Wednesday, January 22, 2014

La Donna Lupa Paleolitica

What goes on in the minds of museum curators? I have puzzled over this question many times in the last few months as I have visited more museums than I usually do and been confronted by so many omissions, distortions and downright ignorance or sloppiness.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia a brand new museum, and the only room without labels or video is the one that depicts the apsaras. In the museum in Gela, Sicily the displays in the room with the most remarkable Medusa, are in darkness until I accidentally trip an alarm by getting too close to the display. At Mnajdra, Malta female figures are given non-gendered labels and compared to sumo wrestlers. This latter is an egregious distortion which can be put directly at the feet of the school headed by Colin Renfrew who is against all suggestion that women might have played significant roles in prehistoric and ancient societies. But he allows his photo to grace those same walls.

I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Ancona specifically to see the figure called La Donna Lupo Paleolitico. My first puzzle here is why the words used are 'lupo paleolitico' and not 'lupa paleolitica' which seems to me more accurate both in terms of content and grammar.I've had several thoughts on the matter:

Is it because women way back then were in such awe of the male of every species that the wolf head must be a male wolf?

Is it simply inculcated heteronormativity?

Is it because the word 'lupa' also connotes 'prostitute'?

Whatever the case, I am referring to her here as La Donna Lupa Paleolitica.

I travelled on the train from Rome at night, visited the museum in the morning and back to Rome that afternoon. It was worth making this flying visit because although the images on the internet are as good or better than anything I can manage, simply seeing this tiny art object is an experience in itself.

I went because this wolf woman, La Donna Lupa Paleolitica, is 300,000 years old. When I saw this the first time, I thought it must have been a typographic mistake. Most European paleolithic art is around 30,000 years old from what is called the Upper Paleolithic. Her provenance is from what is called the Lower Paleolithic (or paleolitico inferiore) which covers the time period 120,000 years to 700,000 years Before Present (BP).

I was wandering around the museum and couldn't find her, so I asked an attendant. She took me through four rooms into a tiny fifth room on the second floor and there she was. If I had not known about her, I probably would not have noticed her among the rocks and flints. If I hadn't asked, I'd have had trouble even though I have a good nose for these things.

She is around 10-12 cm high (4-5 inches). Her image is carved on a rock, or pebble as it is called in the museum brochure. You have to look closely to distinguish the form and this is most easily done by starting from her feet. Her calves and thighs are clearly drawn and across her thighs are some scorings (or scarrings?). Above and clearly delineated as an inverted triangle is the public area and in the centre a tiny diamond shape (could that be the clitoris?).

Above is the belly, slightly rounded though this woman is certainly not overfed. On the belly are visible 10 or 11 small marks. Again these could be scars or have some connection to counting. They do not appear to be randomly placed as they are evenly spaced in two roughly parallel lines.

Her arms are crossed in the form of an X above her belly. The fingers of one hand are clearly visible.  Her arms cover her belly but not her breasts and at her throat is a faintly visible what might be a pendant.

The most surprising element of this image, which up to this point is doggedly realistic, is that the woman has the head of a wolf. The two ears are up and alert, a single open eye is visible in the profile and the snout lifted to the air as if engaged in sniffing the wind.

If you turn the rock/pebble over there is another head carved there. At first I thought it a cow's head, but looking again it could be either a bear or another rounder-nosed wolf. Please let me know what you think.

You would think that such an incredible work of art would be deserving of a sign. No. Nothing. Just a small sign that says Tolentino (MC), presumably where she was found. Nothing to give her age, in itself extraordinary. And while she is named on the museum website, the museum itself is yet to catch up. I read through the illuminated signage for all the paleolithic and neolithic eras and no mention of her there and nothing even about the 300,000 year time period. It seems to me that the museum is doing itself a disservice, but worse is that women once again are. made invisible. If I were this museum's curator, I would be having exceptionally good photographs made of this. I would give her a glass case (with a few friendly companions) that named, dated and identified her.

I'd also be asking questions like:
what implement was used to make this drawing on this stone?
what can this image tell us about women in this society?
what can it tell us about the relationship between humans/women and animals/wolves?
what might this image mean?
is it suggestive of a spiritual or simply material connection between wolves and women?
what does the second head represent?
are there other similar works of art from this period?

