Why we built an artificial cave to teach our students about ancient art

Related Articles

Related Articles

There are hundreds of books with illustrations of the earliest human artworks. Images of bison, mammoth, lions and horses from famous cave sites like Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and Rouffignac shine out from these pages.

Such photographic images are the most common way through which people encounter the first representational art.

To see these images in their original setting, however, is a very different thing. It’s no simple matter, though: the most famous sites have been closed for decades since it became apparent that the influx of visitors changed their delicate natural environment and degraded their images. So how can students get access to this representational art?

 

At the University of Liverpool, we decided that if our students couldn’t get to these caves, we’d bring the caves to them. That’s what prompted us first to teach students to replicate representational art themselves – and then to build an artificial cave environment in the university’s Central Teaching Laboratories.

These processes, outlined in research we’ve just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, illustrate the value of an experimental approach to the study of ancient human crafts.

It is only through detailed and scientifically controlled experiment that we can control enough of the natural variability to investigate many of the most problematic yet interesting questions about past human lives.

Different time, different light

In their original cave environments, images are neither flat nor evenly lit as they are in books. They are not planted immediately in front of your eyes. Instead you must look up or down or through gaps to catch a glimpse.

The images themselves are topographically rich. They use natural undulations of the rock surface to lend depth to their representation.

The animal fat lamps of the time cast just small pools of light. The temperature of this light also transformed the painted colours to the human eye. The beautiful panoramic photos of cave art discovered in sites like Lascaux that are now so well-known are in fact modern views that were probably unavailable to their contemporary audience.

To experience these artworks at first hand and in the right light offers a completely different perspective. In an ideal world, students might visit the original sites to see the images in their natural setting. Now, at best, they might be able to visit one of a growing number of replica caves such as the Grotte Chauvet, created by national heritage agencies to meet the desire of the many thousands of people who want to see these images in their natural environment.

But these replica caves are still too well-lit to convey the proper experience students need, and obviously the images on their walls cannot be physically handled.

Our first attempt at dealing with this experiential problem came in 2011. We started by encouraging students to replicate images themselves using original pigments like ochre and charcoal, and original techniques like brush- and finger-painting, and spitting. They worked on canvas-lined panels in a well-lit laboratory.

The experience, though practically informative, was still limited.

That was when we decided to bring the cave environment to students. Working with our Central Teaching Laboratories and a climbing wall manufacturer, Hangfast, we created an artificial cave environment in 2014. The wall replicates wall surfaces from some of the better known painted caves like Lascaux, Altamira and Gargas.

Light from the outside is kept out. Replica lighting mimics the original lamps inside. A laboratory has become a completely different world.

The benefit of experience

Students can now experience what it is like to make images using the original materials – and develop a clearer understanding of how those images might have been seen at the time. This facility has allowed us to make experimental research a significant and well-liked feature of students’ learning. A recent student commented:

The cave just brings these images to life in a way the books can’t.

Students can now scientifically explore the effects of different sorts of animal fat on the light created, the use of different materials as binders or extenders of paint, and the difficulties of making brushes with animal hair and original glues. They can also explore the problems of replicating specific images from cave sites.

All of this allows them to learn effectively about cave art. And experience can challenge researchers’ preconceived understandings of images that are now very publicly known.

The cave has other benefits too. It offers a perfect opportunity for primary and secondary school pupils coming to university to get their first taste of what higher education can offer.

These youngsters can see that to study the archaeology of the first humans is not the study of a long gone time. It is an active study in which, as students, they might play a direct part in the development of new knowledge that is such an essential part of higher education.

In academic research, the study of the earliest human art has transformed from one that sought to identify the original meaning of images to one where we examine this earliest imagery as a creative human craft.

In teaching, a real “cave” – as our students now call it – provides the perfectly complement to an effective learning environment for the 21st century.

Written by:

  1. Anthony GM Sinclair

    Reader in Archaeology, University of Liverpool

  2. Emma Nelson

    Lecturer in Clinical Communication, University of Liverpool

  3. Jason Hall

    Chief Archaeology Technician, University of Liverpool

  4. Patrick Randolph-Quinney

    Senior Lecturer in Biological and Forensic Anthropology, University of Central Lancashire

The Conversation

The Conversation

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

The Lost Town of Trellech

Trellech is a small rural village in south-east Wales, but during the 13th century, it was one of the largest medieval towns in all of Wales.

The Varangian Guard – When Vikings Served the Eastern Roman Empire

The Varangian Guard was an elite unit that served as the personal bodyguards for the emperors of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire).

Walking, Talking and Showing Off – a History of Roman Gardens

In ancient Rome, you could tell a lot about a person from the look of their garden. Ancient gardens were spaces used for many activities, such as dining, intellectual practice, and religious rituals.

Curious Kids: How did the First Person Evolve?

We know humans haven’t always been around. After all, we wouldn’t have survived alongside meat-eating dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex.

Ring-like Structure on Ganymede May Have Been Caused by a Violent Impact

Researchers from Kobe University and the National Institute of Technology, Oshima College have conducted a detailed reanalysis of image data from Voyager 1, 2 and Galileo spacecraft in order to investigate the orientation and distribution of the ancient tectonic troughs found on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.

Tracing Evolution From Embryo to Baby Star

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) took a census of stellar eggs in the constellation Taurus and revealed their evolution state.

“Woodhenge” Discovered in the Iberian Peninsula

Archaeologists conducting research in the Perdigões complex in the Évora district of the Iberian Peninsula has uncovered a “Woodhenge” monument.

New Fossil Discovery Shows How Ancient ‘Hell Ants’ Hunted With Headgear

Researchers from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes in France have unveiled a stunning 99-million-year-old fossil pristinely preserving an enigmatic insect predator from the Cretaceous Period -- a 'hell ant' (haidomyrmecine) -- as it embraced its unsuspecting final victim, an extinct relative of the cockroach known as Caputoraptor elegans.

Popular stories

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.

The Real Dracula?

“Dracula”, published in 1897 by the Irish Author Bram Stoker, introduced audiences to the infamous Count and his dark world of sired vampiric minions.