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


Chumash black abalone California

Scientists measure extent of recovery for critically endangered black abalone

Scientists measure extent of recovery for critically endangered black abalone

Team applies historical perspective to inform modern management

A 19th-century archaeological abalone fishing site on the Northern Channel Islands. Credit: © 2015 Hannah Haas

SAN FRANCISCO (April 2, 2018) - One critically endangered species of smooth-shelled abalone is making a comeback in certain parts of its range along the California coast. To better understand the extent of black abalone recovery, a collaborative team led by scientists at the California Academy of SciencesSan Diego State UniversityUniversity of Oregon, and Channel Islands National Park is turning to archeological sites on the Channel Islands. Their findings, published today in Ecology and Evolution, suggest that while the recent ecological rebound is encouraging, there's still work to do before the black abalone should be considered fully recovered.

"Our goal is to provide a deep historical lens for understanding black abalone across 10,000 years of human fishing," says Dr. Todd Braje, Academy Curator of Anthropology. "Documenting abalone populations across millennia helps resource managers put shorter-term decadal changes in context. We hope these data will serve as a new benchmark for setting management goals."

Black abalone play a critical role in the kelp ecosystem along the California coast. The marine snails are an important food source for key predators like the endangered sea otter. Historically, coastal Native Americans relied on abalone for over 10,000 years--the shellfish later became one of California's first commercial fisheries.

"Management goals are often set using modern data from fisheries already on the verge of collapse," says lead author Hannah Haas, a former Master's student at San Diego State University. "If we want to restore kelp ecosystems, we first have to understand what a healthy system actually looks like, and archeological data can help paint that picture."

To better understand the characteristics of a flourishing abalone population in a historically healthy ecosystem, the study team turned to the archeological record left behind along the rocky shorelines of the Channel Islands. San Miguel Island, the westernmost island in the archipelago, hosts archeological sites spanning the last 10,000 years where the Chumash and their ancestors once deposited abalone shells by the thousands into trash piles known as shell middens. The team recovered nearly 2,000 whole abalone shells from 26 shell middens and measured shell size. They then compared deep historical shell size to modern measurements of live abalone collected by Channel Island National Park biologists during recent ecological monitoring. Shell size indicates the ratio of juveniles to adults and the population structure through time, which can help scientists compare and contrast overall population health between deep historical and modern eras.

While there has been an encouraging rebound of black abalone in recent decades, current populations still pale in comparison to historical levels. Several thousand years ago, the distribution of juvenile to adult-sized abalone was more akin to what ecologists recognize as a healthy population. This was probably maintained by a delicate balance between competitors, predators, and prey that may have actually increased the productivity of black abalone over the long term.

"We hope that our long-term analyses over the 10,000-year history of black abalone fishing in Southern California may help resource managers determine whether current abalone populations are healthy," says Haas.

Millions of smooth-shelled abalone once clung to California's rocky coastline until a steep decline in the 1990s, driven by overfishing, warming waters, and a devastating infection known as withering foot syndrome. California closed commercial and recreational black abalone fisheries in 1993 and listed the species as endangered in 2009.

"A variety of perspectives and data are key to understanding how to manage toward ecological balance rather than an era defined by commercial fishing, sea otter extirpation, and ecosystem dysfunction," says Braje. "We're trying to put together a diverse group of scholars--archeologists, biologists, and resource managers--to combine data insights and all work toward the same goal of abalone recovery and restoring healthy California kelp forest ecosystems."

The study team conducts a shoreline survey of prehistoric Chumash sites, which often contain discarded abalone shell. Credit: © 2015 Todd Braje

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About Research at the California Academy of Sciences

The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 450 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analyses of vast biological datasets, the Institute's scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.

 

Press release from the California Academy of Sciences