Enigmatic Engraved Pendant from Stone Age Site is the Oldest in Britain
The oldest known engraved pendant in Britain, a small piece of shale dating back about 11,000 years, has been discovered at a Stone Age site in Yorkshire, England.
Archaeologists found the pendant at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in 2015. The team of researchers wrote in an article in Internet Archaeology :
“Engraved motifs on Mesolithic pendants are extremely rare, with the exception of amber pendants from southern Scandinavia. The artwork on the pendant is the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain; the 'barbed line' motif is comparable to styles on the Continent, particularly in Denmark. When it was first uncovered the lines were barely visible but using a range of digital imaging techniques it has been possible to examine them in detail and determine the style of engraving as well as the order in which the lines might have been made.”
The team, led by archaeologist Nicky Milner of the University of York, wrote that they used microwear and residue analysis to determine whether the pendant was strung and worn. They also wanted to know if the lines had been made easier to see by painting it, as was the case for some amber pendants found in Denmark.
The paper says the combination of scientific and analytical techniques had not been used before and may be a model for analyzing artifacts in the future. In addition to three archaeologists, the team had a physicist and an anatomist.
A composite image of the phasing of the engravings. ( Milner et al./ Internet Archaeology )
The researchers said that despite the sophistication of their analysis, they can only speculate about what the engravings meant to the people who made them.
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Previously at the site of Star Carr, researchers found a piece of perforated amber, shale beads, bird bones, and two perforated animal teeth. But this is the first piece found there with an engraved design. And though there have been finds of other engraved pendants in bone, antler, and wood from the Mesolithic in Europe, none found so far have been made of shale.
Shale beads from Star Carr with the ‘celtiform bead’ at the top. ( Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge )
An engraved pendant from this era had never before been found in Britain, the paper says:
“The area where the pendant was discovered is where [archaeologist Grahame] Clark found a large quantity of bone, antler and wood, including rare artefacts such as 21 headdresses made from red deer skulls and 191 antler barbed points; the pendant appears to be from the same detrital muds and is therefore broadly associated with these other finds.”
The pendant was found in the mud of a lake that dried out thousands of years ago. The sediments in which it was found have a high content of organic material and formed about 9,000 BC, scientific dating shows.
The pendant was lost or placed in shallow water, about a half-meter (1.6 feet) deep, about 10 meters (33 feet) from the shore of the lake. Analysis showed that reeds, sedges, and aquatic plants were growing where the pendant was deposited.
Location map of Star Carr. ( Milner et al./ Internet Archaeology )
The website Current Archaeology, in an article about Star Carr, asks what one could learn from the site, first excavated by Grahame Clark in from 1949 to 1951, and responds: “The answer is a new understanding that overturns much of what we have been taught about the lives of early settlers in northern Europe.” Chris Catling writes:
“But everyone knows that Mesolithic people were highly mobile, moving about the landscape in small bands of two or three families. Talk of houses, settlements and putting down roots is anachronistic: that did not happen for another 5,000 years or so, when people began to farm the landscape rather than hunt and forage for wild food.”
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The members of the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, including Dr. Milner, returned to Star Carr and theorized a different story. They found evidence of a site 80 times larger than other sites of the period. “They also found the earliest known house in Britain with signs of long-lasting or repeated occupation, along with a series of timber platforms spreading along the lake edge,” writes Current Archaeology. “Not all Mesolithic people were wanderers, always moving on to a new source of food; some pioneer groups invested significant amounts of time and labour in building long-lasting structures in favoured landscape settings, like Star Carr.”
Excavations at the Star Carr site. ( Star Carr Archaeology Project )
As for the pendant, they determined it had not been painted and may have been worn very little, on a special occasion, because use-wear analysis was unable to determine whether it had ever been strung. They wrote:
“On contextualising the art on the Star Carr pendant within the broader evidence for art in Mesolithic Britain and Denmark, the latter producing the largest collection of Mesolithic art in Europe, we discovered that both the engraving—in particular the distinctive barbed lines of Clark's type C—and the choice of pendant form are closely aligned with what is known from southern Scandinavia. However, it is important to acknowledge that despite the broad spectrum of scientific analyses applied to this object, revealing new and unprecedented insights into its making, some artefacts will remain enigmatic; we can only speculate as to what the art represents, and what the production and possibly wearing and display of this object meant to the people living along this lake edge during the ninth millennium BC.”
An image of the pendant using specular enhancement. ( Milner et al./ Internet Archaeology )
Featured Image: An artist’s reconstruction of life at Star Carr, where recent excavations have uncovered evidence of a thriving Mesolithic settlement. ( Current Archaeology ) Insert: Photo showing details such as small incisions and wear marks on the pendant. ( Milner et al./ Internet Archaeology )
By Mark Miller