Some of lines are straight and some curved in this, one of three of the earliest known examples of art from the British Isles, unearthed at Jersey Island.

14,500-Year-Old Stone Engravings: Archaeologists Uncover Earliest Known Art in Britain


Examples of the work of Britain’s earliest known artists, rock carvings at least 14,500-years-old, have been discovered on the island of Jersey. One of the pieces will be on display through 2016 in Jersey Museum’s Ice Age Island exhibition.

The engravings date to just after the island was repopulated at the end of the Ice Age, 14,500 to 15,000 years ago, say archaeologists with Jersey Heritage. The rock carvings resemble some found in continental Europe from that time but are the first found in the British Isles, says the BBC. The human Ice Age camp that archaeologists are excavating, Les Varines, is among the first that far north in Europe after the ice retreated.

The art is non-representational and consists of straight and curved lines. It does not represent any animals, people or landscape features.

Jersey Heritage archaeologists working on the island say it is a scientific treasure trove for looking back at how the Ice Age people of the Magdalenian period lived and even before then, when Neanderthals lived there. The Magadlenian people were one of the groups that resettled Europe as the ice receded north. There is evidence Neanderthals lived there hundreds of thousands of years ago. The archaeologists have found thousands of stone tools and artifacts at various Jersey sites.

A hand ax from Happisburgh, Norfolk, show people lived in Britain 1 million years ago, far earlier the previously believed. This tool will be on display in the Ice Age Island exhibition at Jersey Museum.

A hand ax from Happisburgh, Norfolk, show people lived in Britain 1 million years ago, far earlier the previously believed. This tool will be on display in the Ice Age Island exhibition at Jersey Museum. (Ice Age Island photo)

“Jersey has an exceptional record of early Stone Age archaeology for such a small island, and this exhibition showcases the sites at La Cotte and Les Varines and the science behind research currently being undertaken by the Ice Age Island team,” said Jon Carter, the director of Jersey Heritage, in a press release.

Jersey: Ice Age Island is a Jersey Museum exhibition that opened in October 2015 and will run through 2016. The exhibition will give the public a look at recent discoveries, including one of the three pieces of rock art the archaeologists have discovered. The exhibition covers the Neanderthal period through to the more recent Ice Age habitation by Homo sapiens.

“Jersey is emerging as a key location for understanding human evolution, expansion and survival over a quarter of a million years of climate change,” the press release says. “Jersey’s Ice Age archaeology tells us about how our Neanderthal cousins survived in northwest Europe, a remarkable record of Ice Age occupation spanning half a million years of human history.”

Human habitation at La Cotte de St. Brelade covers 200,000 years, and Jersey Heritage says the wider landscape of the island contains an important record that has enhanced scientists’ understanding of human evolution. New research there is showing how the Neanderthals lived and how their society worked.

A heavily reworked Neanderthal flint point from La Cotte

A heavily reworked Neanderthal flint point from La Cotte (Ice Age Island photo)

La Cotte was an important place to early Neanderthals, Jersey Heritage says. They found shelter there and a viewpoint to monitor animals, including reindeer, wooly rhinos, mammoths and horses.

The rock carvings, done later by Homo sapiens, were found at Les Varines, which is a site separate from La Cotte. Archaeologists are hoping to find more carvings, as they did in Magdalenian camps in France and Germany after a few examples first came to light, the BBC says. The stone fragments apparently were part of larger tablets covered in lines, like those from the Continent.

"We can already say the stones are not natural to the site, they show clear incised lines consistent with being made by stone tools, and they do not have any obvious functional role,” Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum told the BBC. Dr. Bello is using microscopic techniques to analyze the fragments of stone.

The researchers have ruled out the people having used the stones as, for example, cutting stones because the lines appear to be deliberately made into organized designs. They seem to have been carved over time, too, because different tools were used to engrave them, the BBC says,

While much of prehistoric Jersey is now underwater, the archaeologists are still finding bits of bone and hearths, which may give important clues about the people of the Magdalenian era. They intend to do underwater archaeological work off the Jersey shore in the future.

Featured image: Some of lines are straight and some curved in this, one of three of the earliest known examples of art from the British Isles, unearthed at Jersey Island. (Sarah Duffy/Ice Age Island)

By: Mark Miller

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