Earliest art in British Isles discovered in Jersey

Earliest art in British Isles discovered in Jersey

Prehistoric societies in the British Isles were creating artistic designs on rock as long ago as the late Ice Age, archaeologists have confirmed.

Rare evidence

The plaquettes provide the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British IslesFor the first time, archaeologists have analysed the ancient markings made on a group of flat stones, known as plaquettes, uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, and believe they date from the late ice age – some 15,000 years ago.

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, have been analysing the prehistoric markings and believe they represent the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British Isles.

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.

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 engraved 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 UCL Institute of Archaeology, 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, 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 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.

art British Isles prehistoric

Purposeful artistic direction

Dr Silvia Bello, Researcher at the Natural History Museum, 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 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 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,” added Dr Conneller. “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 and is published in PLOS ONE.

 

Reference: “Artists on the edge of the world: An integrated approach to the study of Magdalenian engraved stone plaquettes from Jersey (Channel Islands)” by Silvia M. Bello, Edward Blinkhorn, Andrew Needham, Martin Bates, Sarah Duffy, Aimée Little, Matt Pope, Beccy Scott, Andrew Shaw, Mark D. Welch, Tim Kinnaird, Lisa Millar, Ruth Robinson, Chantal Conneller. PLOS ONE https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0236875

 

 

 

Press release from the Newcastle University on the prehistoric markings that represent the earliest evidence of art discovered in the British Isles


Temple of Augustus Leptis Magna Surrey

The Temple of Augustus: an artificial landscape in Surrey

The Temple of Augustus: How ruins from Libya became the focal point of an artificial landscape in Surrey

Leptis Magna ruins to right of carriage path

 

Walking around the artificial lake of Virginia Water, past the artificial cascade, you come across the ‘Temple of Augustus’, another artificial addition to the royal landscapes of Surrey. But how did these Libyan ruins come to make up part of the grounds of Windsor Great Park?

Bridge adorned with cornice fragments

The city of Leptis Magna was founded in the 7th Century BC and rose to prominence in 193 AD under Emperor Septimius Severus who initiated a programme of enhancement through the provision of incredible docks, and a huge basilica complete with classical style columns. After his death in 211 the city began to decline, with the destructive tsunami of 365 and the invasion of the Vandals in the 5th Century.

1816, Hanmer Warrington arrived in Leptis Magna with friend, Augustus Earle. Only a few years earlier, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin had been hailed a hero by the British government on return from Greece with the stripped marble of the Parthenon, a response Warrington hoped to achieve with his presentation of the Leptis Magna ruins.

Louis XIV had taken 600 columns from the site and installed them in his palace in Versailles in the 17th century, whilst Rouen Cathedral and Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Preps in Paris also sported Leptis columns.

Upon commissioning ships and creating an agreement with the Local Governor, Warrington came across resistance of the local Libyan people. Not a conservation effort, but a local quarrying issue, they defied the removal of the ruins. Cut stone had often been collected from these sites to aid building work whilst round columns were used as mill stones. They took to destroying the collected ruins as they were being loaded onto ships, leading to 3 columns still lying on the beach, having been abandoned by Warrington’s team.

After the destruction was accounted for, Warrington collected a vast collection made up of 25 pedestals, 15 marble columns, 22 granite columns, 10 capitals, 5 inscribed slabs and fragments of stone and sculpture. On arrival in Britain he was met with an unenthusiastic government who it is said were not ‘at all impressed or convinced of the value, either aesthetic or intrinsic, of the cargo.’

Temple of Augustus
Leptis Magna ruins beyond the bridge

Having sat in the forecourt of the British Museum for 8 years, King George IV’s architect, Jeffry Wyatville expressed an interest in using them to create a folly in the grounds of Windsor Castle, which then stretched as far as Virginia Water.

Temple of Augustus
Part of the Temple of Augustus

Named the ‘Temple of Augustus’, possibly as a reference to the King’s full name, George Augustus Frederick, the site consisted of the 15 columns arranged in a semi-circle, and 2 parallel colonnades. Down the centre of the ruins ran a carriage road, allowing King George IV to pass under the road to Ascot. Wyatville placed fragments of cornices along the bridge mimicking an arch in a city wall.

Leptis Magna Ruins

Knowledge of the classics was important in high society, and the introduction of follies, ornamental ruins built to serve purely as landscape features, showed a level of class and sophistication. As William Gilpin, contemporary architect, noted about the importance of a fake authenticity, “if the ivy refuses to mantle over your buttress… you may as well write over the gate, Built in the year 1772.”

Temple of Augustus
Leptis Magna ruins to left of carriage path

 

All pictures taken by Scout Newby.

 

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