Why 15,000-year-old works of art could have been displayed by firelight

Why 15,000-year-old works of art could have been displayed by firelight

JTHE BRITISH MUSEUM has more than 8 million artifacts in its custody. Visitors can barely see around 80,000 at a time. It’s partly a matter of space and variety. Few museums can display everything they have and many go through their collections to offer visitors new experiences over successive visits. But it’s also a matter of context. The curators have a lot of prehistoric objects in the basement that they know are important and interesting, even if they don’t know what these objects were used for.

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Artifacts are unearthed over centuries by teams of varying skill or commitment to bookkeeping. The objects end up in the archives, entirely stripped of their context. For finds whose purpose or beauty is not obvious, or for those that do not fit neatly with an archaeological account that explains that purpose, eternal rest in the basement is likely.

That’s why Andy Needham and his colleagues at York University and Durham University’s findings, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, can be so valuable. The team tentatively believe they have uncovered evidence of a fireside art gallery dating back to 15,000 years ago.

They began by reassembling 54 sculptures that had languished for decades in the vaults of the British Museum. First excavated in the 1860s at Montastruc in France, near Toulouse, these “platelets” – flat, mostly limestone, postcard-sized slabs – were made by the Magdalenian people. This seemingly art-oriented culture spread throughout Western Europe around 23,000 to 14,000 years ago. The Montastruc slabs feature sculpted representations of then-common local fauna, such as the ibex and cattle-like aurochs.

Cataloging the appearance of the platelets, Dr. Needham was struck by how many of them had pink edges. This “reddening” occurs when the iron impurities in the limestone begin to oxidize; this occurs at temperatures around 200°C, about the heat felt at the edge of a wood fire. Much hotter than that, and the material would turn gray.

The pink suggested a few possibilities. Perhaps the pads ended up buried and later fires burned above them. Or they may have outlived their aesthetic appeal and enjoyed a second life as cooking stones. Or, more intriguingly, perhaps they were deliberately placed near fires for purely cultural reasons. That thought would be interesting enough to chew on, but the researchers pushed a hypothesis further: that the fire was more than just illumination and that its flickers acted to provide primitive animation to the wafer etchings.

This idea is reminiscent of the findings of the Chauvet cave, a site more than 30,000 years ago deeper in southeastern France. The limestone walls are home to perhaps the finest animal cave paintings in existence. The fact that the beasts were painted on top of each other, some with up to eight legs, suggests mankind’s earliest artistic attempts to depict movement. These walls also show signs of reddening.

Trial by… what else?

It was then time for the team to get their hands dirty. They fashioned their own sets of limestone slabs, burying some under fires, using others as cooking stones, and illuminating some with light from nearby fires. What created the best match with the patterns of the museum artifacts was placing the replicas around a fire.

Suppose the goal was a fireside art gallery. The team wondered what these prehistoric people might have seen among the carvings? Subjecting the treasures of the British Museum to the rigors of flame-based experimentation wouldn’t be enough, so the team turned to their computers. They made a simulation of a hearth as it would have been built by the Magdalenians, lit a virtual fire then submitted precisely, 3D models of the platelets in the resulting light. The results were surprisingly vivid, even from artifacts whose early, bright white carvings had long since faded. “It could have been a very powerful visceral experience, seeing animals leap off the rock,” says Dr Needham.

It’s an educated guess. The meticulous and multidisciplinary methods of the new work are commendable, said Gilles Tosello, a member of the scientific team who studied the Chauvet caves. The same applies to the attempt to bring new context to old objects, in particular, according to Dr. Tosello, objects obtained during a 19th century excavation which was excavated using what would now be considered primitive methods. But he’s cautious about guessing what people would have seen or searched for a long time ago.

Yet that’s what archaeologists and curators have to do: try to fill in the blanks when no new data is expected. Dr Needham hopes similar techniques could be applied to findings from other sites, perhaps shedding more light. about past cultures – and rescuing a few other neglected artifacts from museum basements.

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This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the title “Light Entertainment”

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