Humans have been producing 'art' for at least 75,000 years. But the word 'art' is problematic when applied to archaeology. This paper explores the use of the concept of 'visually complex object' to designate a very specific kind of what is generally known as 'art'. I argue for the application of this concept to the analysis of both the design of objects and their arrangement in cultural spaces, to gain new perspectives on social and political change in a prehistoric complex society. The focus here is on visually enchanting objects and changes in the ways that such objects were used and arranged in relation to larger changes in cultural circumstances. I contrast two visual orders in Iron Age Europe - the mid final millennium bc, when the visual order of 'princely graves' and the eye-fixing qualities of objects focused attention on the persons of individuals competing for leadership positions; and the second and final centuries bc, when a new visual order emerged to focus attention on large, publicly deployed objects that directed attention in open spaces to create collective experiences. The principles developed from these examples from late prehistoric Europe can be applied to changes in other complex societies worldwide.
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Copyright © McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2017.