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


Caelian Hill Ian Haynes Rome Transformed project Paolo Liverani

New research aims to transform study of eight hundred years of Rome

New research aims to transform study of eight hundred years of Rome

An international, interdisciplinary team led by Newcastle University's Professor Ian Haynes aims to revolutionise understanding of Rome and its place in the transformation of the Mediterranean World

Caelian Hill Ian Haynes Rome Transformed project Paolo Liverani
Caelian Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, Italy

Emperors and Popes

The £2.1 million (€2.4 million) project funded by the European Research Council will pioneer a radically new methodology designed to analyse complex urban landscapes, exploring buildings buried up to 10 metres below the modern ground surface. Its focusses on a ‘forgotten’ quarter of Rome which, while omitted from most tourist itineraries, served as home to emperors and popes for generations. Between the first and eighth centuries AD, many of the most powerful people on earth lived in and around the Caelian Hill in the south-east of the city.

Drawing together diverse strands of data to visualise the way this area changed over eight centuries, the team will examine in detail the character of its many features, from palaces and the world’s first cathedral, to fortifications, aqueducts and private homes. Revealing in turn how these related to each other and to prevailing political, military and religious ideas, Professor Haynes and his team will transform the way major shifts in the chronological, geographical and ideological history of Rome are understood.

Ideological shifts

Ian Haynes Newcastle University
Professor Ian Haynes project director

Ian, Professor of Archaeology in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, who has directed archaeological investigations in the area around the Caelian Hill with Professor Paolo Liverani of the University of Florence for over 10 years – said:

“It is a tremendous privilege to be able to take this work forward. This grant not only allows us to develop a new cost-effective methodology applicable to the study of many of the world’s historic cities, delivering vital information to planners, heritage bodies, civil engineers, historians and archaeologists, it also helps us understand better some of the major ideological shifts that formed the world we live in.

“Over the course of this five-year project, we will be looking at the interplay of ideas, architecture, and infrastructure in the Caelian quarter to make the first ever large-scale assessment of the political, military and religious regenerations that emerged in this forgotten quarter of Rome. This matters because what happened here repeatedly shaped the development of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa”.

Rome Transformed

The project will involve colleagues from across Newcastle University, alongside the University of Florence, the British School at Rome and the National Research Centre for Italy’s Institute of Science for Cultural Heritage.

Involving extensive archival research, wide-ranging subterranean investigation, the largest geo-radar and laser scanning survey ever conducted in Rome, and using the latest digital 3D techniques, the Rome Transformed project will visualise five major transformations in the political, military and religious ideas that shaped ancient Rome over eight centuries.

Team members include archaeologists, architectural visualisers, botanists, computer scientists, engineers, geographers, geophysicists, historians, hydrologists and topographers.

 

Press release from the Newcastle University