In the mid-19th century, archaeologists working in France uncovered some 50 engraved plaquettes. The stones were eventually stored in the British Museum collection, but never really received much academic attention — until now. Now, researchers analyzing them and recreating them in the virtual world found that some 15,000 years ago, people from a prehistoric culture created rock art next to a fire, and may have even used fire to “animate” their art.
The plaquettes at Montastruc
Unfortunately, archaeologists working in the 19th century didn’t do a very good job by today’s standards. As a result, we have numerous important collections without understanding the context in which they were found. The plaquettes at Montastruc, acquired by the British Museum in 1887 fall under this category. Researchers led by Andy Needham from the University of York and Izzy Wisher from Durham University wanted to see if they could get a better understanding of the plaquettes by analyzing them directly, and through the use of experimental archaeology — the process of recreating archaeological objects and testing various characteristics. In this study, the researchers recreated the tablets both in the real and in the virtual world.
The plaquettes feature animals engraved on stones which have been described before, but something else drew the researchers’ eyes.
“Whilst the engraved animal forms on the stones were important to study and understand, it was the pink-ish discoloration caused by heating that really grabbed our attention,” Needham and Wisher told ZME Science. “It had been previously assumed that this heating damage had occurred accidentally, perhaps that the plaquettes had been gradually buried by natural processes and many thousands of years later a fire may have been lit, which caused heat damage on the plaquettes underneath. But no one had tested to see whether any other activities might explain this heating damage and if this might give us a better insight into how the plaquettes were made and used.”
It was really exciting, the researchers say, to analyze this heating damage and design experiments to figure out what caused this particular pattern. To get to the root of things, they created replicas of the stones.
The original objects were mapped with a high-resolution 3D scanner called a structured light macro scanner. This method requires low levels of light, so the team worked in a dark room, placing objects on a turntable linked to a computer. The scans were then cleaned and stitched together to create models with sub-mm accuracy.
The models were then recolored to produce the engraved lines with their original fresh white color and imported into a virtual reality environment. The researchers then carried out various experiments to see what type of activity may have caused the observed pattern. They concluded that the plaquettes were either created around a fire or were placed around a fire.
“The closest fit seemed to be that the plaquettes were deliberately placed around a fire which created particular visual effects on the engraved depictions, with the flickering light and moving shadows appearing to animate the animals,” the two researchers explain in an email. “By simulating these lighting conditions in virtual reality, we were able to place the 3D models of the Montastruc plaquettes next to a virtual fire and observed a similar visual effect – the warm, flickering light created the impression that the engraved animals on the surface of the plaquettes were shifting in and out of perception, and appeared animated.”
Using fire to animate art
The people that created this type of art are called the Magdalenian people. They lived in Western Europe from around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago, and occupied an area stretching from Spain and Portugal in the west to Poland in the east. The Magdalenian people were hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, hunting animals like horses and bison. It was a different time with a different landscape, with fewer trees and more open grasslands, and agile human hunters likely fared well in this environment.
Their culture revolved around animals. They may have even migrated around following the herds, and they left behind tools made from bone, as well as plenty of animal-based art.
“It is clear that animals were very important to these societies – not only because they depended on animals for meat and fur, but also because their art almost exclusively focused on this theme, drawing animals from memory and sometimes in a high degree of detail. In addition to portable art, like plaquettes, and cave art, they also had a rich material culture that consisted of beads made from animal teeth and exotic materials, and they carved animal representations into more functional objects, like spear-throwers,” Needham and Wisher tell ZME Science.
It’s not surprising, then, that these stones feature engravings of animals. But their use of fire is truly stunning. The shifting, dynamic firelight would have enhanced the experience of this art from Montastruc, the researchers explain. The Magdalenian people essentially used fire to create patterns that resemble moving shadows and flickering light, creating the appearance that the engraved animals are moving.
“This really adds a sense of narrative to this art. You can imagine then that this art may have been involved in storytelling by the fire, with the animal “characters” from those stories coming to life by the firelight,” the researchers add.
Appreciating ancient art
There’s still some level of speculation about this, but there are other examples from Europe during the same time period where animals in caves were drawn with multiple legs or heads to create the impression of movement. It also fits with how important the animals were to the Magdalenian — they wanted to recreate them as detailed and naturally as possible, while working from memory.
There’s also the matter of how these people would have viewed their art. Nowadays, we generally see art neatly arranged in a museum, on a canvas, under clear light. But back in those days, light would have been created (and often visualized) around a fire, with flickering shapes and shadows.
The researchers also suspect that placing these rocks by the fire may have triggered pareidolia — the psychological phenomenon where you tend to see forms in random patterns. When viewing the undulating surfaces of the rock art under firelight, the cracks and shapes of the rock may have also been perceived as animals or animal features.
“This seems to also be reflected in the Montastruc plaquettes themselves, where cracks are used to represent legs of animals or the edge of the plaquette suggests part of the ear or back of an animal,” the researchers say.
Conducting experimental archaeology, especially when working with an institution as prestigious as the British Museum, is always exciting, the researchers tell us. It’s also a great way to build a platform and see the objects as these ancient cultures would have seen them themselves. It’s a very human, down-to-earth way of analyzing artifacts, and it often yields surprising results.
“To be able to see what Magdalenian artists may have seen thousands of years ago when they were making the art and how they might have experienced it by firelight using VR was amazing. It really felt like all of the hard work had paid off and we were really able to say so much more about the role of plaquettes in the lives of people who occupied Montastruc during the Palaeolithic,” the researchers conclude.
The study was published in Nature.