Prehistoric people created art by firelight

Art by firelight?


Palaeolithic stone plaquettes are a type of mobiliary art featuring engravings and recovered primarily from Magdalenian sites, where they can number from single finds to several thousand examples. Where context is available, they demonstrate complex traces of use, including surface refreshing, heating, and fragmentation. However, for plaquettes with limited or no archaeological context, research tends to gravitate toward their engraved surfaces.

The study, by researchers at the Universities of York and Durham, looked at the collection of plaquettes, which are now held in the British Museum. They are likely to have been made using stone tools by Magdalenian people, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.

The stones were incised with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago and have patterns of heat damage which suggests they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire, the new study has found.

The researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed in close proximity to a fire.

Following their discovery, the researchers have experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them: under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago.

“A continuing challenge facing Palaeolithic art studies is the development of approaches which can facilitate the deeper analysis of these archival objects that have limited contextual information. With the proliferation of digital and scientific techniques in recent decades, it may be possible to go further in the analysis of some archival artefacts.” Study quotes.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Andy Needham from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and Co-Director of the York Experimental Archaeology Research Centre said: “It has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica plaquettes showed the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire.

“In the modern day, we might think of art as being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a fixed light source; but we now know that people 15,000 years ago were creating art around a fire at night, with flickering shapes and shadows.”

Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, the researchers say. It may have activated an evolutionary capacity designed to protect us from predators called “Pareidolia,” where perception imposes a meaningful interpretation such as the form of an animal, a face, or a pattern where there is none.

Dr. Needham added: “Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain. We know that flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects, and this might help explain why it’s common to see plaquette designs that have used or integrated natural features in the rock to draw animals or artistic forms.”

The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

Use of Limestone

The heating traces on the Montastruc limestone plaquettes, a feature unique amongst art objects at the site, invites a deeper consideration of the material properties of limestone. Limestone forms in warm, marine conditions as biological detritus accumulates, occasionally forming fossils, and often includes impurities such as clay, silica, magnesium, manganese, and iron. It is the iron impurities that react during heating, causing dramatic but predictable color changes, revealing pink, red, and grey hues.

“It is also possible that limestone plaquettes may have been utilised for other activities by virtue of their size, shape, and material, suggesting a separation between the artistic production and use of engraved plaquettes, and their subsequent use in heating activities. The use of stones in association with fire has been suggested to be a common occurrence in the Magdalenian.” Study quotes

Co-author of the study, Ph.D. student Izzy Wisher from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham, said: “During the Magdalenian period, conditions were very cold, and the landscape was more exposed. While people were well-adapted to the cold, wearing warm clothing made from animal hides and fur, fire was still really important for keeping warm. Our findings reinforce the theory that the warm glow of the fire would have made it the hub of the community for social gatherings, telling stories and making art.

“At a time when huge amounts of time and effort would have gone into finding food, water and shelter, it’s fascinating to think that people stillpfound the time and capacity to create art. It shows how these activities have formed part of what makes us human for thousands of years and demonstrates the cognitive complexity of prehistoric people.”

Study Methodology

An experimental programme was designed to test these hypotheses, informed by an appreciation of the chemical and physical changes that occur in limestone when heated.

Virtual Reality was utilized to explore visual effects for 3D models of the Montastruc plaquettes and suggested that under a dynamic low lumen light source the engraved forms appeared animated. The integration of natural features of limestone and the animation of depicted forms under firelight closely parallels some parietal art. This perhaps indicates this behavior was important to Magdalenian artists as a means of negotiating relationships with animals in their world.

“The application of established (micro-and macroscopic analyses, experimental archaeology, DStretch, 3D modelling) and new (VR modelling) techniques has facilitated a new interpretation of the contexts of production and use of limestone plaquettes at Montastruc, a site with limited archaeological context.” Study mentions.

Futuristic view of Study

The techniques and results presented in this study demonstrate the potential of digital and experimental approaches in yielding new insights into objects with limited archaeological context.

Journal Reference

  1. Needham A, Wisher I, Langley A, Amy M, Little A (2022) Art by firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France). PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266146. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266146
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