Swimming reindeer

Contributed by British Museum

Two reindeers carved into a mammoth tusk to look as though they are swimming. © Trustees of the British Museum

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This sculpture of two swimming reindeer is one of the oldest works of art in the British Museum. It was carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and made during an extraordinary period of artistic creativity during the last Ice Age. Such works of art could be carried around, bringing images found in the great painted caves of Europe into the daylight. These Ice Age artists were fully modern people with the same mental abilities as humans today.

What was Ice Age art used for?

The artist has depicted the reindeer as they look in autumn. At this time of year the meat, skin and antlers are at their best for use as food, clothing and materials for making equipment. Showing the reindeer swimming may suggest migration or a moment when the animals were easy prey for their human hunters. Was this sculpture a means of communicating with the supernatural world or a charm to guarantee a successful hunt at the start of a bitterly cold Ice Age winter?

When this object was made the sea levels were so low that England was joined to the continent.

Connecting across 13,000 years

The two reindeer found at Montastruc in 1867 form a figurative sculpture of remarkable naturalism carved with considerable skill and artistry.

Examining the work closely, it is possible to see, gesture by gesture, just how the artist shaped, polished then engraved the animals using flint knives and engraving tools.

Comparing the figures with living reindeer reveals how accurately they are depicted and we are reminded that human society at this time was part of nature. The artist could contour the bodies and shade the skins from knowledge acquired by hunting and butchering reindeer, their main source of food and materials.

Evaluating the aesthetics and spirituality of unknown artists in an extinct culture is much more difficult. While it may make us examine the works closely to collect evidence, we have to recognize that we could not reconstruct Christianity from an image of the Crucifixion although we might be able to construct a view of the society which commissioned it.

Nevertheless, when we see the reindeer in the Museum, we see it as a work of art which touches us deeply and provides a thread connecting us to a spark of human imagination across a 13,000 year time barrier.

Jill Cook, Curator, British Museum

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  • 1. At 15:52 on 10 March 2010, David Simmonds wrote:

    Professor Oliver Rackham, the great authority on the countryside and its history, writes in ?The History of the Countryside?: ?Deer are the nearest that we have to the great beasts of prehistory; few of us can resist the wonder and adventure of seeing them?.

    I love seeing the red deer of Exmoor and the fallow deer in Hatfield Forest (Essex), where I work each week as a volunteer for the National Trust. I find it immensely moving to know that someone some 13,000 years ago also loved deer, albeit of a larger and more spectacular species, and thought them so memorable that they wanted to record the reindeer. It is a wonder, almost beyond belief, that their representation has survived. I saw the Swimming Reindeer for the first time when I came to the Museum on 9 March 2010 and I know that it is a treasure that I will never forget.

    I should add that I also find the deer on the top of the ceremonial whetstone in the Sutton Hoo Treasure and the knowledge that King William I ?loved the high-deer as if he were their father? very moving. Some things in human experience are eternal ? I believe that a love of deer is one of them.

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  • 2. At 16:32 on 18 March 2010, John Walsh wrote:

    I think this programme over argues the potential religiosity of the object and the guest speakers tend to assume that sublime art must be supernaturally inspired.

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  • 3. At 13:50 on 6 May 2010, Gerard Mermoz wrote:

    Viewing this and other objects through the language of 'art' and aesthetics, and from the standpoint of a universal 'history of art' that never was ? rather than from the standpoint of the history of representation ? seems a rather facile way of framing the unknown with the familiar, and loose in the process its elusive specificity. The question is whether we should write history 'in our own image' or dare engage the unknown in its own terms...

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  • 4. At 12:24 on 13 July 2010, Kim Siddorn wrote:

    I carve a bit. Sharp, dead hard steel tools carefully shaped for each nick and cut - I've got - um - several of them. This was done by a person with a sharp rock & it didn't take them five minutes either.

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  • 5. At 10:14 on 28 July 2010, secretsalons wrote:

    The attention to detail is extraordinary! I am surprised at how well it has lasted.

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  • 6. At 10:16 on 15 September 2010, suevking wrote:

    Fascinating object. I understand that woolly mammoth left Britain about 14000 years ago because of climate change. Did they linger longer in France? Or would the tusk have been traded from farther north?

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  • 7. At 18:15 on 4 November 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    There is something disturbing about your description.I have a picture of two muntjac deer in an English wood behaving just like this. His nose was never further than ten inches away from her bum the whole time I watched, and they were hoofing along at a pretty pace. Normally very retiring and shy the two almost ran over my foot in their arrested state. The muntjac mates at any time of the year so it might not be so surprising to discover that other types of deer are similarly inclined. But for the size of the antlers I'd have said they were muntjac. Perhaps muntjac antlers do grow this big except in this country outside of national park boundaries no deer species survives longer than six years before they are trophy shot and the shooting of muntjac is open season all year even when they are pregnant. So much for the sportsman code here then. Finally, even the photo you supply of reindeer swimming show not not a single one with its bum stuck out of the water like the ones in the bone carving. Actually I'd say it was a physical impossibility. So all in all I would have to say. Nice try folks but clearly someone has spent too long behind a desk and not enough time in the woods. Are you sure it is as old as you think it is? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. But I bet this isn't the only object in your collection which doesn't pass muster when it comes to an explanation.

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  • 8. At 21:19 on 28 November 2010, madelyn2 wrote:

    I agree with miles that this appears to suggest the mating season - it does make me wonder about its use

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  • 9. At 14:38 on 2 December 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    @ suevking
    My colleague Jill Cook, British Museum curator of this obect, tells me that we do have radiocarbon dates for mammoth remains from Condover in Shropshire which are about 14,000 years old, but that mammoths probably hung on in Britain, as in France, until about 12,000 years ago.
    Although ivory remains workable for a long time we know that the swimming reindeer were made while mammoths were still around because we have a depiction of a mammoth from the same site of Montastruc (see: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_prb/s/mammoth_spear_thrower.aspx ), as well as drawings of about the same age from sites in the Dordogne. There are also mammoth remains from France with dates of about 12,000.
    David Prudames, British Museum

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Montastruc, France


About 13,000 years-old


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