Why 15,000-year-old art might have been displayed by firelight

THE BRITISH MUSEUM has in its care more than 8 million artifacts. Visitors can only see 80,000 of them on display at any given time. In part, this is a stark issue of space and variety. Few museums can display all they have, and many go through their collections to provide visitors with new experiences on successive visits. But it’s also about context. The curators have many prehistoric objects in the basement that they know are significant and interesting, even if they don’t know what those objects were for.

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Artifacts are unearthed over the centuries by teams with varying skills or commitment to accounting. Objects end up in files, completely stripped of their context. For finds whose purpose or beauty isn’t readily apparent, or for those that don’t fit neatly into an archaeological tale that explains that purpose, eternal repose in the basement is likely.

That’s why the results of Andy Needham and colleagues at the University of York and the University of Durham, published this week in the journal PLO ONE, can prove to be just as valuable. The team tentatively believes they have discovered evidence of a fireplace art gallery dating back 15,000 years.

They began by transporting 54 sculptures that had languished for decades in the vaults of the British Museum. First excavated in the 1860s in Montastruc, France, near Toulouse, these “platelets” – flat slabs of limestone the size of a postcard – were made by the Magdalenian people. This apparently art-oriented culture spread across Western Europe between approximately 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The slabs of Montastruc feature carved representations of then-common local wildlife such as the ibex and cattle-like aurochs.

By cataloging the appearance of platelets, Dr. Needham was impressed by how many of them had pink edges. This “rubefaction” occurs when the iron impurities within the limestone begin to oxidize; happens at temperatures around 200°C, approximately the heat felt at the edge of a wood fire. Much hotter than that, and the material would turn gray.

The rosy hue suggested some possibilities. Perhaps the platelets ended up buried and later the fires burned above them. Or they may have outlived their aesthetic appeal and experienced a second life as kitchen stones. Or, more intriguingly, perhaps they were deliberately placed near fires for purely cultural reasons. That thought would be interesting enough to brood over, but the researchers took a hypothesis further: that fire was more than mere lighting, and its flickers acted to provide primitive animation to the platelet carvings.

This idea is reminiscent of discoveries at the Chauvet cave, a site from more than 30,000 years ago, deeper in southeastern France. The limestone walls are home to perhaps the most impressive cave paintings of animals in existence. The fact that the beasts were painted one on top of the other, some with as many as eight legs, suggests humanity’s first artistic attempts to depict movement. These walls also show signs of flushing.

Judgment for… what else?

That’s when the team got their hands dirty. They created their own sets of limestone slabs, burying some under fires, using others as kitchen stones, and illuminating some with firelight nearby. What created the best match with the museum’s artifact patterns was placing the replicas around a fire.

Suppose the purpose was an art gallery by the fireplace. What, the team wondered, could these prehistoric people have seen among the sculptures? Subjecting the British Museum’s treasures to the rigors of flame-based experimentation wouldn’t work, so the team took it to their computers. They made a simulation of a fireplace as it would have been built by the Magdalenians, lit a virtual fire and then submitted precise, 3D platelet models in the resulting light. The results were surprisingly vivid, even from artifacts whose first bright white carvings had long since faded. “This could have been a very powerful and visceral experience, seeing animals jumping off the rock,” says Needham.

This is informed guesswork. The meticulous, multidisciplinary methods of the new work are to be commended, says Gilles Tosello, a member of the scientific team that studied the Chauvet caves. So too is the attempt to bring new context to ancient objects – especially, says Tosello, objects obtained from a 19th-century excavation that were excavated using what would today be seen as primitive methods. But he is wary of guessing what people long ago would have seen or looked for.

However, this is what archaeologists and curators should do: try to fill in the blanks when new data is not expected. Needham hopes similar techniques can be applied to finds elsewhere, perhaps shedding more light, so to speak, on past cultures — and rescuing a few more forgotten artifacts from museum basements.

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

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