Sherbrooke university students go cave painting

Students in a rock-painting history class at the Université de Sherbrooke put what they learned to the test this week, creating their own cave paintings in the school's underground tunnels.

History professor brings a hands-on approach to lessons on ancient rock art

A history student at the Université de Sherbrooke gets his hands dirty as part of a class cave-painting project. (Pierrick Pichette/Radio-Canada)

A group of history students at the Université de Sherbrooke knew they would be studying prehistoric rock art this semester, but they had no idea they would be creating cave paintings of their own.

Adelphine Bonneau, an assistant professor in chemistry and history, got permission for her class to put theory to practice on the concrete walls of a network of tunnels underneath the university.

"After a lesson where I explained how people used to make [cave] paintings, I proposed to them to actually reproduce it — with ingredients we know had been used by those people," she said.

The students chose between clay, ochre, calcite and talc, binding a pigment with oil, egg yolk, egg white or pig's blood.

"Then they tried to apply their mixture, their painting, on the wall with different techniques," said Bonneau, "with their fingers, their hands, pencils, sponges ... [or] blowing the painting by using a straw."

Prof. Adelphine Bonneau, who teaches history and chemistry at the Université de Sherbrooke, had her students recreate ancient art on the walls of the campus's underground tunnels. (Pierrick Pichette/Radio-Canada)

Prehistoric cave painters would have likely used the blood of much larger mammal, says the professor, but pig's blood was the best her butcher could do for her.

Sticks and stones

Bonneau explains that rock painting encompasses "all kinds of representation ... on rocks and stones," whether it's etched on massive boulders, small rocks near rivers, rock shelters or caves.

Students had to make their own cave painting mixture, using ingredients like pig's blood and eggs — similar to the materials our ancestors would have used to make prehistoric rock art. (Pierrick Pichette/Radio-Canada)

She says cave painting is a specific type of rock painting that typically portrays animals, humans or mythological creatures. Cave paintings are mainly concentrated in Europe, Indonesia and Australia, but paintings and engravings have also been found in smaller quantities on all of the continents except Antarctica.

Bonneau's students aren't trained artists, but they said getting out of the classroom to try something different was a refreshing change of pace.

"Often the problem with [studying] history is we see it in two dimensions, like we're looking down on past events," said student Nicolas Thiffault. "It's always more difficult to go to the heart, to know how people felt back then. This class allows us to do that."

The students said they also enjoyed being able to do something together in-person after so much of the past two school years have been spent in isolation.

"Since we're not studying art, none of us are very good, so we all had a smile on our face," said another student, Gabrielle Nicol.

"We're discovering things we wouldn't normally be drawing, and it's helped motivate us to come to class."

Bonneau says her history class painted around 100 different figures in a section of the university's publicly accessible underground tunnels.

"Rock paintings are supposed to be secret," she said,"so I won't tell you exactly where they are."

Two University of Sherbrooke history students put what they learned in a rock painting class to the test on wall in their school's underground tunnel system. (Pierrick Pichette/Radio-Canada)

With files from Holly Mueller and Radio-Canada


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