Recently I had a rummage in a cave for a geocache, which appears to have made a lasting impression on me in thinking about caves in general. For last week whilst in college – on discussing the development of history throughout the past – I came across caves once again, and set a cave-related task to a class of Access to HE students.
The module concerns the continually studied theme of ‘What is History’, in which we cover the issue of Objectivity versus Subjectivity in the writing of history. We fly from Herodotus, Bede, and the Whigs, through Von Ranke, on into the modern debates concerning Marwick and post-modernists. But, as always seems to be the case in my first week of teaching, I completely lost focus with general digressions and then realised that I had run out of time to properly wrap up the session. So, I decided on stopping on a discussion of how historians operate when looking at pre-written records and how this links to the strength of interpretations. It just so happened that I was dwelling on a cave painting and how historians come up with different ideas as to their meaning, and so I set a task to the students asking them to find a cave painting to come up with their own interpretation. And so the class finished.
Fast forward to the next lesson which started on the topic of the student selected cave paintings. I didn’t know what to expect, having never actually considering doing this as an activity/guided studied topic in the past. The students discussed their own interpretations of the cave paintings, which led to fruitful interpretations. I was impressed by how such a simple activity could produce such engaging discussion (of course, the congratulations here must go the erudite and engaged students themselves). But, ultimately, it strikes at the heart of what is it to be an historian: to consider the source material, to construct a worthy interpretation, and for it to be convincing enough to sway others.
So, here are the images that were presented and discussed by the class:
The above image was analysed, with the class coming to the conclusion that it portrays a a warrior society proud of its traditions. There are possible weapons highlighted in the painting, including the use of animals (horses) to help them with speed in battle. Animals appear to be a common feature, with the image below highlighting this in more detail. Here the animal – possibly a bison – is given a dominant status. As to why, well, again, it is hard to judge, but a link was established with the Native Americans who utilised the buffalo to a great extent: they hunted it, ate it, and utilised its skin and bones to help with clothing and decoration. Clearly the buffalo was highly valued in that society, and perhaps similarly so with those who painted the below image.
A possible theory was suggested by one student: the presence of aliens in pre-historical societies. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but like many I can’t help from reading about them to consider their value. Even if it is far-fetched the activity here was to see if a pattern could be traced from the images themselves, and those posted below could be interpreted as alien non-human forms:
The one above is particularly grotesque and nightmarish. Perhaps not actually knowing the true origin makes the guess-work even more insecure and sinister. But not all interpretations were based on war or aliens. The final image below was discussed and suggested not as a dark one (as I first supposed), but rather one that connected those in that tribe together. Perhaps the hands were added to the wall as a rites of passage from those in the society, and perhaps they were added to over time. It suggests that our human need to belong has been wired into us for thousands for years, and possibly longer.
Ultimately, I was really happy with the task and with the excellent feedback. It is something that I will incorporate into classes in the future; it tests the ability to interpret the past utilising different sources. Sometimes good things happen without even planning it.