Rare 11,000 year old pendant is the oldest Mesolithic art ever found in the UK

An 11,000-year-old pendant discovered in North Yorkshire was nearly mistaken for a regular piece of rock, but it turned out to be the rarest item of its kind ever found—because there’s nothing else quite like it.

The triangular pendant, which was crafted from a single piece of shale, was found by archaeologists at an Early Mesolithic site in England known as Star Carr. Measuring roughly 1.22 by 1.38 inches (31 by 35 mm), it features the earliest known Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) art in all of Britain—a series of lines that have been variously interpreted as a tree, a map, a leaf, or simple tally marks.


Credit: Nicky Milner et al.

Not only does the pendant contain the earliest Mesolithic art ever found in the UK, but engraved pendants from the same time period are extremely rare globally—and no other pendants found have been made of shale.

“It was incredibly exciting to discover such a rare object,” said lead researcher Nicky Milner, of the Department of Archaeology at York, in a statement. “It is unlike anything we have found in Britain from this period. We can only imagine who owned it, how they wore it and what the engravings actually meant to them.”

Almost missed and forgotten

Scientists almost missed the pendant entirely. When it was drawn from some lake edge deposits in Star Carr, it looked like a natural stone, as the perforation (the hole presumably through which string was strung) had been filled in with mud. Further, the engravings—which are hard to see when the pendant is clean—were obscured.

But, after cleaning it up, they realized they had found something immensely important. According to the study, which is published in Internet Archaeology, the team then set to work to study the engravings. Using a variety of digital microscopy techniques, they were able to generate high res images of the art, which they discovered has interesting relations to art outside of the UK.

“This exciting find tells us about the art of the first permanent settlers of Britain after the last Ice Age,” said Dr. Chantal Conneller, the co-director of the excavations at The University of Manchester.

“This was a time when sea-level was much lower than today. Groups roamed across Doggerland (land now under the North Sea) and into Britain. The designs on our pendant are similar to those found in southern Scandinavia and other areas bordering the North Sea, showing a close cultural connection between northern European groups at this time.”

How was the pendant used?

The researchers also tested the pendant to establish whether it had been strung and worn, or whether pigments had been added to it to make the artwork more prominent. There doesn’t appear to be any traces of pigment left on the stone—if there was any on it to begin with. Furthermore, there is little to no wear around the perforation, which would be expected if the pendant was used as a necklace.

Although that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

“[I]t remains possible that the pendant was suspended and worn, but for such a limited duration of time as to leave no traces,” wrote the authors in the paper. “Indeed, it is also possible that it was intended for a single use, such as a ceremony, which is unlikely to leave any signatures of use at all.”

In fact, the idea of it being used for ceremonial purposes is something the researchers consider as a fairly intriguing option.

“One possibility is that the pendant belonged to a shaman – headdresses made out of red deer antlers found nearby in earlier excavations are thought to have been worn by shamans,” said Milner. “We can only guess what the engravings mean but engraved amber pendants found in Denmark have been interpreted as amulets used for spiritual personal protection.”

Regardless of its use, the Star Carr shale pendant is an extraordinarily rare find—and has already added new knowledge to the books.

“The discovery of the pendant is a sensational find,” said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England—which both contributed to and part-funded the excavation and research publication.

“Star Carr is an internationally important ‘at risk’ site, which is why we have provided substantial financial support for the excavation and assistance through the input of our specialist archaeological and archaeological science teams. The results have exceeded our expectations and will help rewrite the story of this long and complex, but little understood early prehistoric period.”


Credit: Nicky Milner et al.