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 (see ‘Further Reading’ box on p.33), 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.
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, and box on p.28). 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.
Meet the Magdalenians
The Magdalenian culture that emerged at the end of the last Ice Age is named after La Madeleine, a rock shelter in the Dordogne region of France which was inhabited by horse- and reindeer-hunters c.17,000 years ago, and is considered a type-site for these people. They were a sophisticated culture who not only produced complex linear designs but were also capable of creating detailed figurative art depicting a diverse range of animal and human forms – it was the Magdalenians who were responsible for the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, and Altamira, in Spain (one image from this latter site is pictured).
Magdalenian sites are well documented in continental Europe, but they seem to have left fewer archaeological footprints in Britain, possibly – it is thought – because their occupation of these shores was more fleeting. Nevertheless, fascinating echoes of their presence have been found here, not least in the cave systems of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. Gough’s Cave in particular has produced vivid insights into their activities, including butchered animal bones, evidence of a possibly domesticated wolf, and hints of cannibalism: human bones showing signs of defleshing and gnaw marks from human teeth, as well as three cups fashioned from the upper part of human skulls (from two adults and a child; parallel examples have been seen at Magdalenian sites in France).
Artefacts belonging to this culture have also been found in Kents Cavern, Torquay, in Devon (CA 262), while open-air campsites surrounded by debris from making flint tools have been identified in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Perhaps the best-known Magdalenian site in Britain, though, is Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border (CA 197). This limestone gorge is home to caves whose walls are covered with incised images of animals and birds created 14,500-14,200 years ago (according to analysis of stalactite material overlying the markings), and which also yielded pieces of animal bone carved with images of running horses. These finds were long held to be the earliest evidence of artistic activity in the British Isles – until the discovery of the Les Varines plaquettes.
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.
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.
The plaquettes were small, thin objects, ill-suited to use as cutting mats or anvils – which lends credence to the idea that the lines across them are purposeful creations.
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?
Despite the wealth of new information resulting from the recent analysis, as well as the relative completeness of some of the designs (such as that on the rejoined Plaquette 2), their lines are difficult to interpret and the meaning behind their patterns remains obstinately obscure. It has been suggested that the final layers of curving lines, which seem to have been formed with a greater strength of cut, and which may have been intended to be the most visible, could represent some kind of ‘main image’ – but what could they depict?
In rare cases, some of the more rounded incisions might be tentatively interpreted as a very basic or stylised animal design, the team suggests – reminiscent of the back or belly of a horse or deer in some examples, or a possible snout in others – while a potential human face shown from the front has also been proposed. Zoomorphic and anthropogenic motifs were certainly part of the Magdalenian artistic repertoire, featuring both in their cave art and on Continental plaquettes, but none of the Les Varines ‘shapes’ are clear enough for any unequivocal identification. If they are deliberate figures, they are a far cry from the carefully crafted images on plaquettes from Le Rocher in Brittany, the horse hindquarters identified on examples from Gönnersdorf, or the superimposed mammoths and rhinos seen at Cueva de las Caldas in Spain.
Might there instead have been some kind of geographical meaning? A block of stone from Abauntz Cave, a late Magdalenian site in Spain, has been previously interpreted as a possible ‘Palaeolithic map’ marked with winding ‘rivers’, ‘mountains’, ‘passes’, and ‘paths’. The Les Varines finds are too fragmentary to confidently suggest the same, but could some of the more sinuous carvings represent similar waterways? For now, such interpretations must remain speculative, and it is of course possible that the designs were not intended to be figurative at all – perhaps our eyes are being drawn to coincidental ‘faces’ and ‘animals’ in the same way that we see shapes in the clouds. On the Continent, plaquettes with abstract patterns outnumber those with identifiable images at a ratio of 5 to 1, but even if the Les Varines designs are purely abstract, the fact that they were carved using a specific set of lines in a specific order does suggest a deeper significance and deliberate thought behind their creation.
