Ancient Art Education

In a prior post titled Artfully Ancient Learning, I analyzed an early 2022 archeological discovery of pottery fragments from Ptolemaic-era Egypt inscribed with a educational content including mathematical problems, grammar exercises and a variety of sketches and pictographs. The inscriptions are believed to be the work of students. Looking at the drawings in particular, I described how the figuration indicated a developmentally appropriate understanding of the ancient Egyptian canon, and how they correspond with contemporary understandings of artistic development.

I suggest you read the full post, but here’s a basic synopsis:

  • The children’s renderings of human figures, deities and animals are presented in the twisted perspective, which is a stylized pictorial convention used to give emphasis to distinguishing features. Twisted perspective is a key element of prehistoric art, as well as ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art.

  • If we analyze these drawings in terms of contemporary knowledge of artistic development in children’s art, then we might categorize these particular drawings within the preschematic and schematic phases (approx. ages four to nine).

  • The drawings of people and other figures are minimal with limited corporeal features and expressions. This is due to the children developing the schema (idea) of what they want to visually communicate. The drawings show what the child perceives to be the most important elements of the subject.

This post continues to assess known and potential examples of children’s art from prehistory through the middle ages. While there are no definitive records of art educational curricula from this timeline, the artworks enable us to ascertain that artistic development has been a continuous and important part of both formal and informal education.

Did children have a hand in prehistoric painting?

In April of 2022, researchers from Cambridge University in London and Spain’s University of Cantabria, published a paper in the Journal of Archeological Science, that provides some insight into the identities of the prehistoric humans who created paintings using their hands as stencils. They looked at 180 of cave paintings of hands from the northern Cantabria region, which date back around 20,000 years ago, determining that the creative act was an intergenerational event. After measuring the hands, they noted the probability that infants, children and adolescents all participated in making these paintings. One quarter of the hand marks match up with the hand sizes of children between two and ten years old. The research team also surmised that the paintings were a collaborative process due to the notion that the infants would have required help from adults to blow pigment onto the rocks to create the impression of their hands. The familial and communal process supports the concept of how children learn from both observing and doing.

As part of the research, the archaeologists held a live painting session in an attempt to recreate what an ancient parietal art session might have entailed, and to help confirm the age range of the prehistoric artists. Children of varying ages took turns extending their hands upon a limestone wall, while an adult blew ochre pigment over them.

Nature and nurture

On December 1, 2022, archeologists suggested another art educationally related breakthrough concerning ancient culture. An analysis of a well-known group of carved stone slabs in the form of owls from the Iberian Peninsula dating to the Copper Age (c. 5,000 years ago), has led to a theory that they might have been made children. The owls were long considered objects used for rituals, which some archeologists still assert to be their prime function. The new hypothesis that they are youthful manifestations was derived from a comparison of the ancient carvings and modern/contemporary children’s drawings of owls.

Left: 5,000 year old owl plaque
Right: 2022 owl drawing by an elementary school student.
Image credit: The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

Researchers looked at recent examples of elementary school children’s owl drawings alongside these ancient carvings. They asked teachers to simply provide their students with drawing materials and only one prompt: “to draw an owl.” The researchers also compared the carvings to the little owl (athene noctua) and the long-eared owl (asio otus), which are native to the region. These comparisons led the researchers to assert that the style of these carvings are in line with the type of figuration young children were capable of making, and also that they showed an astute observation of the natural environment.

According to one of the lead researchers, Víctor Díaz Núñez de Arenas, “the engraving of these plaques provided the youngest with an activity with which to learn the handling of the different techniques of carving and engraving of the stone, essential for the realization of other objects, such as knives or points of arrow used for functional tasks of daily life. It could even be a way to detect and select the most skilled members of the community for stone carving” (quoted in Hunt, 2022). Like the pottery examples from Ptolemaic-era Egypt, these slate carvings suggest that schema (patterns of behavior enabling children to explore and express developing ideas and insights through playing and other hands-on activities) has been a long standing and intrinsic element of children’s learning.

