Artists on the edge of the world

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Exploring the British Isles’ earliest art at Les Varines, Jersey

Overlooking the Ice Age Island project’s excavations at Les Varines. Today the site overlooks the capital of Jersey, St Helier, and beyond it the waters of the English Channel, but 15,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower, it was a useful vantage point for hunter-gatherers watching animals grazing on a broad river-cut plain below. CREDIT: Ice Age Island / Natural History Museum

Archaeologists excavating a 15,000-year-old campsite at Les Varines, Jersey, have recovered ten fragments of stone decorated with hundreds of interweaving lines. Recently published analysis of these ‘plaquettes’ suggests that they may represent the earliest artworks yet identified in the British Isles. Carly Hilts reports.
Recent investigations at the site have recovered ten fragments of engraved stone – one of which is shown here – that may represent the earliest
art yet found in the British Isles. CREDIT: Ice Age Island / Natural History Museum

Fifteen thousand years ago, if you were a hunter-gatherer venturing on to the rocky outcrop that would, as sea levels rose, ultimately become the Channel Island of Jersey, you might have been tempted to create your next campsite at a place now known as Les Varines. Commanding a sweeping view over the surrounding landscape – not the waters of the English Channel at this time, but a wide plain cut by river valleys – and offering a useful vantage point from which to watch the movements of the mammoths, wild horses, and reindeer that your nomadic community hunted, this grassy slope also presented a welcomingly sheltered spot at a time when the climate was still quite cold at the end of the last Ice Age. It may come as no surprise, then, that rather more recent visitors to the site – archaeologists working on the Ice Age Island project – have uncovered extensive traces of just such a camp at Les Varines, including hearths, thousands of stone tools, and a series of more enigmatic finds.

Excavations on the site, which ran between 2014 and 2018, formed part of a wider undertaking involving the Natural History Museum in London, the Universities of Newcastle, St Andrews, Strathclyde, Liverpool, Wales Trinity St David, and York, the UCL Institute of Archaeology, and the British Museum. (See CA 333 for more detailed discussion of Les Varines, as well as Ice Age Island’s other research in Jersey, including Neanderthal hunting sites and Palaeolithic landscapes revealed at low tide.) During their work at Les Varines, the team recovered ten small, flat pieces of stone, most of them barely 5cm in length, which were all densely covered with webs of incised lines. These fragments, known as ‘plaquettes’, have since been analysed by Newcastle University archaeologists working with the Natural History Museum. Their findings, recently published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, have shed intriguing light on how the marks may have been made – and indicate that the finds could represent the earliest evidence of artistic expression yet discovered in the British Isles.

When the sloping land at Les Varines was home to a Magdalenian hunting camp, it represented a temptingly sheltered spot sandwiched between two ancient sea stacks that stood off the old shoreline. CREDIT: Ice Age Island / Sarah Duffy

Who made these markings? The plaquettes (and the campsite where they were created) were a product of the Magdalenian culture, hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens who lived c.23,000-14,000 years ago, and who were responsible for resettling Europe as glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age (see CA 330). This period was marked by a flourishing of imaginative creativity: Magdalenians created vivid cave art and were skilled at working antler, bone, and stone to produce a host of decorated artefacts, including incised plaquettes like those seen at Les Varines. Thousands of such fragments are known from Magdalenian sites in continental Europe, commonly using pieces of sandstone, limestone, and schist, though flat bones like animal scapulae are also occasionally seen. They were created both in cave shelters – such as Enlève Cave in the Ariège, southern France, home to c.1,100 plaquettes, and Parpalló Cave, Spain, which has yielded over 5,000 – as well as at open-air campsites like Foz do Medal terrace in Portugal, where over 1,500 were found. These objects were not exclusive to southern Europe, though: Roc-La-Tour, an open-air site in Ardennes, northern France, has produced over 4,700, while some 500 were found at Gönnersdorf in Germany. Plaquettes are rarer in these northern climes, however; indeed, they are strikingly absent from the classic Magdalenian sites of the Paris Basin, and are completely unknown in Britain (though other traces of this culture have been identified in England and Wales). The discovery of ten decorated fragments in Jersey therefore represents an exciting development, extending their known distribution north-west to the fringes of the Madgalenian world.

