The earliest evidence of artistic endeavours so far discovered in the British Isles appear to include depictions of horses, according to researchers.
The stone plaquettes, discovered on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands between England and France, date from the end of the last Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago.
The plaquettes are believed to have been made by the Magdalenians, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from 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.
Jersey would have represented the farthest edge of the Magdalenian world, the scientists say.
Ten fragments of stone plaquettes, extensively engraved with abstract designs, were uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, between 2014 and 2018.
Since then, a team of archaeologists led by Newcastle University, working with the Natural History Museum, has been analysing the prehistoric markings.
The study team, who reported this week on their investigations into the artwork in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, noted that plaquettes have been found in large quantities at many sites once occupied by the Magdalenians in France, Spain and Portugal. In France, about 1100 stone plaquettes were found at one site alone, in the Enlène cave at Ariège.
Magdelanian plaquettes are typically engraved with figurative animals or abstract “signs”, which can reflect a range of artistic skills. Painting with ochre or charcoal is not uncommon. Animal representations are dominated by horses and mammoths, with smaller numbers of bovids, deer, reindeer, saiga, wolves, bears, lions, fish, birds and seals. In a few instances, there are human representations.
Some of the Jersey plaquettes are quite elaborate, with one having more than 400 intersecting lines.
The researchers identified depictions that appeared to represent horses, or parts thereof, such as their hindquarters, but they cannot be certain.
The most complex of the plaquettes has engravings reminiscent of horse backs and hindquarters, with the elongated position of the horsetail suggestive of a running animal. Similar designs have been observed at other Magdalenian sites, the scientists noted.
“It has in fact been recognised that horse is represented in more than three out of four sites with great constancy throughout the Upper Palaeolithic in all regions of Europe,” they noted in their paper.
The study team said that 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 fragments represent the first evidence of engraved stone plaquettes found in the British Isles and Ireland, seemingly predating cave art and engraved bone found previously at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire.
The research and excavation team, which also included experts from the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, the universities of St Andrews, Strathclyde, Liverpool, Wales Trinity St David, and York, as well as 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, a senior lecturer at 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 designs were only briefly viewed by their makers. Engraving soft stone creates a powder within the incisions that makes them visible. This swiftly disperses, meaning that the engravings are only clear at the moment of their making. “In this context, the act or moment of engraving, was more meaningful than the object itself,” explained Dr Conneller.
Purposeful artistic direction
Dr Silvia Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, added: “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.”
The stones discovered at Les Varines, in the southeast 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.”
Dr Conneller added: “The engraved stones are firmly domestic art — this may have been important as people moved back into northern Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age.
“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 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.
Bello SM, Blinkhorn E, Needham A, Bates M, Duffy S, Little A, et al. (2020) Artists on the edge of the world: An integrated approach to the study of Magdalenian engraved stone plaquettes from Jersey (Channel Islands). PLoS ONE 15(8): e0236875. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0236875