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Prehistoric Art: Origins and Transitions - ARC00126M

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Andy Needham
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24
    • See module specification for other years: 2024-25

Module summary

The course explores the earliest forms of artistic expression from across the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, and how it changes across different species, varying environmental and ecological conditions, and diverse lifeways. Lectures provide detailed introductions to key themes and the art of each period, discussion is supported through the use of seminars and online activities, and critical reflection encouraged via practical workshops.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

This modules aims:

  • To examine the different kinds of prehistoric art from across the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic
  • To consider the varied methods archaeologists use to study early prehistoric art
  • To discuss the varied theories and interpretations surrounding prehistoric art across different periods
  • To foster familiarity with the main theoretical approaches, sources of evidence and techniques of analysis associated with the study of prehistoric art
  • To facilitate development of a range of important skills, including oral and written communication, critical analysis, and synthesis

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a systematic understanding of the characteristics of the different types of art found across early prehistory
  • Critically evaluate the methods by which different forms of prehistoric art are studied by archaeologists
  • Demonstrate critical engagement with interpretations of and debates surrounding early prehistoric art
  • Communicate complex ideas in an analytical framework through essay writing

Module content

The course explores the earliest forms of artistic expression from around the world using a combination of lectures, seminars, practical workshops, and museum and gallery visits. The course takes in the earliest flickerings of the precursors of artistic expression, such as an aesthetic sense and interest in form, perhaps evidence from as early as the Lower palaeolithic and considers the debates surrounding these traces. This invites a (seemingly) simple but critical question: what is art? Next, the course explored the art produced by our closest extinct relatives the Neanderthals and the implications of another complex art making species in the hominin line. The course then focuses on the art produced by Anatomically Modern Humans, from the Palaeolithic through to the Neolithic. While the species making the art remains constant, this period reflects significant shifts in environment and ecology, population density, mobility strategy, and lifeway, including the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The relationship between this complex milieu will be considered in tandem with the changing nature of artistic expression in humans through time. At every step, the varying interpretations, theories and methods used by archaeologists to explore this topic will be introduced and evaluated.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative: oral feedback from module leaders

Summative: written feedback within the University's turnaround policy

Indicative reading

Needham, A., Wisher, I., Langley, A., Amy, M., Little, A. (2022) Art by Firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France). PLOS One 17(4) e0266146.

Milner, N., Bamforth, M., Beale, G., Carty, J.C., Chatzipanagis, K., Croft, S., Conneller, C., Elliott, B., Fitton, L.C., Knight, B., Kröger, R., Little, A., Needham, A., Robson, H.K., Rowley, C.C.A., Taylor, B. (2016) A unique Engraved Shale Pendant from the Site of Star Carr: The oldest Mesolithic art in Britain. Internet Archaeology 40,

Jones, A.M. (2017) The Art of Assemblage: Styling Neolithic Art. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27(1), 85–94.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.