(ORDO NEWS) — Somewhere on the banks of the River Aveyron in southern France, tens of thousands of years ago, families gathered around a hot fire to watch tiny creatures dance in the shadows and flames.
So we can imagine. A new look at more than 50 stone tablets found in the 19th century at a Paleolithic excavation site has recently sparked speculation about their use: Perhaps it was art that came to life in the light of a campfire.
Archaeologists at the University of York and Durham in the UK have analyzed samples of etched river stone and limestone to better examine their etched patterns and traces of heat to figure out exactly what purpose they might have served.
Based on the complex nature of the drawings and signs of discoloration caused by elevated temperatures, the researchers speculate that they may have been deliberately placed right next to the hot flames, possibly to create some sort of animated effect.
“It was previously thought that the heat damage seen on some of the plaques was most likely due to accident, but experiments with replica plaques have shown that the damage is more consistent with having been deliberately placed near a fire,” says study lead author Andy Needham of University of York.
People have been deliberately drawing and scratching these or those lines on surfaces for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.
Considering what kind of artistic beings we are today, it is surprisingly difficult to say with certainty what exactly prompted us to depict our world in the form of pictures. Was it for communication? For fun? Or was it a higher, more spiritual purpose?
The countless small flat stones found across Europe over 10,000 years ago are an even bigger mystery. The context of some of the decorated blocks implies a practical use, such as flooring, lamps or hearthstones.
But others, such as the abstract forms, human figures, animals and geological motifs found on several stones excavated near the French city of Montastryuk, have no obvious use.
Of the 76 animal engravings found on 54 plaques borrowed from the British Museum, 40 depict horses, seven reindeer and six red deer. Others included birds, wolves, and even humanoid figures. Most of them were depicted in a naturalistic pose, with attention paid to the accuracy of the anatomy.
The lines and flaws on many of the stones were incorporated into the scene itself – one horse, for example, has a leg that appears to wrap around a crack in the stone. But most intriguing are the animals that are strangely stacked on top of each other, overlapping each other.
Given examples of broken tablets from other sites that have been re-engraved and re-engraved, it seems at first strange that animals overlap, bodies and limbs merge.
Until these scenes are perceived not as genuine still life images, but as something more dynamic, which can be appreciated in the presence of a moving flame, and not in the harsh light of day.
This assumption is not without precedent. Paleolithic researcher and filmmaker Mark Azema made a similar suggestion a decade ago, based on similarly cluttered animal scenes on cave walls.
To test their proposal, the researchers made 3D models of the stones and used virtual reality software to see the images as they might have been seen tens of thousands of years ago – close to the edge of a campfire.
Illuminated by the flickering light of the campfire, the features of the stone surfaces were blurred, emphasizing their natural lines and artistic scratches, making the images appear less static.
While such movements are far from realistic, they would still evoke a sense of awe and connection in our minds.
“Creating art by firelight would be a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain,” says Needham.
“We know that shimmering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary ability to see shapes and faces in inanimate objects, and this may help explain why board designs that use or integrate natural rock features to draw animals or art forms are common.”
Whether our ancestors consciously embraced an art form that we can only characterize as cinematic, or adorned their hearthstones with dynamic images purely by chance, one way or another, is impossible to say.
Given our penchant for self-expression through all sorts of media and technology, it’s not hard to imagine that artists of old found a way to bring their drawings to life amidst the chaos of an evening fire.
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