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Newly Discovered Mesolithic Crayon Is Among World’s Oldest

Archaeologists discovered a 10,000-year-old elongated piece of ochre with a sharpened end in Britain.

Piece of ochre believed to be an early example of a crayon (all photos courtesy Paul Shields/University of York)

Archaeologists at the University of York say they may have found one of the earliest examples of a crayon: a 10,000-year-old elongated piece of ochre with a sharpened end. The tool was found near an ancient lake in North Yorkshire, a landscape with a rich Mesolithic archaeological record. Its finding might help archaeologists better understand how prehistoric hunter-gatherers worked with pigments.

Just 22mm long and 7mm wide, the object’s surface has grooves and surfaces, as the scientists note in their study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. These lines are possible traces of someone using the object against granular surfaces, which would yield red marks. Its sharpened end also suggests that the piece was used as a kind of drawing or coloring tool. The archaeologists likewise found a small ochre pebble with deep striations, which they believe was used to harvest red pigment powder.

“Color was a very significant part of hunter-gatherer life and ochre gives you a very vibrant red color,” Dr. Andy Needham, the lead author of the study, said in a press release. “It is very important in the Mesolithic period and seems to be used in a number of ways.”

Piece of ochre believed to be an early example of a crayon

The object, which the team described as “fragile and powdery,” also sustained three nick marks on its ends from the excavation process, which fortuitously enabled them to examine its internal structure. Unlike its surface, the object’s interior is bright red, strengthening the argument that people once wore down one end to produce eye-catching pigment. It’s likely that this ancient crayon was even used to make art.

“The pebble and crayon were located in an area already rich in art,” Needham said. “It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps for coloring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork.”

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