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ESSAY PROJECT #2: Human Form in Early Civilization

ESSAY PROJECT #2: Human Form in Early Civilization


All early civilizations – i.e. prehistoric, Near Eastern, Egyptian, Aegean, Greek, and Roman – attempted to represent the human figure within their art. Within this essay, provide a comprehensive analysis of the similarities and differences in the representation of the human form in these early depictions. Address not only the artistic portrayal of the human body, but also how these art forms were significant within the culture in which they were created. Provide specific artwork examples (including identifying data, such as titles or source references) throughout your essay.

Human Form in Early Civilization

The representation of the human has remained an important piece of society over the years. From the prehistoric, near Eastern, Egyptian, Aegen, Greek, and Roman ages, it has represented different cultures and their artistic perceptions of the human form. As shown in Figure 1 below, cultures would represent human forms in art based on a changing idea of the figurative ideal (Fuentes ). Art played a significant role in such portrayals. Comparing the different ways in which the human form was represented in these period offers insight on the relationship between art and the diversity of culture.

Figure 1: Typological model of Magdalenian human forms based on the ‘figurative ideal’ and its progressive distortions (Fuentes)

One of similarities among the prehistoric, near Eastern, Egyptian, Aegen, Greek, and Roman ages is that despite the difference in time and way of life, they each depicted the human form as they perceived it. Examples of such a connection include the Venus of Willendorf figurine that is 11.1cm in height and was approximately created 25,000 to 30,000 years ago (Naturhistorisches). The distinct features of the sculpture shed light on the social factors demonstrating the way of life in the prehistoric age. Specifically, the figurine’s head, feet, and arms are not define and emphasis is instead made on large breasts and hips. This depiction suggests that the people in this era were keen on fertility and perceived women from this context rather than individual features.

Similarly, the Near Eastern depictions of the human form in art were a portrayal of their thoughts and lifestyle. However, it was a different way of life than what stands out in the prehistoric era. For instance, the Seated statuette of the singer, Urnanshe, c. 2900-2460 BC is an art form from this region that demonstrates their view off the people at the time (Syrian). Specifically, the figure has all the details defined including the head and arms. He is clothed unlike Venus of Willendorf and is seated in a manner suggesting that he is in a temple. These features offer insight on how this society’s main focus is on religion due to the clothing and stance. Moreover, there is a greater focus on individual features. It is evident from comparing the human form from these two eras that their similarity in highlighting the culture can also be used to distinguish and give them individual features.

Another similarity that helps distinguish the eras through how they portrayed the human form is hints of development and modernity over the years. For example, the Egyptian period stands out for being one of the earliest civilizations in history since Ancient Egypt significantly contributed to a continuous advancement of culture. This significant difference is noted in the finer details of various forms of art during this time. An example demonstrating how the human form was depicted by the Ancient Egyptians is the Queen Nefertiti bust, 1340 BCE. This art piece is a 48cm tall stucco and limestone sculpture depicting the bust of a lady whose name Nerfetiti has a meaning linked to beauty (Berlin). In line with this name, the sculpture’s popularity is influenced by feature including the beauty of the illustrated woman. The fact that this work significantly stands out for the portrayal depicted by the fine details on her face and the head gear confirms the extent to which this era had evolved in representing the human form. Not only was there a higher level of dexterity but it is able to derive factors such as hierarchy from this painting, which sheds light on a more civilized society. The representation of the human form in the Egyptian era is, therefore, a form of insight on the growth in civilization and development by this community.

This trend in finer details when representing the human form then changes in the Aegean era as they became less concerned with depicting accurate images. Instead, this society focused on the values that were dominant in society. The human form was thus represented only in as long as these values could be recognized. This approach is in contrast to the details that defined the human form during Egyptian period but matches the prehistoric era through vague art where only some features stood out. Examples that demonstrate the style of depicting the human form in this period include Figurine of a woman, from Syros (Cyclades), Greece, ca. 2500-2300 BCE. Marble and Male Lyre Player from Keros (Cyclades) 2500 BCE. These two structures show the different ways in which men and women’s bodies were often portrayed in the art of this era (Renfrew 5). The figurine has pointed shoulders and a pointed head as they both flow down in a manner resembling a series of geometric shapes. Other features are mostly vague except for body parts like breasts, similar to the style in the prehistoric era. The man is shown in a similar style where the influence of geometric shapes is evident and the head, feet, and hands are barely existent as distinct features. However, he is darker than the woman and is engaged in an activity. This representation can be used to infer this community’s understanding of gender roles and distinguishing features. The evolution the representation of human form, therefore, continues to provide further insight on the involved community and era.

The Romans and the Greeks shared a similar approach in which their art, including portrayals of the human form, stood out for their specific and fine details. As seen in Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, c. 460 B.C.E., bronze, 2.09 m high, the Greek era was focused on creating details and features that highlighted the best of the human form (National). In this case, they are used to depict strength and the appeal of this nude form due to the focus on what is considered as a standard. On the other hand, the Romans used this feature of fine details to portray accuracy rather than just what would appeal to the audience. For instance, Head of a Roman Patrician from Otricoli, c. 75–50 BCE, marble is a Roman art sculpture where the bust has fine details that include wrinkles that would be highly accurate despite not meeting the standard of what counted as desirable in this community (Becker). It is evident that a similar approach was used by the Greeks and Romans but the execution and drive was different, which further proves that this comparison is insightful on the perceptions of each community among the different periods.

The prehistoric, near Eastern, Egyptian, Aegen, Greek, and Roman ages are fundamentally different in their way of life. Comparing the different ways in which each of these communities portrayed the human form in their art reveals that they were similar in using the human form to depict the ideologies that mattered in each community. However, these ideologies were different and the art forms with such depictions can be used to highlight these differences. Essentially, the human form was a highly symbolic form of art that the artists in various eras used to express themselves.

Works Cited

Becker, Dr. Jeffrey A., "Head of a Roman Patrician," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed June 27, 2022,

Berlin State Museums. “The Bust of Nefertiti.”

Fuentes, Oscar. "The depiction of the individual in prehistory: human representations in Magdalenian societies." Antiquity 87.338 (2013): 985-1000.

National Archaelogical Museum. “Bronze statue of Poseidon or Zeus. From the sea area near Cape Artemision, Northern Euboea. About 460 BC (X 15161).”

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien. “Venus of Willendorf.”

Renfrew, Colin. "The development and chronology of the Early Cycladic figurines." American Journal of Archaeology 73.1 (1969): 1-32.

Syrian Virtual Museum. “Seated figure of the singer Ur-Nanshe.”

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