The Magdalenians were an ancient western European culture, roaming across the continent between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago. These hunter-gatherers persevered through the dying days of the last global ice age, or glacial maximum. Just this year, archeologists working on the island of Jersey, south of the United Kingdom, uncovered a cache of their artifacts in what appears to be one of the oldest camps of its kind in northern Europe, as reported by BBC News. Not only this, but this find is the first of its kind in the British Isles.
The artifacts in question are broken schist fragments of what the researchers think were larger stone tablets covered in engravings. Repeated lines crisscross the stones, which are made of a rock type dissimilar to those found naturally at surface level of the roughly 14,000-year-old camp. With no obvious functional role – such as for use in weaponry or infrastructure – these engraved tablets may have been used for aesthetic, artistic reasons.
The dig has been organized by the Ice Age Island project, which has been working on the Les Varines site in the southeast area of Jersey for five years; it’s a collaboration between Jersey Heritage and a U.K. archeological team run through the British Museum with the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the University of Manchester, University of Wales Trinity St David’s, St Andrews University and the University of Southampton.
“The microscopic study... shows that there is organization to the design, with two groups of lines, one set straight and made with a fine tool, and another more curved and often broader,” Dr Chantal Conneller, co-director of Ice Age Island, told BBC News. “This suggests to us something beyond a functional explanation. We're feeling reasonably confident at the moment that what we've got fits into this broader idea of non-representational Magdalenian art.”
The population of France skyrocketed from 15,000 to over 50,000 when the Magdalenian culture began to settle as the ice retreated, living in riverside villages of up to 600 people; as a result, more and more evidence of their civilization began to be scattered throughout the continent. These newly uncovered artifacts have been compared to similar engraved tablets found in Magdalenian camps in France and Germany.
These other tablets show depictions of horses and figures, the designs of which seem to be regularly reused. Art was important to the Magdalenians, who used it to reaffirm their common cultural aspects to different internal clans.
If this “art” is indeed 14,000 years old, it will pre-date Britain’s earliest known prehistoric cave art: a 12,000-year-old birds, ibex, and dancing women carved into stone walls at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, England, produced by the same ancient Magdalenian culture. The bones found at the site are yet to undergo radiocarbon dating in order to more precisely ascertain the age in which this camp was active.
Dr Ed Blinkhorn, a member of Ice Age Island and an archeologist at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, said: “This has been the culmination of five years of patient work, tracing thousands of flint tools within slope deposits back to the mother lode,” as reported by BBC News. “We knew a significant hunter-gatherer camp lay in this field and it seems we've finally found it.”