Instead of a helmeted male head on the museum brochure, I would have a detail from this. Her age, in itself, ought to be enough reason for her to be widely known. The quality of the art is something to be admired.
The second oldest item in the museum is a 28,000-year-old female figure referred to as a Venere/Venus. She was found in a cave at Frasassi. She does have some prominence in the room before la donna lupa, as well as a sign and a name.

What is it that 'they' don't want us to know or think?

I apologise that these photos are not all that good. The conditions were not ideal. There is a photo available if you visit the following site (in Italian):

Thanks to Rosanna Fiocchetto for telling me about La Donna Lupa Paleolitica.

The above photos © Susan Hawthorne, 2014

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Turning poems into books

I'm not posting a poem today. I'd like to but it gets harder and harder to find one that stands alone. I realise this is a reflection of my process. With this book I began with a few poems that were explorations of the themes: wolves and lambs; Roman history; expanding out to Etruscan and other Mediterranean places.

And then the narrative began to appear, two characters: Diana and Agnese. Diana representing the wild, the wolfish, the forest, the pre-patriarchal pagan; Agnese representing the lamb, the domesticated, the farmed, the martyred Christians (because that's where you find the women).

Diana and Agnese meet in Rome and they have an invitation to go to a huge party being put on by Livia. But as they are early, they decide to go on a tour of Rome and other places. A kind of time tour (without the need of a Tardis)

Curatorix entered stage left at this point. She's the one who finds the lost texts; finds our histories and becomes a guide for Diana and Agnese. She knows everything that has happened and will happen.

Then Sulpicia, a real life Roman poet, joins the crowd. She reads her poems and finds one she'd forgotten about (poets often lose poems only to find them many years later; 2000 years must be a record).

Empress Livia, of course, refuses to be left out and before you know it a host of goddesses, remembered and unremembered women, wolves and sheep and other animals, are battling for their own spot in the narrative and I can't work out what to post!

It's a bit like a jigsaw, now that I can see the picture, the individual images that make it up are hard to separate out.

Maybe in a few days time I'll think of one.

Lupa in Piazza del Poppolo.
Sheep from a church in Trastevere (sorry I've packed the book).
Detail from the fresco of Livia's garden room in the Museo Massimo.

Monday, January 13, 2014


This poem is inspired by Sardinia. It's an extraordinary place with prehistoric sites going back many millennia. The landscape itself inspires one, as you can see from this transparent cloud/mountain photo that I took on my final day.

The best known are the nuraghe. These are conical structures and began to be built around 1800 BCE, which is quite late. In walking into a nuraghe, especially if you are lucky enough to be on your own, the power of the intangible space is extraordinary. Archaeologists have a tendency to notice only the vertical and horizontal space. I was surprised at St Antine (the Saint bit is a later addition to the name and an appropriation by Christians of their predecessors) that none of the drawings indicated the spiral space that wound up from floor to the top. There were three spirals at St Antine. In addition there were horizontal circular pathways. It was an amazing place.

I found out about the betyls in a little book and just had to backtrack some 20-30 km along back roads to see them. They are conical stones and breasted. At Macomer there were three breasted stones. There was something rather cheeky about them.

At Goni, I was blown away by the power of the menhirs. There were lots of them, a long semicircular line of stones, of which the two pictured were a part.

Agnese and I wander
turn full circle
stare at the megalithic words
breasted betyls and sickled mehnirs
rocks piled in poetic structures
we walk hand in hand
between the lines
disappear behind towering boulders
put our ears to the rocks
listen to the songs

the breath of an iynx says Agnese
a wryneck flies between us
all a-hum
creation’s breath

we wander through labyrinthine myths
stories leading along winding paths
a wall    a dead end
spiralling through intangible space
retracing we find other pathways
different tales tucked into tiny spaces

here a spinner
here a songster
stories buried by rockfall
by the passage of time
and wind

here the one who walks
a colossal stone
precariously balanced
like a spindle
upon her head
she walks and knits
pearl one plain one

stories cleave in Sardinia Scotland
Malta where giants built
mother-daughter temples

we reach Sardinia
there the words take off
coalesce in swarms of uncried tears
that run down the towering nuraghe