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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Vanished! The Surprising Things Missing From Ancient Art

When you look back across the history of art, things go missing. Interesting things.

For example, it seems ancient people didn’t have a word to describe the color of the sky. The “b” word—blue? They didn’t use it. That’s the argument, anyway.

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues at Radiolab (a podcast/broadcast I co-host) found an essay by, of all people, William Gladstone, a British prime minister back in the 1860s, ’80s, and ’90s. Gladstone was a Homer-philiac. He loved Homer’s tales, read them voraciously, and, for reasons now obscure, he got curious about the poet’s use of color words. Looking through the Iliad, then through the Odyssey, Gladstone jotted down every instance of Homer using a color to describe, well, anything; and to his surprise, while he found lots of blacks and whites and some reds, yellows, and greens, when it came to blue—it was nowhere to be found.

In Homer, skies aren’t blue, seas aren’t blue (they’re wine-dark), and nobody seems to have had blue eyes, not even the immortals. When Tim Howard, our reporter, showed us Gladstone’s essay, we thought we’d better double-check. We found a well-known linguist and scholar of ancient texts, Guy Deutscher, who told us in the broadcast, “Gladstone’s right …”

Guy Deutscher: There is just no word that describes the color blue in Homer’s poems.
Jad Abumrad (my co-host): He does not use the color blue at all?
GD: No blue.
JA: Not even once?
GD: Nope.

Then it got stranger. Howard turned up a philologist, Lazarus Geiger, who’d looked through ancient Chinese texts, South Asia’s Vedic poems, old Icelandic sagas, and the Western Bible and found, again, that across the ancient classics there is no—or barely any—use of blue.

Why No Blue?

Yes, why? The Radiolab show (you can listen to the whole episode here) explored different theories, but the one that seemed most plausible was that the most blue-y thing of all—the sky—was so present, so matter-of-factly always there, that ancient people just didn’t pay it much attention. Of course, they looked at the sky all the time, but they looked in a oh-hum-that-again kind of way and so felt no need to distinguish it from other things and so took it in without giving it its own descriptive color and place. Ubiquity made it invisible.

It wasn’t until much later, when blue paints were invented (which happened in Egypt), that “blue” became a descriptor—when you could buy or sell it.

The Newest Missing Thing

That was our guess. And now—ta-da—I’ve got another one, a second thing that ancients saw all the time but failed to describe. And this one is even more basic.

I’m talking about plants.

Take a look, a long rambling look, at the cave paintings that Paleolithic artists drew as far back as 40,000 years ago. There are hundreds of them, in Spain, in France, all over the world. What do you see?

There are, says Richard Mabey in his new book, The Cabaret of Plants, “galloping horses and rippling bison,” reindeer, cattle, the occasional rhino—animals you might eat, animals you might chase, or simply admire, maybe even worship …

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Photographs by: Arterra Picture Library, Alamy; Dave G. Houser, Corbis; Chris Howes, incamerastock, Corbis; Arterra Picture Library, Alamy; Yannick Tylle, Corbis

But here’s what there’s not: While all these animals lived on plains or in forests and ate plants, Mabey found no convincing image of grass, no landscape imagery showing a deer nuzzling a leafy thing, pecking at a bush. Leafy things don’t appear in Paleolithic art. Nor do bushes. Nor trees. Mabey has a friend, biologist and painter Tony Hopkins, who’s spent 20 years sketching rock art all over the world, and, writes Mabey, he “has seen no truly ancient representation of plants.” Cave art stays plant free “until 5,000 years after the end of the Paleolithic era, and the simultaneous beginnings of agriculture in the Middle East.” Again, when it’s in commerce, it pops into view.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

A Non-Business Explanation?

Perhaps, says Hopkins, the ancients found animals more vivid, more “alive.” (After all, animals follow the same birth, coupling, reproduction, and death arc that we do. Plants have a more mysterious narrative, maybe not worth fetishizing?)

It’s hard—very hard—to believe that for so many, many centuries, nobody drew a plant on a cave wall. This seems too long a vacancy. So in the spirit of proving a law by an exception, Mabey offers us a single image: a possible plant, carved on a bone.

This carving was found in a cave in the Gironde region of France. It dates back to 15,000 B.C. It is, he says, “a convincing picture of a specific, potentially identifiable flower.”

Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux
Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux

Hmmm. I’m looking at this thing, and I’m trying to see what Mabey sees: Those four possible blossoms poking off of stems on the right … Let’s show this again, closer in:

Detail of Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux
Detail of Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux

Those, he says, may be “a passable impression of a sprig of bilberry or crowberry.” Four blossoms, facing left, then right, then left, then right again. I guess I can see them as flowers. For a little while, anyway. But if I blink, they can morph into sleepy birds with their mouths open. So I’m not sure this is a “convincing picture” of a plant. And neither is Mabey. He admits that he can re-see them as “birds’ heads and necks.”

So here’s a puzzlement. Our ancient ancestors—who ate berries and fruits; who gathered grass to make bedding; who watched animals foraging; who gazed at forests, at meadows, at mountains; who gathered at least as much as they hunted—for some reason chose not to celebrate the true source of their livelihood.

What hunters hunted went up on their sacred walls. What gatherers gathered stayed … what? Out of mind? Uninteresting? Or, like blue, so ubiquitous that no one bothered to notice them?

What a very curious omission.