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


Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

medicinal plants herbal medicine ethnobotany Amazigh Morocco High Atlas
Irene Teixidor-Toneu together with one of the Amazigh women who contributed to her thorough research on plant use in the High Atlas. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

A new methodology for comparing herbal medicine across societies can also be used to understand the transfer of cultural traditions.

“I did a thorough documentation of the natural remedies, mostly plants, used by the Amazigh people in the High Atlas. Then, I studied how modernization in its various forms influences the use of plants,” explains Irene Teixidor-Toneu, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.

“To summarize, there is a change in the use of substances, since people are open to medication prescribed by the doctor. At the same time, traditional knowledge and beliefs concerning plant use are kept alive, although traditions also change over time.”

Having spent almost a year in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains, ethnobotanist Irene Teixidor-Toneu finished her PhD on the use of medicinal plants in Amazigh (Berber) villages.

Her scientific article, describing the methodology, was published in the October issue of the journal Nature Plants. She is currently working at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where her methods will be applied to map the use of medicinal plants in Scandinavia from Viking times until today, in a project that was launched in November 2018.

"The traditional way of life is under threat a lot of places, it's not simply about biodiversity, says Irene Teixidor Toneu. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Modern or traditional medicine?Her PhD dissertation was devoted to the transmission of knowledge about medicinal plants used by a defined group of people.These were some of the basic questions Teixidor-Toneu studied:

  • Why are certain plants selected for medical use?
  • How are they used?
  • How does usage change over time?

If you were to ask a pharmacist, one obvious explanation to why certain plants are used,is that they contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds developed in order help plants thrive or fight competitors, predators, or pathogens. Many phytochemicals have therapeutic effects.

However, there is always a combination of reasons why a plant is selected for use, according to Teixidor-Toneu.

From her field work in the High Atlas in Morocco. Credit: Irene Teixidor Toneu

Faith and loreEthnobiology is defined as the interdisciplinary study of how human cultures interact with and use their native plants and animals. Ethnobotany is defined as the plant lore of indigenous cultures, also the systematic study of such lore.

Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains:

“In studies of plant diversity and conservation, there are a lot of ecological models that don’t take people into account at all. If you think of the vegetation in the Mediterranean area, as an example, nothing makes sense if you don’t consider humans and their influence. After all, the region has been shaped and developed by man for millennia.”

From colouring to foodMost of us probably think of food, spice and medicine, when the subject of plant use is brought up. However, there is a multitude of historic and present practices. Like fumigation.

Fumigation is the physical process of burning and making smoke out of a plant. This can be ritual or medical or a combination of both. It can be done to clean out a dirty room, to remove fleas and ticks and other insects. In Morocco, the Amazigh burn plant that are rich in resins in order to clean the stables for their animals.

Other uses vary from producing and dyeing textiles, making furniture and utensils, construction of houses to providing fodder and veterinary medicine.

The interdisciplinary aspect is one reason why Irene Teixidor-Toneu finds ethnobotany so fascinating:

”There has been a patchwork of approaches and methods because people from different backgrounds have come together, with no common theoretical framework. Researchers from the humanities and natural scientists often have different approaches. In recent years, we have seen some articles trying to unite and define ethnobiology as one discipline, but there are still many ways to regard the interaction of people and plants.”

Constructing family treesTeixidor-Toneu has provided a significant contribution through her perspective article recently published in Nature Plants, with co-authors Fiona Jordan (evolutionary anthropologist, University of Bristol) and Julie A. Hawkins (phylogenetist, University of Reading).

Basically, it is a summary of the theoretical analysis for her PhD work. The article proposes a framework to study plant uses. This framework uses phylogenetic comparative methods applied to anthropological data, which involves – to put it simply - the construction of language family trees.

For some time, it has been used by anthropologists to gain understanding of the evolution of political, religious, social and material culture. It has not previously been applied to plant use, as pointed out by the editor of Nature Plants in the editorial:

“Normally we associate the use of (…) phylogenetic analyses to determine the relationships between species and groups of organisms, tracing their evolution back to putative common ancestors. (…) Teixidor-Toneu et al. have applied comparative phylogenetic methods, not to plants themselves but to the medicinal roles to which they have been put. Even within ethnobotany this is not a common approach, but the ability to use multiple types of data can produce robust and detailed information about how cultural information is transmitted”

Medicinal plants are of special interest because of their role in maintaining people’s health. Phylogenetic comparative methods can enable researchers to study the diversity of medicinal plant applications across cultures, and also to infer changes in plant use over time.

These methods can be applied to single medicinal plants as well as the entire set of plants used by a culture for medicine, known as a pharmacopoeia.

One of the Berber villages in Imlil in the Moroccan High Atlas, where Irene Teixidor-Toneu did her field studies. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Plants and cultural knowledge are both endangered“I think the main significance of our paper is that it opens up new opportunities for studying plant use. At the moment, we are well aware that that biodiversity is threatened. Cultural diversity and traditional lifestyles are also threatened. In other words, many plants as well as the knowledge about how to use them, are endangered. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand how various threatening factors interact and how use and knowledge change over time,” Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains, and adds:

“We are trying to understand plant use across cultures. The first thing we need to understand is how cultures are related. We use phylogeny models, or pedigrees, to trace relationships between people and cultures, based on language similarities.”

“Having traced evolutionary relationships between cultures, we can identify and try to understand the ways plants are used in different cultures. Within this framework we can also study how uses change, and it can be linked to geographical models. So, we end up with what we could call a biocultural geography.”

Full bibliographic information

Comparative phylogenetic methods and the cultural evolution of medicinal plant use. Irene Teixidor-Toneu, Fiona M. Jordan & Julie A. Hawkins. Nature Plants volume 4, pages 754–761 (2018)

 

Press release from Titan.uio.no/ (NO)