Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Exploring the Interrelationships of Art and Geology through a Course Module on European Ice Age Cave Art

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Exploring the Interrelationships of Art and Geology through a Course Module on European Ice Age Cave Art

Article excerpt


The theme of European ice age cave art is one that is well suited for art-and-science and art-and-geology courses, offering a wealth of topics that illustrate the interdisciplinary connections between art and the earth sciences. Among these are the origins of caves, the nature of ice ages, the authentification and dating of cave paintings, the scientific method and the nature of scientific hypotheses, the elements and principles of art and their presence (or absence) in cave art, and human evolution and the origins of creativity. In this article, we examine these and several other such topics as they relate to the theme of Paleolithic cave art. We also propose student and class activities that might be developed for an art and geology course, including some that we have utilized in our own course. Our aim is to provide an overview of key concepts and resources such that interested geoscience and/or art faculty will have sufficient information to adapt or develop a module or activity appropriate for their own courses.


The disciplines of art and geology may at first seem an unlikely pairing for a college course. However, the combined study of art and earth science extends back at least as far as Leonardo da Vinci, whose artwork displays an appreciation of such fundamental geologic principles as lateral continuity and superposition (Rosenberg, 2000). As evidenced by the recent topical session "Teaching Earth Science with Art" at the 1999 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America and accompanying articles published in a May 2000 special issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education, art and geology are complementary disciplines that lend themselves to non-majors instruction. At Georgia Southern University, we have developed a sophomore-level seminar course, "Art and Geology," which is offered to honors students (Battles and Hudak, 2003). The theme of European Paleolithic cave art forms the first module of our course, serving as an introduction to both art and earth science concepts. Our purpose in this article is to introduce the topic of European ice age cave art, highlighting the art and geology content and connections, and share ideas and identify resources for class activities based on this topic.


Cave paintings are an example of parietal or wall art, one of two major forms of Paleolithic art. The other form, called portable or mobiliary art, includes small and transportable artworks such as carvings of animals or female figurines. Parietal art has been identified at numerous sites in western Europe, with a concentration in southern France and Spain (Figure 1). Famous examples include the caves at Lascaux and Altamira; a more recent discovery is the stunning Chauvet Cave. With radiocarbon ages ranging from about 32,000 to 11,000 years before present (B.P.), the parietal cave art dates to the last Pleistocene glaciation event. In Europe, this climatic episode is called the Wiirm glaciation, which lasted from about 70,000 - 10,200 B.P. (Clottes and Courtin, 1996). The oldest of the cave art likely overlaps the period in which the Cro-Magnon people - modern humans and the creators of the cave art - coexisted with Neandertals in Europe (White, 2003; Appenzeller, 1998). The apparent lack of similar art attributable to the Neandertals offers an interesting look at human evolution and the origins of creative expression.

While vivid, colorful renderings of horses and bison may be the first images to come to mind, European ice age parietal art includes a diverse set of forms and subject matter. Representations include a variety of animals and non-figurative signs and depictions of humans. Horses, bison, ibex, red deer, and aurochs are common among cave art fauna; portrayals are also known of rhinoceros, lions, bears, mammoths, birds, and fish. Some caves are rather unique in their depicted fauna; for example, Chauvet is noted for its unusually high proportion of dangerous animals (Chauvet et al. …

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