Design in Ancient Europe

an Introduction

Scythian Stag

People often assume that Greece is where design began. They think of the square spiral shapes and the pottery and that is where it began. Nothing could be further from the truth. People have been into design since Cro Magnon painted on the walls in France, probably before that. We know now that primitive people in Europe made colors of out clays, but even more basic than that are plant colors. Basket weavers look for different colored grass to weave designs into their baskets. No matter how crude the clothing, people decorate it with shells and quills and colored threads. They paint and stain leather and wood. It would seem that even the people closest to having nothing love personal adornment in the form of tattoos and body piercings, let along hair styles. Braiding and twisting and dyeing have been human arts for tens of thousands of years.

As the picture above of the Scythian stag suggests, even barbarians were into art and they did not learn it from the Greeks. We intend to do a quick survey of some art forms that are as old as 2000BCE. Let us begin with Egypt, since many people know of that ancient culture.


These are drawings taken from paintings done in Egypt more than 4000 years ago. The Egyptians were fond of both naturalism and stylism. They loved symmetry and a way of extracting the basic elements of style out of natural forms.


I left this picture large so you could see the detail in this wall painting. It looks almost Victorian or late Asian in its attention of the detail.

Egyptian Birds

And here looks like a modern watercolor again, but is over 3000 years old. Most Egyptian work is of this ilk, naturalistic, partially stylized to show less detail or abstracted but symmetrical and true to the native model. The abstract work such as done on ceilings or in borders or on columns, usually involved repetition of simple forms into a pleasing pattern, again symmetrical. The work has a balanced, logical look to it the most people find appeals to their sense of mathematical, logical abstraction. Some of the designs are straight and some are curved, and some obvious pictures of flowers or birds, but all are repetitive in a pleasing way. Even the designs on sculpture tend to be symmetrical and suggestive of the animal's habitat, such as a hippo covered with lotus flowers.

Minoan Design

As you move north across the ocean from Egypt, you come to Crete where another civilization flourished. They also loved design. However, you will first note that none of their designs are symmetrical. They look less "artsy" than those of Egypt, more primitive.

Minoan Design

If they had symmetry in their work, it was usually circular like you find on these stamps. However, they did do borders with repeating designs and used these patterns in clothing borders and on ceilings and columns. Not nearly to the extent of those in Egypt and many of their borders, while pleasing, were patterned in different ways.


Here is a comparison of the two cultures in artwork that is as similar as we could find. I wanted to point out the symmetry of the plants in the background of the Egyptian piece and the border (less the hieroglyphs.) Not all of the picture is symmetrical, but note that in the other painting there is less concern for exact symmetry. Of course you will find pictures back and forth, but overall the feeling of Minoan art is one that is less abstract and more primitive in feeling. It feels more medieval than modern.


Here we see a style every bit as detailed and realistic as that of egypt. This pottery is is every bit as advanced as any in the area, and just as decorated, yet the style is very different. It seems to us less restrained, and less concerned with being decorative as much as expressive. Decorative not for the gods, but for the joy of being decorative in a sense. Frivolous, creative and realistic but stylized in a different way.

Crete existed as a culture up until the volcanic eruption of Etna destroyed their civilization. It did not die out completely, for early Grecian peoples took over control of the island. The usual happened with a mix of cultures, but the style of the early Minoans became dominated more and more by something we think of as Greek. The figures changed again back into a more abstract art, pleasing in its repetition and angles mixed with curves.


It is too difficult from the study of the artifacts left to determine if these styles were indicative of value preferences. We can look at a bunch of art and say "it seems this way" but to say that about all art in a culture is not taking into account the artists themselves or the clients who supported the art manufacture or the fact that these are the artifacts that survived and a whole lot of stuff did not. For every pot we find are thousands that did not survive. Was there some influence at work to keep one pot and not another? Fashions change. Maybe some priestess liked the flowing designs better and preserved the artifacts with those designs. Maybe some overlord art director told the art crews that they had to paint in such and such a way. However, it would seem to us that the work of Crete was a bit looser, a bit more organic and stylized in a more expressive way rather than in an abstract way.


Much has been said about the spirals and the goddess and the maze of the countries north of the Mediterranean. We know that the maze and spirals were popular in Crete, for we have the story of the Minotaur as well as the art left from the Minoan civilization. Further north, we have hundreds of megalithic monuments, many of which are decorated with spirals. A simple explanation for the spiral is in the shape of the stars and the galaxy. However, it may be the case that people just like coils and spirals. Curly hair is spiraled, but also spinning threads and ropes and thongs and coils of clay. We cannot determine anything from one group of spirals here and a group of squares here, but it still feels like we should say, ah, a love of curve and spiral.

It is also hard to determine who influenced whom. It is said by one group that the megaliths came into Europe from the south and another that they came from the north. The same is said about spiral designs. Are they northern or southern? Are they associated with some early goddess? Are they associated with the stars? Are they simply accident? Are they reflective of the way a society thought or felt? We can ask endless questions. However, in later Celtic art, the artists went crazy with spirals and knots and braided borders and flowing figures. Were they influenced by foreigners or ancestors? From this earliest art that we can find, it would seem that the spiral craze in Celtic art is inherited. But, is it local?

Cave Art

Here are some examples of cave art from the Stone Age. The black and white images are from as far east as Siberia, but are Scythian. The colored images are from Southern France and Spain. You can see from these images that the representation of animals is both decorative and accurate. I think it also shows that the spiraling antlers run all across Europe. Whether it is because these people influenced one another, it was a natural way to stylize antlers or they came from a common ancestor may all be true. We cannot know.


These are examples of jewelry. One is Scythian, the others from farther west. Although the forms vary a little, the style of the flowing, circular pattern is similar. Also is similar is the animal abstracted, something you don't see much of in Egypt. Although there is symmetry, it is not the same kind of symmetry in the Egyptian art. The mind is not pleased by logic and math, but by the curling rhythm, rather than percussive, it is musical.

© 2015, A.R. Stone

Background books Background page Costume page Art page Players page Stonework