A Mesolithic ‘crayon’ from North Yorkshire provides new evidence of how our ancestors coloured their animal skins and artwork. (Image: Paul Shields)

Archaeological analysis has revealed what is being called a Mesolithic ‘crayon’. It came from the ancient Lake Flixton – now covered in peat – in the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire. It is an area rich in prehistory, not least the famous occupation site of Star Carr (see CA 282). Now, a collaborative project between the Universities of York, Chester, and Manchester, studying ochre objects from the lake, has provided new evidence of how our ancestors may have coloured their animal skins and artwork.

Found during excavations at Seamer Carr, conducted in the 1980s by Dr Tim Schadla-Hall, on the north-west shore of the palaeo-lake, the ‘crayon’ measures 22mm long and 7mm wide. It is made of ochre. Its elongated shape is not one that is found in nature, and while one end is rounded, the other is tapered, suggesting its use as a drawing implement.

Also discovered around the lake – at Flixton School House Farm on the southern shore, which was excavated in the early 2000s by Dr Barry Taylor and Dr Amy Gray Jones – was an ochre pebble with numerous grooves across only one of its surfaces. This indicates that the markings are unlikely to have been caused by the burial environment and instead suggest human agency – particularly as the marked surface appears to have been used so frequently that its surface has become concave. Based on these characteristics, it is likely that the pebble was scraped to produce a red pigment powder, the present project team suggests.

‘Colour was a significant part of hunter-gatherer life, and ochre gives you a very vibrant red colour. It is very important in the Mesolithic period, and seems to be used in a number of ways,’ said Dr Andy Needham from the University of York, lead author on the paper highlighting these finds, which was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.12.002). ‘The pebble and crayon were located in a Mesolithic landscape known to be rich in art, including the recently discovered engraved shale pendant at nearby Star Carr (CA 314). It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps for colouring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork.’

This article appeared in CA 337

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