Tracing an island’s French connection

Overlooking the main focus of the Ice Age Island project’s current investigations: a c.15,000 year-old Magdalenian hunter-gatherer camp at Les Varines. (All Images: Ice Age Island project)

Excavations in Jersey have uncovered the remains of a Magdalenian hunter-gatherer campsite, founded long before the Channel Island was surrounded by sea. Carly Hilts spoke to Matt Pope, Chantal Conneller, Beccy Scott, Andy Shaw, and Ed Blinkhorn to found out more.

If you gazed out across the English Channel 15,000 years ago, the view would be very different to what you might expect today. Rather than choppy grey waters, before you stretched a wide, undulating plain, cut through by valleys and a complex network of rivers, and populated by herds of wild horses, reindeer, mammoths, and nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers. Far across this long-lost landscape, beyond a wide river (the Aa) sweeping out of what is now northern France, a rocky plateau that would one day be known as Jersey rose out of the surrounding grassland.

Long-running investigations in Jersey have uncovered a wealth of clues to its occupation more than 200,000 years ago, as well as at the end of the last Ice Age, and its prehistoric links to Continental Europe. 

In this ‘island landscape without a sea’ (as Ice Age Island project co- director, Chantal Conneller of Manchester University, describes it) this mass of granite would have been a prominent waymarker, drawing first Neanderthals and then early modern humans to settle around its headlands. There they built hunting camps and repaired the projectiles with which they pursued their prey on the plain below. For the last five years, one such home has formed the focus of the Ice Age Island project. This initiative began in 2009 as a small shoestring field school for students at UCL and the Universities of Manchester and Southampton, and has since blossomed into a wide-ranging (and emphatically cooperative) investigation: multiple interwoven research strands explore the later Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic periods and involve experts from the aforementioned three institutions, the British Museum, and the Universities of York, St Andrews, and Wales Trinity Saint David. Working with Jersey Heritage, the project has brought the public into the heart of Palaeolithic fieldwork, with site tours running every day of the working week and an on-site pop-up museum, together with regular digital updates from the field.

Most recently their excavations have centred on Les Varines: a grassy saddle of land sandwiched between what were once offshore stacks on an ancient cliffline that now overlooks Jersey’s modern capital, St Helier. In this sheltered spot, the team has uncovered traces of a campsite created by Magdalenian people – the Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers who reoccupied Europe between 16,000 and 13,000 years ago as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Extensive occupation sites linked to this sophisticated people – who also created the celebrated cave art at Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain – are well documented in Continental Europe. But while they are also known to have occupied Britain, they have left relatively few archaeological footprints within these shores (see CA 330). In Jersey, though, tantalising traces of these communities are now beginning to emerge.

Artefacts out of place

Like many significant finds, the first clues to the camp’s presence were discovered purely by chance – in this case, when Peter Bohea was jogging across a nearby field and stumbled upon a series of plough-scattered flints. Fortunately, this jogger was the husband of none other than Olga Finch, Jersey Heritage’s Curator of Archaeology, and was well aware that in Jersey – where flint is locally in short supply – if you spot some of this material in the ground it is highly likely to be a prehistoric artefact.

Overlooking the main focus of the Ice Age Island project’s current investigations: a c.15,000 year-old Magdalenian hunter-gatherer camp at Les Varines.

Sure enough, on closer examination the field fragments proved to be late Palaeolithic struck flints – and when the Ice Age Island team opened a small test pit over the spot where they had been found, they uncovered a distinctive layer of yellow sediment dating from the time of the last Ice Age, c.15,000 years ago. Here, there were more struck flints, all pointing downhill. These had also been dislodged from their original location – not by the plough, but by soil slumping downslope, perhaps during a spring thaw. Wherever the flint came from, it was further uphill – so the team shifted their investigations towards the top of the rise, where geophysics hinted at another deep pocket of Ice Age sediment.

Another trench – this time much larger, measuring 10m by 10m and going down 3m – revealed the same sloped deposits, and more artefacts out of place, this time numbering more than 1,200 pieces of flint. Clearly there was evidence of substantial occupation nearby, but the project was yet to uncover any in situ objects. This all changed, though, when the diggers moved uphill once more, opening a new 10m by 10m trench at the top of the hill – this time the flints they uncovered lay less than a metre down, scattered across an ancient land surface. At last, the team had found an undisturbed part of the site.

It would soon prove to be just the tip of the Ice Age iceberg: five years on, and the team has now excavated the remains of the first Magdalenian campsite to be recorded in Jersey’s interior. In areas of Continental Europe, such as the Paris Basin, these settlements can extend across hundreds of metres. While the Les Varines camp has been excavated on a smaller scale, it still preserves evidence of repeated and dynamic occupations, probably by extended family groups returning to the same spot on multiple occasions.

Here, areas of intense burning – picked out as distinctive circular patches of heat-reddened loess covered with a layer of charcoal, enclosed within rings of burnt stones – pinpoint the location of the community’s hearths. Jersey’s Palaeolithic landscape was largely treeless, and the charcoal scattering the hearths accordingly contained very little wood – instead, the camp’s inhabitants were burning as-yet unidentified species of animal bone for fuel in order to supplement the small quantities of birch wood that could be collected.

Close to the hearths, we may also have traces of the hunter-gatherers’ homes: granite blocks that have been brought deliberately on to the site and arranged in straight lines and semi-circles. It is thought that these might hint at the presence of windbreaks or structures; they could have been used to weigh down or prop up the edges of leather or hide tents – which, with limited access to timber, the Magdalenian group may have used as dwellings.

