Art by firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France)

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Palaeolithic stone plaquettes are a type of mobiliary art featuring engravings and recovered primarily from Magdalenian sites, where they can number from single finds to several thousand examples. Where context is available, they demonstrate complex traces of use, including surface refreshing, heating, and fragmentation. However, for plaquettes with limited or no archaeological context, research tends to gravitate toward their engraved surfaces. This paper focuses on 50 limestone plaquettes excavated by Peccadeau de l’Isle from Montastruc, a Magdalenian rockshelter site in southern France with limited archaeological context; a feature common to many art bearing sites excavated across the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Plaquette use at Montastruc was explored via a programme of microscopy, 3D modelling, colour enhancement using DStretch©, virtual reality (VR) modelling, and experimental archaeology, the latter focusing on limestone heating related to different functional and non-functional uses. While the limited archaeological context available ensures the results remain only indicative, the data generated suggests plaquettes from Montastruc were likely positioned in proximity to hearths during low ambient light conditions. The interaction of engraved stone and roving fire light made engraved forms appear dynamic and alive, suggesting this may have been important in their use. Human neurology is particularly attuned to interpreting shifting light and shadow as movement and identifying visually familiar forms in such varying light conditions through mechanisms such as pareidolic experience. This interpretation encourages a consideration of the possible conceptual connections between art made and experienced in similar circumstances, such as parietal art in dark cave environments. The toolset used to investigate the Montastruc assemblage may have application to other collections of plaquettes, particularly those with limited associated context.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0266146
Number of pages28
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2022

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© 2022 Needham et al.

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