The work of art which lies before me is old, unquestionably old; a good deal older, in fact, than Archbishop Ussher (who invented all out of his own archiepiscopal head the date commonly assigned for the creation of the world) would by any means have been ready to admit. It is a bas-relief by an old master, considerably more antique in origin than the most archaic gem or intaglio in the Museo Borbonico at Naples, the mildly decorous Louvre in Paris, or the eminently respectable British Museum, which is the glory of our own smoky London in the spectacled eyes of German professors, all put together. When Assyrian sculptors carved in fresh white alabaster the flowing curls of Sennacherib’s hair, just like a modern coachman’s wig, this work of primaeval art was already hoary with the rime of ages. When Memphian artists were busy in the morning twilight of time with the towering coiffure of Ramses or Sesostris, this far more ancient relic of plastic handicraft was lying, already fossil and forgotten, beneath the concreted floor of a cave in the Dordogne. If we were to divide the period for which we possess authentic records of man’s abode upon this oblate spheroid into ten epochs—an epoch being a good high-sounding word which doesn’t commit one to any definite chronology in particular—then it is probable that all known art, from the Egyptian onward, would fall into the tenth of the epochs thus loosely demarcated, while my old French bas-relief would fall into the first. To put the date quite succinctly, I should say it was most likely about 244,000 years before the creation of Adam according to Ussher.
The work of the old master is lightly incised on reindeer horn, and represents two horses, of a very early and heavy type, following one another, with heads stretched forward, as if sniffing the air suspiciously in search of enemies. The horses would certainly excite unfavourable comment at Newmarket. Their ‘points’ are undoubtedly coarse and clumsy: their heads are big, thick, stupid, and ungainly; their manes are bushy and ill-defined; their legs are distinctly feeble and spindle-shaped; their tails more closely resemble the tail of the domestic pig than that of the noble animal beloved with a love passing the love of women by the English aristocracy. Nevertheless there is little (if any) reason to doubt that my very old master did, on the whole, accurately represent the ancestral steed of his own exceedingly remote period. There were once horses even as is the horse of the prehistoric Dordonian artist. Such clumsy, big-headed brutes, dun in hue and striped down the back like modern donkeys, did actually once roam over the low plains where Paris now stands, and browse off lush grass and tall water-plants around the quays of Bordeaux and Lyons. Not only do the bones of the contemporary horses, dug up in caves, prove this, but quite recently the Russian traveller Prjevalsky (whose name is so much easier to spell than to pronounce) has discovered a similar living horse, which drags on an obscure existence somewhere in the high table-lands of Central Asia. Prjevalsky’s horse (you see, as I have only to write the word, without uttering it, I don’t mind how often or how intrepidly I use it) is so singularly like the clumsy brutes that sat, or rather stood, for their portraits to my old master that we can’t do better than begin by describing him in propria persona.