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Swimming Reindeer

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 21 January 2010

The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells the history of human development from the first stone axe to the credit card, using 100 selected objects from the Museum.

Found in France and dating back 13,000 years, this is a carving of two swimming reindeer - and it's not just the likeness that is striking. The creator of this carving was one of the first humans to express their world through art. But why did they do it?

Neil tells the story of the Swimming Reindeer and its place in the history of art and religion with contributions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and archaelogist Professor Steven Mithen.

Producer: Anthony Denselow.

  • Art

    Discover more programmes from A History of the World in 100 Objects about art.

  • About this object

    Location: Montastruc, France

    Culture: Early People

    Period: About 13,000 years-old

    Material: Animal Material


    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?


  • Did you know?

    • When this object was made the sea levels were so low that England was joined to the continent.
  • Connecting across 13,000 years

    By Jill Cook, Curator, British Museum


    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.

  • Transcript


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