Four rare Late Neolithic chalk plaques from the Stonehenge region have been subjected to non-invasive Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) technology in a new study by experts from Wessex Archaeology, which has shed light on previously unseen artistic elements used during the ‘golden age’ of Neolithic chalk art.
The plaques are considered by archaeologists to be among the most spectacular examples of Prehistoric engraved chalk in Britain. Discovered between 1968 and 2017 within 5km of one another in a cluster around Stonehenge, they have been the subject of extensive study – most notably Plaques 1 and 2 found during the A303 road-widening in the Chalk Plaque Pit in 1968.
Above: Upper faces of all plaques
Bob Davis, formerly Senior Project Officer at Wessex Archaeology and principal author of the study, said:
“The Chalk Plaque Pit, discovered in 1968, was one of the most important discoveries of Late Neolithic chalk art in Britain, and over the last five decades we have seen additional plaques discovered from the Stonehenge region which have aided the study. Previously, the chalk plaques were documented using hand-drawn illustrations and were difficult to reconstruct due to erosion. However, the advancement of revolutionary technology has made it possible to understand previously unseen features of the plaques, which help us to understand the creative process of these Prehistoric artists.”
Experts from Wessex Archaeology carried out the new RTI study to review the plaques’ manufacture, origins and artistic influences. RTI is a photographic method that captures a subject’s shape and colour to reveal surface information invisible under normal examination. Images are created from multiple photographs of a subject, where each shot is taken with light projected from a different direction to produce varying highlights and shadows. Wessex Archaeology uses RTI for detailed analysis of delicate objects requiring little or no handling, assisting in their conservation.
The RTI highlighted a range of artistic abilities in the predominately geometric designs on each plaque, demonstrating not only deliberate, staged composition, execution and detail, but also providing an insight into the inspiration of the Neolithic artists. In one instance, it is possible to suggest that the designs were not abstract but, rather, drew on objects known to the artist in the real world.
Above: RTI scan of carvings on Plaque 1 from the Chalk Plaque Pit. The carving appears to be a representation of twisted cord (right) - an object likely known to the artists in the real world.
Dr Matt Leivers, A303 Consultant Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology who also co-authored the new study, said:
“One of the most interesting results of this new study is the way in which the application of modern technology to ancient artefacts has allowed us not only a better understanding of the working methods of the Neolithic artists, but also a rare glimpse into their motivations and mindsets.”
The study has hinted that the adoption of these artistic styles may have been integrated into elements of existing Middle Neolithic culture. Engraved chalk objects can be traced throughout the Neolithic period; however, the concentration of this distinctive composition during the Late Neolithic period may mark it as a truly golden age for the manufacture of chalk art in Britain.
Above: Plaque 1 upper face showing details and features under RTI
Dr Phil Harding, Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology who also co-authored the new study
and examined these unique plaques in 1988 before accurate radiocarbon or technological methods were available, said:
“Chalk has provided an attractive material for engraving for countless generations. It offers surfaces that can be smoothed, allowing designs to be sketched, reworked, altered or erased accordingly. Engraved chalk plaques were an important cultural marker in the Neolithic period. Utilising the advancement of photographic techniques, it is possible to suggest that Neolithic artists used objects known to them in the real world as inspiration for their artistic expression, for example, in the representation of twisted cord which formed part of the design on Plaque 1.”
Above: Lower part of Plaque 1 showing (left) raw data under specular enhancement mode with (right) the engraved sequence highlighted in order of red, dark blue, yellow, green, light blue and orange.