Art is a window to the soul. For thousands and thousands of years, human beings have looked at their world and tried to capture its beauty or terror or confusion or humor in some form of art. From the wall paintings of buffalo by the cave men who lived on the Iberian peninsula to the grand palaces of the Forbidden City in Beijing, man feels like it is necessary to capture a moment in time to make us think or stare in awe or be swept away in rapturous beauty.
We understand the past by going to primary sources. That is, go to the items that people left behind in that time period in which they have left behind some record of what they thought about their world. Naturally we study diaries, eye witness testimonies, and journals of long ago. If we want to study the ancient world or medieval or renaissance worlds, we can read personal letters people wrote to each other, or receipts, or diaries, or maps, or even menus! But their art is also a way to see how people felt about their world.
Look at the paintings in the tomb of Tutankhamen or the temples of the Maya people. How about the clay Chinese soldiers from Xian China? Look at the magnificence of the Parthenon or Angkor Wat or the ruins of Machu Piccu. The cathedrals of Christianity in the medieval world or the intriguing geometric patterns of mosques across the middle east tell us what people in those cultures valued the most. Weapons of war, fortresses, uniforms, and armor are also often decorated with amazing art—you can learn a lot from what people used in battle.
But besides the Mona Lisa and King Tut’s golden mask, what other art tells us about the past? How about music? Unfortunately we don’t always know how music sounded thousands of years ago. However, from ancient paintings we do know what sort of instruments people used. We do have very good information on the types of music people in medieval Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East enjoyed. We can listen today to reenactors playing tunes on authentic instruments, and imagine ourselves back in time.
Two more art forms teach us about people long ago. Don’t forget about dance and food. There are several cultures today (I am thinking of the people of India) whose traditional dance forms teach us about the stories that were important to their culture. And food? Yep, we can look at menus from ancient Rome or medieval China and see that in some cases favorite foods have changed quite a bit over time (roasted parrot was a delicacy in ancient Rome), or things haven’t changed a bit in centuries (northern Chinese still prefer noodles over rice!).
So, if you want to know more about how our ancestors saw their world, go to an art museum, take classes in Irish dancing, and go eat yummy food at an Indian restaurant! You’re studying history when you’re doing all of that!