Stone Age besties may have gifted and worn fragments of ornamental slate rings as a symbol of their friendship. Much like modern-day friendship bracelets, or broken heart BFF necklaces, these ornaments could have been fragmented on purpose and given as a token of a social bond, new research suggests. After all, nothing says friendship like a chunk of broken rock.
The 5,000-year-old rings were found in Finland and are the focus of a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
Dating back to the 4th millennium BCE, the rings were commonly produced and exchanged by hunter-gatherer communities in north-eastern Europe. Being made of slate or tuffs – brittle materials, prone to breaking – it is often assumed that the rings became fragmented as a consequence of natural wear and tear. However, the new study suggests otherwise.
The rings were never intended to be intact, the authors hypothesize. Instead, they were designed to be broken up and processed into pendants, which were most likely intended to symbolize social relationships between individuals and communities.
A large number – one-third – of the rings were found to have originated from Lake Onega in Russia, hundreds of kilometers from the site in Finland where they were discovered. Having been transported across Europe as part of a widespread exchange network, it is possible some of the fragments could represent social relationships established within this network.
After meticulously piecing the fragments back together, analyzing their geochemical composition, and looking for signs of use, the team from the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku were able to prove the rings were deliberately broken and then worn as personal ornaments. They found evidence of tool use at the ends of fragments, as well as finishing details, including fastening holes.
Fragments from the same ring were often found in two different locations and had different finishes, suggesting they were worn by two different people, perhaps a pair of long-distance pals.
“These fragments of the same object may show the handprint and preferences of two individuals. Perhaps they wore the ornaments as a symbol of a connection established,” lead author Dr Marja Ahola proposed in a statement.
And it may not be just connections between individuals that the rings were intended to celebrate. Fragments were found extensively in large, central settlement sites – places where social gatherings likely took place. The authors suggest that tokens could have been given to the sites, as well as to the attendees, of such gatherings, which would explain their prevalence in these areas.
The team also found evidence that the fragments may have been used to establish a connection beyond the realm of the living. One fragment was found within the settlement site, whilst another, not from the same ring but made from the same stone using the same manufacturing process, was found at a nearby burial site.
“What we see here may be one way of maintaining connection between the living and the dead. This is also the first clear material connection between a certain place of residence and a burial site. In other words, the people who lived there most likely buried their dead in a site close to them,” Ahola explained.
A lot might have changed in the last 5,000 years, but, from Stone Age slate to 21st-century trinkets, our desire to display our relationships with others through jewelry may well have endured.