The Cave Hunters And The Truth Machine

The Cave Hunters And The Truth Machine is an exploration of how we form truth.

It takes as its focus a narrative charting the emergence of climate science from the Biblical mythology of Noah’s Flood: so one largely spanning the nineteenth century but stretching back through many millennia to what might be termed our ‘Dreamtime. This is a story founded on animal bone – and how humans use it to travel through time in search of answers.

Whilst the phrase ‘Cave Hunter’ suggests a multiplicity of meanings, the name was coined for the succession of Victorian gentleman explorers who, in investigating the caves of England and Wales, gradually evolved the disciplines of geology and archaeology which led to scientific understanding both of our own deep past and that of the planet. 

Animated imagery formed from paper cut-out creatures and palaeontological material from English and Welsh caves. The creatures are ‘reanimated’ within a large ‘machine’ in which they run through the minds of ‘Cave Hunters’ (past and present) as suggested by their handwritten journal entries.

A digital evolution of the flipbook-box installation Playing With Time, it constitutes a succession of ‘windows’ on the minds of its dramatis personae as they sought to fathom the vast natural forces that precipitate climate and environmental change. Not two hundred years ago it was held that The Deluge was the agency through which the bones of exotic – and curiously absent – beasts had been washed into the caves. Across cultures, similar flood stories were part of an enduring rationalisation of the universe that over millennia became myth.

Thus, it also explores the function of mythologies and ritual storytelling in maintaining memory and reconciling our place in the Grand Scheme. It raises questions of Western science, which, when practiced with rigour and integrity, is indisputably a powerful tool for forming truth. But does it provide all the answers? Can it ever be a panacea for the more fragile aspects of the human condition? And what happens when its rigour falls prey to ego?

Mythology or Science: which pathway to understanding best helps us to come to terms with natural forces of unfathomable scale?

A collaboration with Professor Danielle Schreve, director of the Centre for Quaternary Research at Royal Holloway University London, it draws on the cave palaeontology collections and archives of the Natural History Museum London, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, Manchester Museum, Torquay Museum and Wells and Mendip Museum – as well as Danielle’s own twelve year excavation of Gully Cave in the Mendip Hills. Through this research she is painstakingly forming a high resolution image of the past that sheds light on the impacts of rapid climate change on mammalian species – and thus is able to predict what the future may hold for those species that are not already extinct.

In the wheel house of the Ark are hyaena teeth and other specimens provided by collaborator Professor Danielle Schreve (Royal Holloway University London) whose research is concerned with mammalian response to abrupt climate change.

Its principal character is a chattering bone cruncher that we more readily associate with warmer climes – but which, as an inhabitant of our landmass for millions of years, should really be considered an indigenous species. The absence of the hyaena from our hills is, within a geological timeframe, perhaps a blip – but as misunderstood emblem of greed and slyness, whose ‘laughing’ vocalisations express unease and nervous tension, it perhaps holds a magnifying mirror to the darker side of the human condition in the twenty-first century.

Commissioned by Eyeview, Torbay and first presented in All Saints Church. Brixham.

The cave hyaena (here galloping through a Marine Isotope Sequence graph indicating fluctuating temperatures over the last 100,000 years) as part of the research of Dr. Angharad Jones (RHUL)
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