Prehistoric Art - Part 1

Contributed By: Tim Gill

This interesting syllabus is shared by Tim Gill, passionate archaeologist and BoD member of CoDA. Oh… and a successful lawyer! Tim’s UC Berkeley background and training resonate in this well thought out program that brings students to dive into the “art” of prehistory and its meaning. At least the meaning that our modern mind attributes to ancient art. Is it appropriate to call these images, figurines, petroglyphs and engravings “art?” What does that term mean today? Does it fit with what we know about prehistoric peoples? These are the main questions that this course addresses. The syllabus is divided in two parts: Part 1 covers concept, description and outcomes, and Part 2 (to be published next week) provides the weekly schedule and readings. Enjoy!

Course Overview

In this course we will examine the imagery and objects encompassed within the category of “art,” works that were created during prehistory in many locations throughout the world.  Much of our focus will be on the art of prehistoric Europe, and in particular Europe during the last Ice Age, but we will also consider works created in North America, Africa, Asia and Australia.  This topic should prove interesting to anthropologists, archaeologists, students of art, and those interested in the development of human cognition.

One of the first questions to be considered is whether it is appropriate to call these images, figurines, petroglyphs and engravings “art.”  What does that term mean today?  Does it fit with what we know about prehistoric peoples?  By using it, have we necessarily imposed a modern conception of the purpose and meaning of these works on to societies that existed in deep time?  This theme of projecting modern assumptions and values into the past is one to which we will return many times. In this course we will not simply view pictures of magnificent paintings and figurines created long ago, although we will certainly do a lot of that.  Rather, we will spend much of our time considering the social and economic contexts in which these works were created, as well as the archaeological and analytical methods by which we have learned about those contexts.  Issues of epistemology – how we know what we think we know about prehistory – will come to the forefront throughout our studies.

The prehistoric art of Ice Age Europe is often said to demonstrate “the arrival of the modern mind,” to quote the title of a recent book.  Certainly it is one of the key elements of the archaeological record that implicates human cognitive abilities.  One focus of our work in the course will therefore be to consider what this art can tell us about the human mind, its origins, and its development through time.  So many questions arise:  what is the human “mind”?  How might imagery, engravings and physical objects be related to the mind?  Are they part of the manner by which humans construct meaning?  Does the creation of this “art” demonstrate cognitive modernity?  We will look at theories of human cognition put forth by archaeologists and cognitive scientists, in an attempt to address those and other questions.  We will also consider the issue of whether the Neanderthals also created art, and what the implications of that might be. Many theories have been put forth to explain and/or interpret prehistoric art, and archaeologists have offered critiques of those theories.  In this course we will consider many of them.  For example, we will look at whether much of prehistoric art was created in the context of shamanistic practices.

Although there will be lectures by the instructor and probably also by guest speakers, this course will be participatory in nature.  Students will be expected to know the reading material before coming to class, and the goal is to engage in spirited discussions of those readings and the topics being considered.   Attendance at class sessions is required.  Students will also take part in group presentations to the class on topics related to prehistory and prehistoric art.  There will be short written assignments, a midterm and a final exam.

Two books are required for this class.  The first is Randall White’s Prehistoric Art, a great overview of the subject, richly illustrated and worth keeping long after this course is over.  The second is David Lewis-Williams’ and Sam Challis’ very recent Deciphering Ancient Minds, which presents a valuable case study of the interpretation of prehistoric San Bushman rock art, from Southern Africa.  Other readings, from journal articles to book excerpts, will also be considered.

Course Requirements

Prerequisites: Strictly speaking, there aren’t any.  An Introduction to Archaeology course will help you with some of the materials we will consider in this course.  Other courses in Anthropology will also be helpful.  We will touch on some issues of human evolution and biology as well, but you do not need to have a background in biology other than an understanding of the most basic tenets of Darwinian evolution.

Participation: Although the instructor will present some lectures, this is actually a discussion and participation course, not a lecture course.  The course will be better (and more enjoyable too) if all students offer their ideas and critiques.  This is a class where it matters that you come to class!!  Coming to class and participating will count for 10% of your grade.  In the past this collaborative, participatory framework has provided a much richer experience than a straight lecture course.

Panel Presentations: Everyone will participate in a panel, which is basically a group effort to communicate some aspects of the course materials to the rest of the class on a specific day.  For most of the panel topics, we will devote the entire class meeting to that topic, and although the panel presentation must NOT exceed a certain time period ( 7 minutes for each person on the panel; i.e., with 5 panelists, 35 minutes; with 4 panelists, 28 minutes). The format and organization of the panel is up to each panel, as long as each person in the group carries out a fair share of the research and presentation work needed to insure an effective communication of the panel topic.

The Panel presentation will count for 25% of your grade.

You are NOT limited to presenting multi-person lectures.  Panel presentations in past classes have included skits, game shows, interviews, time travels, digital narratives, etc.  Come up with something creative!  The major thing to keep in mind is that you will want to be able to communicate some core ideas to your peers in the class in an engaging manner.  The topics are broad enough that you can do many possible things with them.
You should start as early as possible to organize the panel and determine who will do what.

Everyone will need to have signed up for a panel no later than February 6. Sign up sheets will be available in class as of January 30.

Midterm Exam: On Monday, March 9, we will have an in-class Midterm, which is intended to help you pull together the framing concepts of the course.  The Midterm will be short answer and essay, and we will have a review class on March 6, just before the Midterm.  The Midterm will count for 25% of your grade. If you become too sick to take the Midterm, or have an unexpected emergency on midterm day, you MUST leave a voicemail or text on the Instructor’s cell phone by 7:30 am on the day of the Midterm.

Final Project or Paper: The Final will take the form of a research paper (approx. 10 pages) or, if you prefer, you may present your research in the form of a detailed PowerPoint, a digital story or other mode of presenting a research topic.  The topic will be one of your choosing but subject to the Instructor’s approval.  Options will be discussed in class.  This will count for 40% of your grade. Regardless of the format you choose, you will need to submit a proposed topic and five key resources to be used in your research by Friday, April 10.  You are encouraged to meet with the Instructor and submit drafts of your paper or project to help refine your ideas and be sure you are on the right track for a good result.

Participation 10%
Midterm Exam 25%
Panel Presentation 25%
Final Project or Paper 40%
A course incomplete will only be considered if you have done at least 2/3 of the course work.