Monday, August 29, 2016

Archaic Shell Technology

Alice C. Linsley
Oldest known symbolic engraving

Archaic humans were producing abstract symbols much earlier than originally thought. This shell found on Java in the late 1800's was carved half a million years ago by archaic humans. The zigzag pattern is like that found on stone carvings in Africa. The pattern appears on the 77,000 year old red ochre stone (below) found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Ostrich eggshells were used by prehistoric peoples to carry water from place to place, like canteens. Ostrich eggs were also used as perfume containers. These eggshell vessels were decorated, as is seen on these fragments of 65,000 year ostrich egg shells (below).

The decorated ostrich egg shells (left) come from a sample of 270 engraved eggshell fragments, mostly excavated at Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa. They display two standard design patterns, according to a team led by archaeologist Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux in Talence, France.

In the Oriental Museum there are examples of ostrich eggs which have been decorated over their entire surfaces.

Decorated eggshells were placed in the graves of children in Sudan and Nubia. Painted ostrich eggs were placed by grieving parents in the graves of their children. These eggs represented the hope of eternal life or immortality. At Naqada, a decorated ostrich egg replaced the owner's missing head. This egg is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The painted ostrich egg shown below dates to the 7th century BC and was found on the island of Cyprus.

Credit: De Agostini Picture Library 
The discovery of small perforated sea shells in Morocco is evidence of bead adornments dating to 82,000 years ago. Shells were used to produce necklaces. The 82,000 year old shell beads were unearthed in the Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt, in north-east Morocco. The cache consisted of 13 shells belonging to the species Nassarius gibbosulus. Some of shell beads are still covered with red ocher.

Red ocher was used in burial and many of the oldest shell necklaces have been found at grave sites. The perforated shells below are thought to be the oldest in the world.

(Credit: Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d'Errico / 2007)

Credit: Christopher Henshilwood
Similar shell beads (shown above) were unearthed from Still Bay at Blombos Cave in South Africa. These date to about 75,000 year ago. Caves or rock shelters served as the temporary residences of prehistoric peoples as they moved from place to place. These also served as places of burial. 

Such rock shelters have been found in the Judean hills near Bethlehem. Human habitation in the area of Bethlehem between (100,000-10,000 BC) is well-attested along the north side of Wadi Khareitun where there are three caves: Iraq al-Ahmar, Umm Qal’a, and Umm Qatafa. These caves were in a wooded landscape overlooking a river. At Umm Qatafa archaeologists found the earliest evidence of the domestic use of fire in Palestine. In these caves archaeologists also found clay vessels decorated with red paint, ropes, reed mats, leather, wood artifacts, flint implements, stone grinding and pounding tools, and necklaces made of bone and shell.

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