Shale of the century: 11,000 year-old pendant found in Yorkshire may be UK’s oldest jewellery

Natalie McCaul, Curator of Archeology at the Yorkshire Museum, with the 11,000 year old pendant that is the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain.  Picture: Tony Johnson
Natalie McCaul, Curator of Archeology at the Yorkshire Museum, with the 11,000 year old pendant that is the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain. Picture: Tony Johnson
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A FRAGILE shale pendant which dates back 11,000 years and which was discovered in North Yorkshire is the earliest known example of Mesolithic art in Britain, detailed research has revealed.

The rare find, engraved and crafted from shale, which goes on display in York this weekend, was uncovered alongside what was once a huge lake which covered most of the Vale of Pickering in the Mesolithic era. Initially researchers thought the find was a natural stone - sediment left the artwork barely visible after the find last year - but careful research has revealed the true beauty of the find.

An 11,000 year old pendant, the earliest known piece of Mesolithic art in Britain, may have been worn by a shaman, according to researchers.

An 11,000 year old pendant, the earliest known piece of Mesolithic art in Britain, may have been worn by a shaman, according to researchers.

Engraved motifs on Mesolithic pendants are extremely rare and no other engraved pendants made of shale are known to have been found in Europe.

Professor Nicky Milner, of the Department of Archaeology at York, led the research. She said: “It was incredibly exciting to discover such a rare object. 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.

“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. 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.”

An 11,000 year old pendant, the earliest known piece of Mesolithic art in Britain, may have been worn by a shaman, according to researchers.

An 11,000 year old pendant, the earliest known piece of Mesolithic art in Britain, may have been worn by a shaman, according to researchers.

Crafted from a single piece of shale, the three-millimetre thick artefact which measures 31mm by 35mm contains a series of lines which archaeologists believe may represent a tree, a map, a leaf or even tally marks. The artwork on the item, was uncovered by a research team from the Universities of York, Manchester and Chester.

The pendant is being showcased to the public for the first time in a display at the Yorkshire Museum, in York, until May 5.

Exhibits also on display at the museum will include other Star Carr finds including flints, a rare barbed point used for hunting or fishing and 11,000-year-old firelighters – amazingly preserved birch bark rolls.

Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at the museum, said of the pendant: “Its remarkable discovery changes the way we think about our ancestors who lived in Yorkshire 11,000 years ago and the rituals, beliefs and cultural values that were part of their lives.”

The research, part of a five-year project, supported by the European Research Council, is published in Internet Archaeology.

Dr Chantal Conneller, from the University of Manchester said the find tells us about the art of the first permanent settlers of Britain after the last Ice Age.

“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.”

It is the first perforated artefact with engraved design discovered at Star Carr although shale beads, a piece of perforated amber and two perforated animal teeth have been recovered previously.

Dr Barry Taylor, from the University of Chester and co-director of the excavations, said: “When we study prehistory we deal with very long periods of time and often focus on very broad issues. But this is something that a person wore, that had significance to them and to the people around them.”

Star Carr, in the Vale of Pickering, is a significant archaeological site and a number of important artefacts have already been found there which had been preserved in peat.

In 2010, archaeologists discovered Britain’s earliest surviving house, dating back to 9,000 BC, at the site.

Star Carr now lies under farmland at the eastern end of the Vale of Pickering. The site is preserved due to Lake Flixton in-filling with peat.