Lines and semi-circles of granite blocks, which were brought on to the site by the camp’s Magdalenian inhabitants, are thought to possibly indicate windbreaks or the location of long-lost dwellings. 

As for what these people were doing at Les Varines, their multiple, frequently reused hearths testify to cooking on a reasonably large scale – although thanks to the acidic local soil, there is little surviving bone to hint at what they were eating. It is most likely that their diets would have been dominated by the wild horses and reindeer that inhabited the plains below their lofty home. Of the few scraps of bone that have been recovered, it is difficult to attribute them to any specific species. However, one very degraded tooth, large and with bony plates, is thought to have possibly come from a mammoth – something that laboratory testing will hopefully confirm.

Such animals were plentiful 250,000 years ago, when they were hunted by the Neanderthals who then inhabited Jersey. But by the time the Les Varines campsite was occupied they were on their way to becoming extinct, and their remains are otherwise extremely rare in the area for this period. If the tooth does belong to a mammoth, its presence here is intriguing. It is unlikely to represent the only surviving trace of the complete carcass of a hunted animal – you would expect more of the beast’s robust bones to have survived – and in any case the large animal would have been very cumbersome to carry. Rather than bringing the entire beast back to the campsite for butchering, the Ice Age Island project team suggests that Palaeolithic hunters would have more probably cut away chunks of meat that could be more easily transported home for cooking.

In which case, how did the tooth come to Les Varines? UCL’s Matt Pope, one of the project directors, suggests that it could have had a more personal meaning for one of the camp’s population: ‘We know from other sites that the Magdalenians seem to have collected brightly coloured stones and fossils (it could be that a culture that carved animal figures onto stone might have perceived fossils as ancestral artworks). Why should they not have also collected mammoth teeth?’

Illuminating Art

The other main activity on the site seems to have been making and repairing flint hunting tools; over 7,000 pieces of struck stone have been recovered so far, mostly little backed bladelets that were used to tip the projectiles flung by spear-throwers (the Magdalenian hunter’s tool of choice; bows and arrows were probably not yet in use). The camp’s occupants were not solely focused on their day-to-day essential work of hunting and cooking, though: there are also traces of more imaginative, even artistic, ideas at Les Varines.

Incised abstract patterns, as well as images of animals dating from this period, are known on objects from a great swathe of Magdalenian occupied territory, from Spain across to Germany. But they are much rarer in northern France and Britain. Finding Ice Age art at Les Varines would therefore be the icing on the cake, according to the team – and six small pieces of schist (a material not local to the site), densely covered with patterns of scratch marks, are thought to represent just that.

The camp’s hearths are today marked by distinctive circular patches of heat-reddened loess covered with a layer of charcoal, enclosed within rings of burnt stones.

Measuring barely 5cm long, the fragments are broken pieces of artefacts known as engraved ‘plaquettes’, a kind of object also known from Magdalenian sites in France and Germany (see CA 310). Analysis of these new finds, using Reflectance Transformation Imaging – a kind of multi-light photography employing a special filtering technique – has helped to make sense of their complex abstract designs. Using this method, we can see repetitive clusters within what otherwise looks like a tangled web of lines, as well as subtle changes of colour that might represent some kind of residue or pigment, although more work is needed to clarify this point.

Micromodels created by Silvia Bello at the Natural History Museum can even allow us to unpick the order in which the now very worn patterns were inscribed: the short, shallow, straight scratches seem to be the earlier etchings; while longer, irregular curved lines were added over the top. For now, the meaning of these patterns remains obscure, though it has been suggested that the curved lines might represent some kind of stylised figurative art (like cloud-gazing, it is tempting to search for shapes in the meandering lines), while possible interpretations of the short scratches include some form of notation or tally.

More than any other aspect of the site, it is these imaginative artefacts that give us an insight into what life was like for the nomadic groups who made Jersey their home 15,000 years ago; we might stereotype the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as one focused on the day-to-day necessity of finding and consuming food, but this was clearly no desperate hand-to-mouth struggle for survival. The intricate artwork and the sophisticated composite tools that the campsite’s inhabitants were producing bear witness to the fact that, as well as roaming the plains around Jersey to pursue their prey, these Magdalenians were also able to invest considerable time back at Les Varines.

Above all, the significance of Les Varines’ rare remains is their contribution to a much bigger picture of Jersey’s past, and its connections (both physical and cultural) to Continental Europe, which the Ice Age Island project is pulling together. Jersey preserves a remarkable record of activity from some of Europe’s last-known Neanderthal hunters to the arrival of the first early modern humans, as well as the echoes of an Ice Age landscape shaped by a quarter of a million years of climate change, rising and falling sea levels, and the shattered remains of earlier coastlines.

Here, we find a vivid account of the people and animals that inhabited this isolated outcrop, and how they responded to the changing landscape around them. The work at Les Varines is not yet done, but when investigations draw to a close, the site is to be backfilled and protected by the States of Jersey to preserve its remains in situ; it may be that future excavations will bring further clues to the life of this long-lost community.

Further information

For more information on the project, search for #IceAgeIsland on Twitter, or visit www.jerseyheritage.org/ice-ageisland. Sarah Duffy’s digital models of La Cotte de St Brelade can be seen at www.sarahmduffy.uk.

This is a feature published in CA 333. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply