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Book Chapter


Optics, 6.1 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY, Archaeology, History and philosophy of science and technology, Art history

Publication Details

Culture And Cosmos

Open access

ISBN 978-1-907767-81-4, ISSN 1368-6534


Our visual awareness relies on light acting on the eye to perceive materiality and colour. Medieval thought wrestled to articulate and comprehend its nature. The notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, included his descriptions to define light and make comparisons so as to differentiate between light and shadow. His focus was on the illumination of surfaces from the perspective of a painter, seeing shadows as ‘the diminution of light by the intervention of an opaque body’ and ‘the counterpart of luminous rays’. In his mind, a shadow ‘stood between light and darkness’, with darkness being ‘the absence of light’. The anthropological record provides another gateway to such enquiry, holding oral and textual evidence on the meaning of light and cast shadows in the belief systems of some cultures. In one such example, recorded in the late nineteenth century, an observed reflection of the self in water was regarded as the person’s spirit and, significantly, the shadow cast by the body was imagined as the person’s soul. And how might such phenomena have been comprehended and used in the prehistoric past? Without ethnographic evidence the answer is unknowable and any conclusions are potentially conjecture. Researchers strive to overcome such hurdles using a suite of scientific tools and reasoning, and by drawing on the diversity of architecture and art. This paper follows a similar methodological trajectory to explore the qualitative nature of these phenomena using case studies spanning five millennia.


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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.