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A new study has discovered the earliest art in the British Isles and Ireland

A team of scientists including those from the Natural History Museum have confirmed that prehistoric societies in the British Isles were creating artistic designs on rock as long ago as the late Ice Age.

Ten fragments of stone plaquettes extensively engraved with abstract designs were uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, between 2015 and 2018. The plaquettes are believed to have been made by the Magdalenians, an early hunter gatherer culture dating between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones. 

Since the discovery of the findings, a team of scientists from the Natural History Museum, the University of Newcastle and University of York have been analysing the prehistoric markings and believe they represent the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British Isles.

Dr Silvia Bello, Researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, said: 'Microscopic analysis indicates that many of the lines, including the curved, concentric designs, appear to have been made through layered or repeated incisions, suggesting that it is unlikely that they resulted from the stones being used for a functional purpose. The majority of the designs are purely abstract, but others could depict basic forms such as animals, landscapes or people. This strongly suggests that the plaquettes at Les Varines were engraved for purposeful artistic decoration.'

Examples of etched Magdalenian plaquettes have previously been discovered at sites in France, Spain and Portugal. Although Magdalenian settlements are known to have existed as far north-west as Britain, no similar examples of artistic expression have previously been discovered in the British Isles of such an early date.

The research and excavation team, which also included experts from the universities of St. Andrew’s, Strathclyde, Liverpool, Wales, as well as UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum analysed the stones for traces of how the markings were made.

The analysis revealed that the plaquettes are engraved with groups of fine lines, thought to have been purposefully made using stone tools. The geometric designs are made up of a combination of straight lines more or less parallel to each other and longer, curved incisions. The research team say that the two types of marks are likely to have been produced using the same tools, possibly by the same engraver and in short succession, giving new insight into the processes used to create the ancient designs.

Dr Chantal Conneller, Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University, said: 'These engraved stone fragments provide exciting and rare evidence of artistic expression at what was the farthest edge of the Magdalenian world. The people at Les Varines are likely to have been pioneer colonisers of the region and creating engraved objects at new settlements may have been a way of creating symbolic relationships with new places.'

The stones discovered at Les Varines, in the south east of Jersey, were found in an area thought to have been used as a hearth. Three of the fragments had been recovered from an area of granite slabs which may have served as paving, highlighting that the plaquettes were engraved in a domestic context.  

Dr Ed Blinkhorn, Senior Geoarchaeologist at University College London and Director of excavations at the site, said: 'the plaquettes were tricky to pick apart from the natural geology at the site - every stone needed turning. Their discovery amongst hearths, pits, paving, specialist tools, and thousands of flints shows that creating art was an important part of the Magdalenian pioneer toolkit, as much at camp as within caves.'

The research took place as part of the Ice Age Island project, funded by Jersey Heritage, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries and the British Museum and the ‘Human behaviour in 3D’ project funded by the Calleva Fundation and is published in PLOS ONE.

 

ENDS

The paper was published on 19 August 2020.

Notes for editors

Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)779 969 0151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk


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