Teaching the Natural World in Prehistory

 

I group all the Prehistoric images that focus on the natural world (i.e. animals) together in a PowerPoint and teach the historical context of hunters-and-gatherers through the art they have left behind. My PowerPoints have hardly any words on them because I want to train my students to look and discuss to get the answers. As I always tell them: “In Art History, 50% of the answers are right in front of your face, you just have to know how to look.”

I try to separate form and content in this lesson to illustrate how they are distinct parts of art analysis but inevitably linked. Form is focused on how the piece looks while content is an extension of form specifically looking at the story/narrative/symbolism seen in the image.

Apollo 11 Stones

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This piece is good for teaching some basic art history terms, such as: profile, composite view/twisted perspective, negative/positive space. It also has the distinction of being the oldest image in the Art History 250 so there is some room for discussion on accurately dating Prehistoric images, but I don’t focus too much on that.

Camelid sacrum in the shape of a canine

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For this image (which I really don’t like FYI…) I mostly focus on materials and techniques because that is something that sets it apart from some of the other Prehistoric images in the 250. Students find it really cool that this piece is made from bone, specifically the bone of a camel-like animal. However, there are a lot of questions about its function so I present some theories and their supporting evidence but don’t focus on that too much.

Great Hall of the Bulls

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With the cave painting images from Lascaux my students can begin to speculate on content (which is the story or symbolism presented). Because there are so many figures overlapping each other, some of my students suggest a whole host of ideas from a stampede to migration patterns. However, we enter into the region of content very carefully not to over speculate and immediately assume that we know the motivation behind this enigmatic Prehistoric piece.

Sometimes I asked the students to see if they can find content in these pieces and make them back up all of their elaborate story-telling with facts from the form. Quickly, they see that Prehistoric images can “develop” into multiple stories, depending all on how you look at it.

Beaker with Ibex Motifs

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I begin teaching the beaker by having the class describe the form without any hints from me, as I slowly release hints and guided questions:

  • What part of the “natural” world is depicted here?
  • How many types of animals do you see?
  • How are they stylized?
  • What do you know about those animals today (i.e. wild/domesticated)
  • Why would these types of animals be on this vase?
  • Do you think this piece is Paleolithic or Neolithic? What supports your answer?
  • What may be the function of this piece?
  • What does the believed function of this piece tell us about the culture that created it?

The beaker is great to compare with the Great Hall of the Bulls because they are two pieces that show multiple animals and can address what has changed from the Paleolithic (Great Hall of Bulls) to Neolithic (Beaker with Ibex Motifs). Be sure to also address medium/media with this piece. It is terracotta and that indicates the development of pottery which is more important during Neolithic Period than Paleolithic because of the heavy use of grains in their diet and more sedentary lifestyle.

Ambum Stone

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There isn’t much on this piece (as with many Prehistoric pieces…) so I focus on my discussion on the form, especially introduction the ideas of mythical or composite animal and the stylization of art subjects.

Something that I think is also important for AP Art History students to realize, especially pertinent with the Ambum Stone, is location. I have a HUGE 8 x 17″ world map in my classroom where I add images from the Global Prehistory as I teach them so students can see the geographical range of this Content Area. Most art history textbooks mainly discuss Prehistoric works from Europe or Africa and largely neglect the rich artifacts available from Non-Western areas such as the Pacific, the Americas, East Asia, or the Middle East. Considering that when depicting the Natural World, an artist’s environment directly reflects what they depict, explaining the geographical spread of Prehistoric artwork in the 250 is especially important.

If you don’t have an oversized map like I do you can easily include a slide at the end of your PowerPoint or provide students with a map to fill in as you go along!

JMF

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