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Engraved Stones Found to Be the Earliest Known Human Art in the British Isles

Ten flat tablets discovered on the island of Jersey contain markings from hunter-gatherers who lived up to 23,000 years ago

A small stone tablet featuring geometric art made by the Magdalenians, an Ice Age people that once inhabited Europe. (The Natural History Museum)
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A group of ten stone fragments covered in abstract engravings may be the oldest examples of art ever found in the British Isles, reports Paul Rincon for BBC News.

These proposed works of art were found at the Les Varines archaeological site on the island of Jersey over the course of excavations that took place from 2014 until 2018, reports Nicola Davis for the Guardian. Research published this week in the journal PLOS ONE concludes that the small, flat stones were decorated by hunter gatherers between 14,000 and 23,000 years ago.

The designs feature straight lines that tend to run parallel to one another and long, arcing incisions. With the help of microscopes, the team observed that many of the lines on the stones were gouged out using multiple passes of a chiseling implement along the same course, suggesting they weren’t just haphazard scratches.

“It is not just a table that they used to cut meat, for example,” Silvia Bello, an archaeologist at London's Natural History Museum and lead author of the study, tells the Guardian. “In some cases, [the curved lines] seem to represent incipient examples of the back of a horse or the mouth of a horse, or in some cases the profile of an elephant. They are very, very simple – not very obvious.”

In the paper, the researchers propose that the artifacts were ornamental tablets or plaquettes created by a latter-day Ice Age people called the Magdalenians whose domain extended across Europe, reports the Irish News. The Magdalenians are thought to have originally hailed from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal today) and southern France before expanding into new territory, according to BBC News.

Researchers speculate that the plaquettes’ significance to the Magdalenians may have been more in their creation than in the finished product.

"The act of engraving,” Bello tells BBC News, “possibly the context and the moment when the engraving occurred, were the meaningful components of the process rather than the object that had been engraved.”

Thousands of other engraved plaquettes from the Magdalenian culture have emerged from excavations in France, Spain and Germany, reports the Guardian. Apart from the flat stones, the culture also carved designs into bones and antlers. Magdalenian settlements extended to northwest Britain, but this is the first time artworks of this era have been found in the British Isles.

“These engraved stone fragments provide exciting and rare evidence of artistic expression at what was the farthest edge of the Magdalenian world,” says Chantal Conneller, an archaeologist at Newcastle University and co-author of the study, in a statement. “The people at Les Varines are likely to have been pioneer colonizers of the region and creating engraved objects at new settlements may have been a way of creating symbolic relationships with new places.”

Speaking with the Guardian, Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University who was not involved in the research, agreed with the team’s assessment of the artifacts. “Based on examples found in large number elsewhere we would expect these [marks] to be most likely depictions of the large herbivores such as wild cattle, deer and mammoths, which formed the prey of the Magdalenians, perhaps less likely to be human faces, and possibly doodling as individuals relaxed by firelight,” says Pettitt. “Art in our modern sense it is not–but it is visual culture, however fleeting and however vague.”

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