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Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Early people used firelight to make engraved art ‘dance’

New technology, including 3D modeling, color enhancement and virtual reality modeling allowed researchers to recreate how early people used firelight to make engraved art “dance.”

(CN) — British researchers may have discovered the original stop motion art.

Two studies out of the University of York released Wednesday reveal prehistoric people created intricate artwork by firelight 15,000 years ago.

A collection of 50 engraved stones, known as plaquettes, were unearthed in southern France and are held by the British Museum. The limestone plaquettes were carved using stone tools by the Magdalenian people, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.

Researchers at the University of York and Durham University in the United Kingdom found the stones were likely positioned close to hearths in low ambient light. The firelight made the engravings “appear dynamic and alive, suggesting this may have been important in their use,” according to the study.

Pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones — called rubefaction — also indicates the plaquettes had been near a fire.

The discovery “was a little surprising and caught our attention," lead authors Andy Needham and co-author Izzy Wisher told Courthouse News.

The researchers said they used experimental archaeology to create replica limestone plaquettes and heated them in different ways, including boiling the stones or creating ovens, to test how different heat sources and functions impacted the stones.

In the end, “less functional” activities like placing the replicas near a hearth, were a good match compared to the ancient stones.

“An unengraved stone can be used for boiling just as easily as an engraved stone, so the presence of engraving on the stones already suggests there was something special about these objects,” Needham and Wisher told Courthouse News.

They added: “That Magdalenian artists were sensitive to the form of the stone they were using and utilized light to achieve particular artistic effects is consistent with the mastery of art at this time. We know highly detailed and beautiful animal depictions were being made in caves in near darkness, with people working only from the light of their torches, hearths or candles. To find that the same features were being harnessed intentionally at Montastruc in the making of art was really exciting and changes how we think about art production and use at Magdalenian sites outside of caves.”

The scientists told Courthouse News the engraved stones were likely involved in storytelling by fire, with the animal characters coming to life by the firelight.

“It also shows how important animals were to Magdalenian people — not only were they hunting and tracking these animals across the landscape, but were able to create really detailed, naturalistic representations of these animals from memory,” Needham and Wisher said.

New technology employed by the researchers including 3D modeling, color enhancement and virtual reality modeling revealed how the engravings on the stones could move or “dance” in firelight.

Researchers previously didn’t know the archaeological context for how the plaquettes were used, as the site where the stones were found was excavated in the 1800s.

The researchers said when making the art by firelight, Magdalenian people may have experienced pareidolia — a psychological phenomenon of seeing meaningful forms in random patterns, like animals or faces in clouds.

“This may have inspired the animals that they engraved on the stones, and this seems to be reflected in the use of natural features — like cracks or edges — to represent parts of the animal depictions,” the researchers said.

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