. I was told that they had been brought by a Bedouin who was returning from Bethlehem towards the Dead Sea.'

Intrigued by the figure, Neuville wanted to know more about its discovery and he sought out the Bedouin he'd been told about. He managed to track down the man responsible for the find, who took him to the very cave - in the Judean desert not far from Bethlehem - in which the sculpture of the lovers had been discovered. The cave was called Ain Sakhri, and so these sculpted lovers that had so captivated Neuville are still known as the Ain Sakhri lovers. Crucially, the sculpture had been found with objects which made it clear that the cave had been a dwelling rather than a grave, and so our sculpture must have played some kind of role in domestic everyday life.

We don't know exactly what that role might have been, but we do know that this dwelling belonged to people who were living at the dawn of agriculture. Their new way of life involved the collecting and storing of food.

Wild grass seeds fall off the plant and are spread easily by the wind or eaten by the birds, but these people selected seeds which stayed on the stalk - a very important characteristic if a grass is ever going to be worth cultivating. They stripped these seeds, removed the husks and ground the grains to flour. Later, they would go on to sow the surplus seeds. Farming had begun - and ever since, together we've been breaking bread.

The result was as profound a transformation for human beings as any revolution in history. This process of settling down did, of course, make you more vulnerable to a crop failure, pests, diseases, above all to the weather, but while things were good, society boomed. A guaranteed abundant food source fuelled a sustained population explosion, and people began to live in large villages of between two or three hundred - the highest concentration of people the world had yet seen. When your larder is stocked, the pressure is off and you've got time to think, and these rapidly growing, settled communities had the leisure to work out new social relationships and to contemplate the changing pattern of their lives.

Our little sculpture of the entwined lovers may be a response to this new way of living - a different way of thinking about ourselves. What does it mean to depict the sexual act in this way, at this time? Archaeologist Ian Hodder, of Stanford University, has done a lot of work on this period and he sees here a process he calls the 'domestication of the mind':

'The Natufian culture is really before fully domesticated plants and animals, but you already have a sedentary society. And so, I think that this particular object, because of its focus on humans and human sexuality in such a clear way, is part of that general shift towards a greater concern with domesticating the mind, domesticating humans, domesticating human society, being more concerned with human relationships rather than on the relationships between humans and wild animals, and on the relationships between wild animals themselves.'

As you hold the Ain Sakhri pebble and turn it round, what's striking is not just that there are clearly two human figures rather than one, but that it's impossible, because of the way the stone has been carved, to say which is male and which is female - could that generalised treatment, that ambiguity, have been a deliberate intention on the part of the maker? We just don't know, but we don't know either how this little statue would have been used. Some scholars think it might have been connected with fertility, but Ian Hodder takes a different view:

'This object is one that could be read in many ways, and I think that earlier on, one would have often thought that these notions of sexual coupling, and sexuality itself, were linked to ideas of the mother goddess, because it's been assumed that when you have the first farmers their main concern is the fertility of the crops.

'My own view is in fact that the evidence is not really supporting this idea of a dominant mother goddess very early on, because there are now very exciting new discoveries that really have no representations of women at all - most of the symbolism is very, very phallocentric, so my view at the moment is that sexuality is important in these early farming societies, but not in terms of reproduction/fertility, children and mothering and nurturing - that sort of thing, it's really more clearly about the sex act itself.'

Certainly, to me, the tenderness of the embracing figures suggests not reproductive vigour, but love. People are beginning to settle and to form stable families, to have more food, and therefore more children, and perhaps this is the first moment in human history when a mate could become a husband or a wife.

All these ideas may be present in our sculpture of the lovers, but we're still largely in the realm of historical speculation. On another level though, it speaks to us absolutely directly, not as a document of a changing society but as an eloquent work of art. Sculptor Marc Quinn again:

'There's the difference between art and artefact. An artefact is something from a time that stays in that time like a piece of pottery and it becomes like a relic of that time. An artwork is something that is from a time, but is also eternally in the present moment, and I think you can definitely say that this sculpture is in the present moment. That to me is the great strength of making artwork, you are making essentially emotional time-machines; you're making an object of meditation that will communicate with people in ten thousand years time (were it to survive) in a very direct way - I mean, certain things are beyond time.'

But in a sense nearly all objects speak 'beyond time'. Throughout this series I'll be trying to discover the stories of the people whose hands made the objects - their fears, their hopes, sometimes even their loves. From the Ain Sakhri lovers to Rodin's statue of 'The Kiss' there are 11,000 years of human history, but not, I think, much change in human desire.

In the next programme, we're on less romantic territory. I'm with the world's first cowboys, perhaps more accurately the world's first cattle herders, in Egypt, and with another statue - of four small cows.

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