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Ancient symbols surface on Israeli pebble.

Ancient symbols surface on Israeli pebble

An engraved limestone pebble uncovered at an Israeli archaeological site in 1988 provides a rare example of abstract, symbolic artwork in the Middle East during the Upper Paleolithic, a period between 35,000 and 12,000 years ago, according to a new scientific report on the artifact.

"The pebble appears to reflect the sophisticated, abstract encoding of a message," says Erella Hovers of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who directed excavation at the Urkan e-Rub IIa site where the engraved stone turned up. Artifacts found with the pebble belong to hunter-gatherers who inhabited the region between 19,000 and 14,500 years ago.

Only three other Middle Eastern art objects from the Upper Paleolithic have been found. A limestone plate with an engraving of a horse dates to around 30,000 years ago, a bone tool with engraved lined patterns is more than 20,000 years old, and a similarly marked bone tool is about 13,500 years old. Unlike the latter two objects, the Urkan pebble has no apparent use other than the presentation of its mysterious abstract design, Hovers says.

Unlike the Middle East, forms of artistic expression -- from cave paintings to engraved bones -- abound in Europe's archaeological record of the Upper Paleolithic, Hovers notes in her report in the June CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY.

The pebble is nearly 4 inches long and 2.5inches wide, with a maximum thickness of half an inch. Its edges are thinned by intentional polishing. One side contains eight sets of line incisions. Three sets contain five parallel lines, two of which are connected by smaller lines or "rungs" to form "ladders." The other five groups consist of from four to six parallel lines. The pebble's opposite face contains a cross-hatch design bordered by two "ladders."

The meaning of the engraved patterns remains unclear, Hovers says. Although similar ladder patterns occur on some Upper Paleolithic objects from Europe, the signs probably held different meanings in different cultural groups, she says.

Some investigators, most notably Alexander Marshack of Harvard University, have studied line engravings on bone and stone artifacts from Europe with a reflected-light stereoscopic microscope and conclude that some marks were notations, probably made by different people over time. The notations, as well as notches carved in bones, may represent tallies of animal kills or even lunar calendars, according to Marshack, who began his study of Upper Paleolithic engraving in the 1960s.

But Marshack's interpretation is premature, reported Francesco D'Errico in the February 1989 CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY. D'Errico, of the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris, France, studied experimental marks on limestone pebbles under a scanning electron microscope and found it possible to tell the direction in which incised lines were made, the order in which they were made and whether the same tool produced all the marks. He applied the technique to 122 engraved pebbles from French sites dating to between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. Sequences of lines were always made by rapid tool movements, and on many pebbles all marks had been produced in a single sitting, D'Errico contends.

In his view, the incisions were not periodic notations or lunar calendars. However, notations clearly exist on incised pieces of bone, antler and ivory not studied by D'Errico, Marshack responds.

"The marks on the Urkan pebble have some kind of meaning, but it's probably not as complex as what Marshack has suggested," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who has seen the Israeli artifact. He and his colleagues recently discovered similar "ladders" and parallel lines carved into limestone slabs in an Israeli cave containing remains of a village-based culture that existed from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.

The Middle East contains many open-air archaeological sites where Upper Paleolithic art is unlikely to be preserved, Bar-Yosef notes.
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Title Annotation:Upper Paleolithic
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 9, 1990
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