The Les Varines plaquettes are made of aplite/microgranite, which was readily available locally. CREDIT: Silvia Bello

ILLUMINATING INVESTIGATIONS

Archaeologists led by Newcastle University, working with the Natural History Museum, have now examined the Les Varines plaquettes, using microscopic analysis to unpick their dense designs and explore how the markings were made (and in what order), as well as investigating what the plaquettes were made of, whether they bear any traces of pigments, and whether any of the pieces fit together. Each of the fragments has also been photographed at the Natural History Museum Image Suite, and some have been subjected to Reflectance Transformation Imaging (by Dr Sarah Duffy of the University of Liverpool), a multi-light recording technique that can help to reveal very subtle details of a plaquette’s surface.

The results have been illuminating: we can now say that all ten fragments are made of the same material, a kind of aplite/microgranite that was readily available in Jersey during the period that the Les Varines camp was occupied. (It had previously been suggested that they were made of schist, which would have had to have been brought from elsewhere – see CA 310 – but the use of local stone is more in keeping with Continental plaquettes, whose makers seem to have favoured materials that were easily to hand.) In contrast to the European mainland, though, where some plaquette designs were enhanced through the application of ochre, the Les Varines finds appear to have been more plain: it was initially thought that reddish stains visible on some of the fragments might represent pigment, but analysis found no clear difference in the mineral make-up of these patches and surrounding surfaces, suggesting that they do not indicate deliberate decoration.

Fragment LVE 4395 had patches of what appeared to be red staining on its engraved surfaces. Detailed imaging created during analysis of the marks highlighted the different coloration, but ultimately no difference in mineral make-up was identified and – unlike on plaquettes from continental Europe – the Les Varines finds are not thought to have been enhanced with pigment. CREDIT: Silvia Bello

Moreover, while we have been talking about ten plaquettes, it has become clear that the fragments actually represent broken pieces of larger objects. In some cases, the team has been able to match them together: three pieces can be refitted to form a broadly triangular shape measuring 120mm by 44mm by 9.5mm, which has been dubbed ‘Plaquette 1’ – however, it appears that this object was originally larger still, as some of its engraved lines seem to have once extended beyond the current edges. Similarly, two more pieces can be joined to form a near-complete oval shape measuring 57.5mm by 55.9mm by 12.7mm, called ‘Plaquette 2’. The other five pieces do not fit together, but interrupted elements of their designs suggest that they too were once part of larger slabs. Even so, judging by the size of the apparently complete Plaquette 2, these were still small, thin objects – surfaces that were ill-suited to being used as cutting mats or anvils, which lends credence to the idea that the lines criss-crossing their surfaces represent purposeful creations rather than incidental marks, the team argues.

Crucially, it is also possible to tease apart these lines to understand how the patterns were formed. While designs vary from fragment to fragment, all ten share common combinations of lines and common ways in which they intersect. By analysing these interactions, we can see that the patterns were built up in layers, and in a specific order, to form an increasingly complex mass of markings. The first element of this process involved creating clusters of straight, thin, shallow lines running roughly parallel to each other, which were then overlapped by a second layer of similarly straight, thin, shallow lines that cross their predecessors at a roughly 90º angle. On top of this, patterns of sinuously curving lines were carved – these were often deeper and wider, making them more clearly visible – and, in two cases, this palimpsest was crowned with a fourth and final layer of even deeper curved incisions. Both the straight and curved lines are strikingly consistent in form, the team reports, suggesting that all were made with the same kind of stone tool, probably in quick succession by the same engraver. This tool may have been a burin, which has previously been suggested as a suitable implement for engraving on stone due to its durable point, but experimental archaeology at Gönnersdorf has found that broken stone flakes or blades can also be used to incise plaquettes. So what do these markings mean?  

Some of the fragments could be pieced back together: three of the refitted bits form Plaquette 1 (TOP; which is thought still to be only a portion of a larger object), while two come together to make up the near-complete Plaquette 2 (ABOVE). CREDIT: Ice Age Island / Natural History Museum

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 372. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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