Make your own version of a Palaeolithic Toy and a Thaumatrope

Whenever you pick up a book on the history of art, it usually starts with a chapter entitled ‘Before History’, which includes Cave Art.  The Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux and Chauvet Pont-d’Arc caves contain some of the oldest cave paintings in the world and they are amazing.  The Chauvet cave paintings are between 32,000 and 36,000 years.  If you want to see them I recommend Werner Herzog’s documentary, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’.  But don’t go yet!

We think of Thaumatropes as a Victorian optical toy, which they are, but what if the idea of optical illusions and animation has been around a lot longer than that?  Archaeologist Marc Azéma and Artist Florent Rivère have suggested that the superimposed images in some of the caves represent movement, and if viewed by flickering torchlight, (firelight) that movement is accentuated.  These guys took their theories of early animation a bit further by proposing that the carved bone discs, excavated in these regions, were not buttons or pendants as previously thought, but Palaeolithic ‘toys’.  Below you can see one in action. (and an interesting twitter account you might like to follow).

It has also been suggested by Ann Dayton, that such discs could have been drop spindles for spinning yarn.  Below are some images of a carved disc found at Mas d’Azil, you can see an adult animal on one side and a young animal on the other.  The images below, and lots of interesting information about this and other Stone Age discs can be found at

masdazil adult

young bison masdazil

Personally, I like the idea of them being toys!  Apart from the pleasant piction of Palaeolithic kids running around having fun with spinners, it would prove that those Victorian guys, who had a fall out over who was the first to come up with the idea of spinning discs, were well off the mark.

John Ayrton Paris is credited with inventing the Thaumatrope in 1825, and then getting it into production.  They were sold in boxes and the images are lovely – go look them up.  We made Thaumatropes when we were kids, and the caged bird was very popular.  Many of you might have seen one in the movie Sleepy Hollow.

I like to ask people what toys they, or members of their family, made when they were young to see if we can make a modern version.  I guess if we say this is a Palaeolithic toy, it’s certainly going to be the oldest toy we make.

We’re going to make a Victorian Thaumatrope first, the disc with a hole on each side.  Then we’re going to have a go with the Palaeolithic disc with the hole in the middle, to see if it works.

We’re going to stick with the animal theme, because Beanie and J love drawing animals, but we are going to keep it relevant to Derbyshire by using the Buck in the Park shield on the Derby Coat of Arms.

Derby crest


Strong card, something circular to draw around or a pair of compasses, scissors, tracing paper (optional), a pencil, paints/pencil crayons/fine liner and two lengths of string.

So, how are we going to put our buck in the park?

Firstly, you need to cut out a cardboard disc – (if you are going to use felt pens use thick card or cut out two discs and glue them together – felt pen shows through the other side of thin card).  You can draw around a glass or use a pair of compasses to draw your circle, and then cut it out carefully.  My circle measures 8cm in diameter.

Cutting a disc

Draw your image.  I drew the whole image on a separate piece of paper and then traced it.  You can just draw your image straight onto the disc, but this method can help with the positioning.

Tracing an image

I placed the traced image over the discs and drew around the circle.  Next I transferred the image of the buck onto the disc.  I then turned the disc over, vertically, not horizontally, and positioned the tracing paper to line up with the circle and this time transferred just the image of the railings on to the other side of the disc.  Use paints, crayons or felt pens to colour in you images.  If you are using two discs now is the time to glue them together – you can fasten them together with a paper clip to make sure the images are in the correct position.  If I look at the side with my railings on and then peer over the top at the other side, the Buck would be upside down.

Buck side holes

Make two holes, one on each side of the disc.  Make sure they are large enough to pass through the string you are using.

Thread 1

Fold the string in half.

Thread through card

Take the folded end of the string and pass it through the hole (this is a blank disc for demonstration purposes).

Thread through loop

Pass the cut ends of the string through the looped end and pull all the way through, until the string is secured at the edge of the disc (see below)

Thread pulled through

Secure the other string to the other side.  Below are both sides of the disc.


It’s done!  But does it work?  Hold the strings with your thumbs and index fingers, roll the string backwards and forwards and the buck should appear in the park, where he belongs.  If you spin the disc slowly you see the images separately, but if you spin the disc faster, the brain interprets the images as one.  There are lots of images and ideas out there that you could use, check out John Ayrton Paris’ original Thaumatrope designs and some more modern ones, better still, come up with your own idea!

Let’s try the out the Palaeolithic disc.

It’s exactly the same until you come to making the holes.  So, cut out your cardboard disc (this one measures 5 cm) and draw on your chosen images.  Remember to flip vertically.  These images are copies of the ones on a Palaeolithic disc in the first video above.

This time, you need to make the hole in the centre.   I used clear polyamide bead thread.  You need to use a thread that you can’t really see otherwise it will obscure the images.  Pass one end of your thread through the hole.  Pull the thread through so that the cut ends are level.  Tie the thread in a knot at the edge of the disc.  I made a very small cut into the edges of the card on either side, to anchor the threads.  The knot needs to be tight against the card – little ones might need some help.  Do the same on the other side.  Let’s see if it works!

Yes it does!  But it’s different.  Whereas the Thaumatrope combines the two images to make one, the Palaeolithic disc appears to make the animal move, it’s legs seem to go up and down.  You could have a look at images of other cave art animals and see if you can drawn them on the disc in a way that will make them appear to move when you spin them.  We made some out of clay, they work too.

Clay discs

Have fun! J

















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