If the people of early Stone Age Britain produced much art, archaeologists haven't found it. While they've uncovered an array of utilitarian tools belonging to the early inhabitants of the UK, artistic discoveries are considerably more rare. Which is why the recent discovery of an engraved shale pendant at the Star Carr archaeological site in North Yorkshire was so exciting for researchers. The pendant, which is engraved with a series of lines, dates back 11,000 years, making it the oldest piece of Mesolithic art ever discovered in Britain, AOL reports. Moreover, engraved pendants from this time period are extremely rare across Europe.
According to a study in the journal Internet Archaeology, the researchers nearly overlooked the shale pendant when it was first discovered last year. Covered in sediment, its engravings and perforation were obscured, making it look like any other rock. But when scientists cleaned it off, they discovered the ancient markings that make the pendant truly unique.
In the study, the researchers explain that perforated amber, bird bones, and animal teeth have been uncovered at Star Carr, which was first dug by a local amateur archaeologist in 1948 and has been examined in ongoing excavations since 2004. However, the pendant is the first piece of engraved artwork discovered at that site so far.
It’s unclear who wore the Star Carr pendant or why. And the meanings of the markings on the pendant are also a mystery, though archaeologists believe they may represent a tree, a leaf, or possibly a map of some kind.
“One possibility is that the pendant belonged to a shaman—headdresses made out of red deer antlers found nearby in earlier excavations are thought to have been worn by shamans,” archaeologist Nicky Milner explains. “We can only guess what the engravings mean, but engraved amber pendants found in Denmark have been interpreted as amulets used for spiritual personal protection.”
Barry Taylor, co-director of the excavations, explains that this discovery is exciting not only because it represents a very early example of engraved artwork, but because it helps fill in the picture of what daily life may have been like during the Early Mesolithic. According to Taylor, the discovery of the Star Carr pendant helps bring archaeologists closer to their subjects, giving them a brief glimpse into the life of an individual.
“When we study prehistory we deal with very long periods of time and often focus on very broad issues,” Taylor explains. “But this is something that a person wore, that had significance to them and to the people around them. These sorts of artifacts tell us about people and, after all, that’s what archaeology is all about."
The pendant will be on display in England at the Yorkshire Museum until May 5.