You’re looking at the oldest artwork ever discovered in the British isles and the UK. While the artwork might not be any competition for the Mona Lisa, the abstract etchings represent an extremely rare example of artistic expression in Ice Age Britain.
The 10 etched stones were discovered at Les Varines in Jersey, an island in the UK some 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the shores of northern France. The area is home to a settlement once inhabited by the Magdalenians, an early hunter-gatherer culture found across Western Europe between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.
Reported in the journal PLOS One today, archeologists at the Natural History Museum in London, the University of Newcastle, and the University of York have recently carried out a microscopic analysis of the fine lines that were etched onto the stones. Along with confirming the lines were not simply random scratches from millennia of wear and tear and that they were intentionally carved in an act of artistic expression, their analysis also shed light on how these markings were forged.
“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,” Dr Silvia Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, said in a statement. “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.”
Speaking to IFLScience, Dr Bello said that it's difficult to speculate on why these prehistoric artworks were created. However, it appears this object only had a temporary significance, as if it was only appreciated during the act of creation. This, Bello explains, is vastly different to the Modern Western notion of what makes an object an artwork.
"The evidence from Les Varines suggests that the engravings were briefly seen and only of temporary significance, very different from our perception of the object of art. The engravings on Les Varines stone plaquettes were made on soft stone," Dr Bello explained via email. "The action of engraving probably created a powder within the incisions that makes them temporarily visible. This swiftly disperses, meaning that the engravings were only clearly visible at the moment of their making. In this context, the act of engraving, possibly the context and the moment when the engraving occurred, were the meaningful components of the process rather than the object that has been engraved."
The stones were found lodged in the dirt of the ancient site. Based on where they were discovered, the team speculates that the stones were part of a hearth, a bit like a decorative fireplace.
“The plaquettes were tricky to pick apart from the natural geology at the site – every stone needed turning,” adds Dr Ed Blinkhorn, Senior Geoarchaeologist at University College London and Director of Excavations at the site. “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 emergence of art is of huge interest to anthropologists and others studying the story of prehistoric people as it reveals a number of important progressions in human cultures, such as the development of abstract thought, advances in complex communication, and improved aesthetic awareness.
Elsewhere in the world, much older artworks than the newly studied stones of Jersey have been discovered. The oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art is the Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel. Discovered in a cave in southwestern Germany, it depicts a detailed sculpture of a half-lion, half-human carved out of mammoth ivory between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. It’s widely thought the sculpture was made by humans, but researchers can’t rule out the possibility it was created by a Neanderthal.