A team of archaeologists have discovered the earliest known evidence of artistic expression in the British Isles. Decorated with abstract designs, the fragments of engraved stone were unearthed at Les Varines, Jersey, between 2014 and 2018.
Researchers now believe they were made by the Magdalenians, hunter-gatherers who lived after the peak of the last Ice Age between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The ten small tablets, known as plaquettes, were found alongside other signs of life including flint tools, hearths and granite slabs.
“They were artists, I wouldn’t say the best ones, but they were creative,” said Dr Silvia Bello from the Natural History Museum. This week Dr Bello was among a group of researchers that co-published their findings in the journal Plos One.
At first glance the plaquettes simply look weathered by time or domestic activity. But Dr Bello has argued that they “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.”
She added: “It is not just a table that they used to cut meat, for example. 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.”
During this period, the production of art dramatically increased because the Magdalenians were semi-settled and therefore had more leisure time. There was a surge in cave paintings, drawings, decoration on tools and weapons, as well as engraved stones and bones.
“These engraved stone fragments provide exciting and rare evidence of artistic expression at what was the farthest edge of the Magdalenian world,” explained Dr Chantal Conneller, a co-author from Newcastle University. “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.”
Researchers also discovered similar examples in France, Spain and Portugal. Although the plaquettes were uncovered in the British Isles, Dr Bello noted that sea levels were in fact lower when they were made so “strictly speaking this could have been [in contemporary terms] more French than British”.