5,000-Year-Old Engraved Chalk Plaques Found in Stonehenge Region

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A team of experts from Wessex Archaeology has analyzed four ancient chalk plaques from the Stonehenge region in southern England. Their results place the plaques in the early part of the 3rd millennium BCE which, together with identification of individual motifs, allows the artifacts and the designs to be reconsidered within the corpus of Neolithic art in the British Isles.

Upper faces of the engraved chalk plaques from the Stonehenge region. Image credit: Davis et al., doi: 10.1017/ppr.2021.13.

Upper faces of the engraved chalk plaques from the Stonehenge region. Image credit: Davis et al., doi: 10.1017/ppr.2021.13.

Chalk has provided a most attractive material for engraving for countless generations. It offers surfaces that can be smoothed, allowing designs to be sketched, reworked, altered, or erased accordingly.

The material is irresistible; recent examples include a regimental badge carved by members of the Liverpool Pals regiment to document their presence in a World War 1 front line practice trench at Perham Down on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.

The most spectacular examples of prehistoric engraved chalk involve a small number of portable objects, principally the three Folkton Drums, Folkton, North Yorkshire and two square plaques from a Late Neolithic pit, the Chalk Plaque Pit near Amesbury, Wiltshire.

The Folkton Drums and the chalk plaques collectively provide the most frequently illustrated examples of engraved art on chalk from Britain.

In addition, two more fragmentary chalk plaques are now known from the Stonehenge area: a broken example from Butterfield Down, Amesbury and another fragment from Bulford, only 7 km from Stonehenge.

“The Chalk Plaque Pit, discovered in 1968, was one of the most important discoveries of Late Neolithic chalk art in Britain, and over the last five decades we have seen additional plaques discovered from the Stonehenge region which have aided the study,” said Dr. Bob Davis, formerly senior project officer at Wessex Archaeology.

“Previously, the chalk plaques were documented using hand-drawn illustrations and were difficult to reconstruct due to erosion.”

“However, the advancement of revolutionary technology has made it possible to understand previously unseen features of the plaques, which help us to understand the creative process of these prehistoric artists.”

Reverse faces of the engraved chalk plaques from the Stonehenge region. Image credit: Davis et al., doi: 10.1017/ppr.2021.13.

Reverse faces of the engraved chalk plaques from the Stonehenge region. Image credit: Davis et al., doi: 10.1017/ppr.2021.13.

Using the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) technique, Dr. Davis and colleagues reviewed the Stonehenge plaques, their manufacture, origins, and artistic influences.

This photographic technique highlighted a range of artistic abilities in the predominately geometric designs on each plaque, demonstrating not only deliberate, staged composition, execution and detail, but also providing an insight into the inspiration of the Neolithic artists.

In one instance, it is possible to suggest that the designs were not abstract but, rather, drew on objects known to the artist in the real world.

“One of the most interesting results of this new study is the way in which the application of modern technology to ancient artifacts has allowed us not only a better understanding of the working methods of the Neolithic artists, but also a rare glimpse into their motivations and mindsets,” said Dr. Matt Leivers, an archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology.

“Engraved chalk plaques were an important cultural marker in the Neolithic period,” said Dr. Phil Harding, an archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology.

“Utilizing the advancement of photographic techniques, it is possible to suggest that Neolithic artists used objects known to them in the real world as inspiration for their artistic expression, for example, in the representation of twisted cord which formed part of the design on Plaque 1.”

The results were published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

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Bob Davis et al. Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) Investigation of Engraved Chalk Plaques from the Stonehenge Region. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, published online October 28, 2021; doi: 10.1017/ppr.2021.13

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