This is a Quina scraper (7×2,5×3,5 cm) from an early 20th century collection from Combe Capelle, a Paleolithic site situated in the Couze valley in the Périgord region of Southern France (http://www.oldstoneage.com/cc/cc_intro.shtml). For me, such an artifact exhibits a certain „aura”.
Walter Benjamin`s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” continues to inspire significant scholarly attention as a major work in the history of modern aesthetic and political criticism. Benjamin claims that in times past the role of art has been to provide a magical foundation for the cult. Here the artwork’s use value was located in its central position within ritual and religious tradition. A statue or idol conveyed a sense of detached authority, or frightening magical power, which inhered in (and only in) that particular historical artifact. The reproduction in mass of such an item would have been unthinkable because it was its unique singularity that produced the sacrality of the ritual. This illusive quality is described as “aura.” According to Benjamin, even after the advent of modernity and the disappearance of the cult, the aura of singular objects remains present. A painting has an aura while a photograph does not; the photograph is an image of an image while the painting remains utterly original. The sense of the aura is lost on film and the reproducible image itself demonstrates an eminent historical shift. Lascaux II will never have an aura in the Benjaminian sense.
There was a time when things had the ability to speak for themselves. Their meaning could be only understood by divine revelation. René Descartes was one of the first, who suggested that it was the human perception that inscribed the meanings into things. During the era of enlightenment the belief in a divine language in all things was dismissed in favor of a rational epistemology. During the late 19th and early 20th century- above all the phenomenologists- suggested that the language of things is not just an intellectual construct, but that things have a sensual surplus that cannot completely perceived intellectually. This surplus resembles called aura by Benjamin.
For Walter Benjamin the aura refers to the sense of associations and evocations that cluster around an object; correspondences and interrelations engendered by an object. Aura is a sense of distance, no matter how close an object may be: it somehow seems more than what it is. “’To perceive the aura of an object is to invest it with the ability to look at us in return” (Benjamin 1970); it is the transposition of qualities of the animate to the conventionally inanimate world.
Aura refers to artificiality. Human work has been inscribed into the
artifacts, even into crude Choppers and flakes of the early Oldowan, and even
much more work was invested in highly sophisticated stone tools like the thin triangular Handaxes during the MTA, Solutrean leaf points, late Scandinavian daggers or Predynastic knife, to name just a few.
Aura refers to the life of things. A handaxe at St Acheul found in intact stratigraphy, testified by the eminent John Evans and Joseph Prestwich on Wednesday 27 April 1859 and documented by the new medium of photography, remains “ the stone that shattered the time barriers” and has therefore a certain aura in Benjamins sense.
The aura of a handaxe from Bed II at Olduvai Gorge (1, 6 Mio yrs.) in northern Tanzania has multiple sources: It was found by the famous L.S.B. Leakey, played a significant role in fixing an early age of the African Acheulian and helped to deconstruct Eurocentric views of very early Prehistoric times. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_image.aspx?image=axe.jpg&retpage=20473
Aura refers to authenticity. A cast of the Olduvai Handaxe will certainly have not the aura of the original. Collectors of stone artifacts know the aura of objects, which were once part of famous collections or found at key sites of prehistoric research. See for example the La Micoque artifacts from the Riviere collection displayed in my blog (http://www.aggsbach.de/2010/08/la-micoque/). Collectors also know the disappointment if they perceive that they had acquired a forgery instead of an authentic artifact (http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/09/frauds-on-the-paleo-market/).
Aura refers to singularity. Millions of authentic scrapers from the MSA / MP are known, but the scraper shown here is singular, despite it shares specific characteristics with other Quina scrapers from the Dordogne.
The aura of artifacts may not play any role in the actual scientific discourse about the paleolithic, but I am sure that even the most rationalistic prehistorian will feel it occasionally. Otherwise we could hardly explain that illustrations in textbooks and even in scientific publications are biased towards the most beautiful tools or for example the increasing interest into my blog with about 1000 visitors a day.