Chalk one up to Raman: World's oldest crayon

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  • Published: Feb 1, 2018
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Raman
thumbnail image: Chalk one up to Raman: World's oldest crayon

Ochre artefacts

Archaeologists say they may have discovered one of the earliest examples of a 'crayon' -- possibly used by our ancestors 10,000 years ago for applying colour to their animal skins or for artwork. The crayon revealed a sharpened end. Credit: Paul Shields/University of York

Raman microspectroscopy and reflected visible light microscopy have been used to analyse ochre artefacts from Mesolithic palaeo-lake Flixton ostensibly in modern-day Yorkshire. The study reveals that our ancestors may have used ochre crayons to decorate animals skins or make other art.

The discovery of one of the earliest examples of a "crayon" was anything but child's play, employing instead painstaking and detailed research to reveal the physical and chemical properties of a 10,000 year-old artefact from an ancient lake today blanketed in peat. The lake is close to the modern-day seaside town of Scarborough in North Yorkshire, England. Paul Shields and colleagues at the University of York explain how the red ochre "pebble" they found is heavily striated on its surface as if it has been scraped to produce a powder of the red pigment. The pebble is about 22 mm long and 7 mm wide and also appears to be sharpened as it might be if it were to be used to draw on other surfaces.

Ochre is one of the most important mineral pigments we know prehistoric hunter-gatherers used across the globe. Indeed, it is still used by people today in some parts of the world in much the same way that we imagine our ancestors used in the Mesolithic period. However, the new work suggests there were differences.

Prehistoric artists

The ochre pebble, or crayon, and other ochre objects have been investigated as part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Departments of Archaeology and Physics at the University of York and colleagues at the Universities of Chester and Manchester. The artefacts were found at Seamer Carr and Flixton School House. Both of these sites are well known as landscapes with a rich prehistory, including one of the most famous Mesolithic sites in Europe, Star Carr. Previously, a pendant found at Star Carr is the earliest known piece of Mesolithic art in Britain. At the same site, more than 30 red deer antler head dresses were discovered. These head dresses may well have been used to disguise hunters as they stalked their prey or perhaps in ritual undertaken by a shaman when purportedly communicating with animal spirits.

York archaeologist Andy Needham the lead author on the current paper suggests that these new discoveries help further our understanding of life in the Mesolithic period of pre-history. "Colour was a very significant part of hunter-gatherer life and ochre gives you a very vibrant red colour," he explains. "It is very important in the Mesolithic period and seems to be used in a number of ways." He adds that, “One of the latest objects we have found looks exactly like a crayon; the tip is faceted and has gone from a rounded end to a really sharpened end, suggesting it has been used. For me it is a very significant object and helps us build a bigger picture of what life was like in the area; it suggests it would have been a very colourful place."

Yorkshire bounty

Flixton is thought to have been a critical region during the Mesolithic period and the two objects together with other artefacts and what we know about the environment there at the time paint something of a colourful picture of the people and their surroundings. "The pebble and crayon were located in an area already rich in art," says Needham. "It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps for colouring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork."

The micrometer resolution of the Raman technique is critical to the detailed information available to the scientists in studying such artefacts. "The quality and specificity of chemical characterisation possible with micro-Raman facilitates new avenues for further research on ochreous materials in Britain, including provenancing through chemical fingerprinting," the team reports in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports in February.

Related Links

J Archaeol Sci 2018, 17, 650: "The application of micro-Raman for the analysis of ochre artefacts from Mesolithic palaeo-lake Flixton"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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