All  
13,500 year old carved bison bone dredged from the North Sea.

13,500-year-old Artwork Saved from the Abyss of the Continental Shelf

Snared in a fishing net at the bottom of the North Sea, on the edge of the continental shelf,  the “oldest Dutch work of art” has been found, according to an article published in Cambridge Antiquity magazine last week.

The 13,500 year-old carved bison bone, which has a distinctive zigzag pattern along its length, was carved by a “Late Ice Age hunter gatherer” who once foraged the bountiful landscapes which later became the North Sea. This discovery highlights ”the importance of continental shelves as archaeological archives,” according to scientists in the Cambridge report. Curator of prehistory at the Leiden museum, Luc Amkreutz, who wrote the paper, told reporters at Dutch News , “What the carvings mean is unclear. Some have interpreted the zigzags as symbols of movement, rhythm, water or a need for symmetry.”

Zigzag pattern thought to be of artistic or symbolic representation on human bone from Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, UK.

Zigzag pattern thought to be of artistic or symbolic representation on human bone from Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, UK. (Credit: Bello et al )

Although Amkreutz can’t be sure exactly what the carving actually meant to the person who created it, he is convinced that these devices “were not used as tools but belong in a ritualistic context.” He came to this conclusion when considering this bison bone in context with other similar artifacts, for example, “a horse’s jaw bone,” discovered in Wales which was carved with a similar zig-zag pattern, “I wouldn’t know what else you would do with a decorated horse’s jaw,” said Amkreutz.

The zig-zag pattern is one of the oldest creative expressions of mankind and professor Marija Gimbutas’ book The Language of the Goddess examines its meaning in ancient cultures, stating “in the iconography of all prehistoric periods of Europe as well as of the whole world, the image of water is zig-zag or serpentine: Neanderthals used this sign around 40,000 years BC, or earlier, at the Mousterian site of Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria. (Marshack 1976: 139).

Zigzag pattern found in a cave in Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria

Zigzag pattern found in a cave in Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria. ( Public Domain )

The 13,500 year old carved bison bone is without question a unique find, in that it is decorated, but on a broader archaeological spectrum it is just one ancient “by-catch” that the Dutch fishing fleet have landed in the last two decades. It is estimated that Dutch boats alone have landed ‘200 tonnes of the fossilised remains of animals from a score of different species and the remains and artifacts from human beings of two different species,’ according to an article in The Independent. This makes sense when we consider that for tens of thousands of years, until about 7,500 years ago, Britain was connected to continental Europe by a "land bridge” which was a “teeming plain of Ice Age wildlife, equivalent to the richest game reserves of Africa,” according to scientists in The Independent article. Known as Doggerland, our modern fishing boats are only scraping the top soil of this virtual Atlantis, a subaquatic ancient wonderland which was once carpeted with vast forests and populated by gargantuan species of wildlife, including giant bison and mammoth, and thousands of humans.

A map of Doggerland as it is believed to have looked ca. 10,000 BP, superimposed on map of the UK, EU and Europe

A map of Doggerland as it is believed to have looked ca. 10,000 BP, superimposed on map of the UK, EU and Europe. ( Public Domain )

And as fascinating as these tonnages of ancient European artifacts are, especially the decorated ones, they all have a long, long way to go to compete with the age of a white fossilized shell discovered on the island of Java in the 1890s. Dutch surgeon Eugene Dubois was “hunting down the evolutionary link between humans and great apes” when he unearthed the shell which he found to have “tiny zig-zag shaped scratches” carved along one face. Dated to between 430,000 and 540,000 years old this artifact “rewrites human history,” said Stephen Munro, lead author of the study of the shell, in an interview with The Guardian. That incredibly successful 1890’s archaeological and anthropological mission also uncovered our human ancestor who was at that time known as “Java Man,” now Homo erectus, who lived between 1.9 million and 143,000 years ago.

The fossil Pseudodon shell (DUB1006-fL) found in Java with the engraving made by Homo erectus. (Image: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam)

The fossil Pseudodon shell (DUB1006-fL) found in Java with the engraving made by Homo erectus. (Image: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam)

When I first read about the discovery of this shell I laughed out loud. To me, without having seen it, I felt it was more probable that the “tiny zig-zag scratches” were caused by a fish or sharks teeth, while struggling to opening the shell. My ‘skeptical solution’ was proven to be right, in part, but for the wrong reasons. The zig-zag marks were indeed caused by shark’s teeth, because later archaeologists found “loose sharks teeth” where the shell was found “which were more than likely used to make the carvings,” according to scientists.

However, other scientists are not so convinced that the zig-zag carvings on the half million-year old shell is “symbolic art.” John Shea, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, told NPR “If this is symbolic behavior by Homo erectus, then it’s basically the only evidence we’ve got for a species that lived for a million-and-a-half years on three continents,” according to a report by PBS.

The skepticism of professor Shea concerning this ancient Java shell, inadvertently, adds great archaeological value to the 13,500 year old Dutch bison bone. In the archaeological world, where models of the past are built on evidentiary facts, it is a lot ‘safer’ to interpret a 13,500 year old pattern that was “definitely” created by a human, than a half million-year old one that was “possibly” created by a person.

Top image: 13,500 year old carved bison bone dredged from the North Sea. (Credit:Rijksmuseum van Oudheden)

By Ashley Cowie

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Next article