Furthermore, the differentiation among some of the owl plaques, as well as the contemporary drawings, is evidence of the multidimensional model of artistic development. This model signifies that children progress in their ability to depict representational elements based on a combination of factors such as age, prior artistic background and their conceptual understandings of the subject matter they are visually expressing. This is noted by the researchers when they compared the ancient plaques with the modern-day drawings. Two elements were revealed in the cross-examination: “(a) owls are always drawn with the head situated frontally, with the owl’s eyes staring at the observer (as if there were no other ways to depict an owl), and (b) there is a progression related to age in the owliness of the depictions, with more and more owl characters added by older children. The latter may help explain at least partially why there are so many plaque types, and why some are more evocative of owls than others” (Negro, Blanco, Rodríguez-Rodríguez and Díaz Núñez de Arenas, 2022).  

The artist known as Onfim

Although the age and intent of the artists behind the owls are still up for debate, archeologists have confirmed the identity of at least one child artist from centuries ago, once again highlighting near-universal similarities in artistic development among children’s art.

Beginning in the 1950s archeologists working in Veliky Novgorod, Russia, uncovered pieces of centuries-old birch bark that had been preserved by clay soil. Sixteen pieces of the discovered bark feature pedagogical lessons and drawings made by a thirteenth century boy from the Novgorod Republic (a middle-ages civilization located in present-day Russia), named Onfim.

Birch bark letter no. 202: spelling lessons and drawings by Onfim, c.1240–1260.
Wikimedia commons

Onfim is estimated to be around six or seven years old when he made the particular drawing shown above, which also features spelling exercises, which along with the other artifacts, led archeologists to determine that they were made as part of Onfim’s formal education. 

Like the prior examples of art from past civilizations, Onfim’s art shows a continuity in style and schema. The theory of artistic development can be applied as a means to analyze the visual expression and conceptual ideas within Onfim’s drawings. Utilizing the stages of artistic development, Onfim’s drawing is situated within the preschematic stage, a period when children incorporate circular images with lines (known as “lollipop stick figures”) that make associations to human or animal forms.

The preschematic stage signifies the initiation of the child’s development of a schema. Artwork from this phase of artistic development often highlight elements that the child considers to be most important for building a visual narrative. Onfim’s drawings are definitely in line with his sense of self and culture at large. He depicts various subjects, ranging from imaginative battle scenes to portraits of himself with his teacher. The latter is the likely theme for the particular drawing from Birch-bark letter no. 202. The representations of Onfim and his teacher contain more than five fingers on each hand, which researcher Valentin Yanin noted is because he had not learned to count at that point in time. 

Copy of Birch bark letter no. 200: Drawing of a Horseman, with name “Onfim” to the rider’s right, and above that the alphabet, A – K.
Wikimedia Commons:

Other drawings by Onfim show evidence of a continuity in the playful and unfettered imagination in children’s art from generation to generation. There are so many striking similarities between Onfim’s drawings of battle scenes, heroic figures, dragons and monsters in the preschematic and schematic stages, and drawings of similar subject by contemporary children of a similar age.

The common characteristics revealed throughout each archeological revelation, is that children are naturally artists and artistic development is activated by a combination of natural inclination, skill building and cultural relevance. Children have literally shaped the past and will continue to provide valuable and creative insights in the present and future.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cascone, Sarah. “A Study of Prehistoric Painting Has Come to a Startling Conclusion: Many Ancient Artists Were Tiny Children,” artnet, 14 March 2022.

Hunt, Katie. “Popular toy of prehistoric children revealed by new research,” CNN, 1 December 2022.

Mastbaum, Blair. “Making Prehistoric Cave Art in Spain Was an All-Ages Activity,” Atlas Obscura, 29 April 2022.

Negro, J.J., Blanco, G., Rodríguez-Rodríguez, E. et al. Owl-like plaques of the Copper Age and the involvement of children. Sci Rep 12, 19227 (2022).

Verónica Fernández-Navarro, Edgard Camarós, and Diego Garate. “Visualizing Childhood In Upper Palaeolithic Societies: Experimental and Archaeological Approach to Artists’ Age Estimation Through Cave Art Hand Stencils.” Journal of archaeological science, v. 140 ,. pp. 105574. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2022.105574

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