Ancient crayon lets archaeologists draw conclusions


Hunter-gatherer discovery shows importance of ochre to early British society. Andrew Masterson reports.


The 10,000 year-old crayon.
The 10,000 year-old crayon.
Paul Shields/University of York

British archaeologists have uncovered a 10,000-year-old crayon that provides a tantalising glimpse into the lives of Mesolithic settlers.

The crayon, or perhaps more accurately “crayon-like object”, is 22-milimetres long and seven-millimetres wide, an elongated structure comprised primarily of haematitite, although with some small hard pieces of other minerals embedded.

It was excavated by a team led by Andy Needham from the University of York in England, from a site called Flixton School House Farm, which sits on the banks of an ancient lake in North Yorkshire. The lake itself is long gone, replaced by a covering of peat, but the area has proved rich in artefacts left behind by early pre-agricultural residents.

In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Needham and his colleagues describe the object being powdery in consistency, lacking the laminar sheet crystal structure that would mark it as a geologically formed rock. It is thus, the researchers suggest, “an improbable natural formation”.

The crayon is deeply grooved along its long sides. It has also seemingly been worked into a rough point at one end.

The lack of any obvious artistic or design elements to the grooves, the researchers write, can be taken as evidence that the object was periodically and precisely scraped to obtain red ochre. The pointy bit, they suggest, “might indicate the elongate shaped piece was used as a drawing and colouring tool, perhaps in a similar way to a contemporary pencil or crayon”.

The find, together with another scraped ochre stone, found nearby, also described in the paper, add to a growing understanding of the lives and culture of the hunter-gatherers who spent time on the shores of the ancient lake.

Other finds in the area have included beads and pendants, and a collection of more than 30 headdresses fashioned from deer skulls.

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X17305059?via%3Dihub#!
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X17305059?via%3Dihub#!
  3. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/jwa.2011.11.1.1
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