Ancients tools morph through time in Beach Museum exhibit

Sep. 18—Despite their differences, people across time and space can still connect.

"45 Paleolithic Handaxes" opens at K-State's Beach Museum of Art on Tuesday. The installation is part of a larger project by filmmaker and anthropologist David Lebrun and examines how objects can show links between people in different eras.

"It encourages us to see parallels and echoes across time and cultures," said Rosey Guthrie, a producer at Lebrun's company Night Fire Films.

Lebrun has been working on "Transfigurations: Reanimating the Past" for nearly 20 years. Lebrun has created animations of crosses, figurines and paintings, but the piece at the Beach Museum features images of ancient handaxes, which are prehistoric stone tools. He photographs each item against a black background, arranges the photos into a sequence and animates one morphing into the next.

The installation features three screens. The large central screen shows the animation by Lebrun. A screen on each side shows the item at roughly actual size.

Lebrun has created roughly thirty of the animations but ultimately hopes to finish 100 of various items. Lebrun and Beach museum director Linda Duke had been planning a larger installation at the Beach Museum for years including more animations but scaled back the exhibit because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Duke first saw early work on "Transfigurations" in 2014. She said she was struck by the beauty of it and is happy to finally be bringing one of the animations to the Beach.

"To my surprise, seeing the 45 Paleolithic Handaxes installation has made me feel happy that we are displaying it alone," Duke said. "As a solo installation, viewers can savor it instead of being lured away to see other animations."

All of the handaxes in the animation were discovered in France, but the entire project includes items from around the world from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago. Although at first glance, they might seem like practical items, Guthrie said closer inspection shows that the stone was selected for aesthetic purposes as well. Some might be cut so as to have a line in the rock highlighted in a specific place, and others might be cut around a central feature.

"That rock was chosen," Guthrie said. "There's thought behind this."

The idea that the handaxes were more than tools is supported by the fact that scholars can tell from studying others that some were made by the same person.

"There were identifiable makers 300,000 years ago," Guthrie said.

While constructing the animation, Lebrun arranged the images in a sequence moving from what he judged were the crudest handaxes to the most refined and delicate. A scholar reviewed the sequence and told Lebrun he had unintentionally arranged them from most recent to oldest. This raised questions about what the purpose of the handaxes might have been.

"We talked about the possibility that for the earliest people these were sacred items and later they were just tools," Duke said.

The animations also demonstrate that different cultures in different places ended up creating similar types of art, each in their own styles.

"Cultures with no contact (with each other) were making figurines," Guthrie said.

In uniting items that come from these varied cultures and locations, the audience can think about what their people had in common.

"It's a wonderful project to talk about ancient artists and how much we have in common with them," Guthrie said.

"45 Paleolithic Handaxes" is open at the Beach Museum until July 16, 2022.