The question, then, is who was creating these markings, and what for? Previous research has suggested that plaquettes could represent practice pieces used to hone the artistic skills of less-experienced individuals – perhaps apprentices or even children. (Analysis of ‘finger fluting’ elements of the Magdalenian cave art at Rouffignac Cave in southern France indicates that at least some of the markings had been made by very small hands, hinting that even very young members of the community were involved in their creation – see issue 50 of our sister-magazine Current World Archaeology for more on this research.) On the Les Varines plaquettes, the lines are quite simple in themselves, and could conceivably have been produced without too much technical skill. Might the deliberate ordering of the different kinds of lines represent some kind of learning exercise? Or might there be a deeper significance behind the process, representing something that we might call ‘art’?
The Les Varines plaquettes do not appear to have been works of art in the modern sense, in that they do not seem to have been intended for public consumption. The incisions themselves would only have been briefly visible to their creators, as the act of engraving soft stone produced powder within the lines. Once this dispersed, the lines would have been much fainter – and more difficult to discern as they were overlain with more layers of incisions – and when the design was complete it would have been dependent on the play of light for the markings to be easily seen.
Perhaps, though, the idea of ‘art for an audience’ is an anachronistic concept. Other forms of Magdalenian art, including some of their most elaborate cave paintings, do not seem to have been produced with accessibility in mind. As we explore in this month’s ‘Science Notes’ (see p.12), some of these designs were located so deeply in cave systems that they were very difficult to get to. Why, then, invest so much creative effort (and intrepid spelunking) in these virtuosic designs? Perhaps their importance lay not in public appreciation but in the very act of creating them, or in the meaning of the places that they adorned. Sites with particularly elaborate Magdalenian cave art tend to be ‘special’, set-apart spaces that were not used for everyday occupation – for this reason, they are sometimes categorised in archaeological literature not as ‘rock shelters’ but as ‘sanctuaries’.
Plaquettes seem to have been associated with a very different kind of site, though, and at Les Varines the context in which the plaquettes were found (and, presumably, made) was decidedly domestic. Some of the fragments were recovered from a part of the site dominated by pits and hearths – very much echoes of the everyday – while three more were found in an area of granite slabs which are thought to have been deliberately laid down as paving. Moreover, unlike other kinds of portable decorated objects, plaquettes do not seem to have been moved from site to site. Rather, they were made in a specific location, sometimes in large concentrations, then broken (some Continental examples suggest this was done deliberately, though the evidence at Les Varines is less clear) and left there. In this way, the Ice Age Island team suggests, these objects seem to have had a strong sense of ‘place’ that may have been important to the mobile Magdalenians.
Perhaps it was the very act of creating these engravings, employing a strikingly regimented system of decoration, that was significant rather than the resulting image. Indeed, the researchers suggest, carrying out these activities at new settlements, using local materials, might have been a way for pioneering communities to create symbolic relationships with new places where they built their temporary settlements. ‘The act of incorporating engravings momentarily charged with significance into the floors of structures and work-places, into hearths and pits, was an important part of producing social and significant spaces,’ the team concludes. ‘Incorporation of the plaquettes into the domestic space of Les Varines may have been a way of taking possession of a place, important for people on the very edge of the Magdalenian world.’
S M Bello, E Blinkhorn, A Needham, M Bates, S Duffy, A Little, M Pope, B Scott, A Shaw, M D Welch, T Kinnaird, L Millar, R Robinson, and C Conneller, ‘Artists on the edge of the world: an integrated approach to the study of Magdalenian engraved stone plaquettes from Jersey (Channel Islands)’, PLoS ONE 15(8), https://doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pone.0236875.
The research was funded by Jersey Heritage, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries, the British Museum, and the ‘Human behaviour in 3D’ project funded by the Calleva Foundation.
For more on the Ice Age Island project, see www.iceageisland.wordpress.com.
Grateful thanks to Dr Chantal Conneller, Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University, and Dr Silvia Bello, Researcher at the Natural History Museum, for their help with this article.