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December 7, 2011

Archaeology in the 19th century

We cannot determine all the uses to which primitive man must have put his rude and ineffective weapons; we can only wonder that with such he was able to maintain his existence among the savage beasts by which he was surrounded; and we long to form to ourselves some picture of the way in which he got the better of their huge strength as well as of his dwelling place, his habits, and his appearance. Rude as his weapons are, and showing no trace of improvement, it seems as though man of the drift period must have lived through long ages of the world's history. These implements are found associated with the remains of the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, animals naturally belonging to the arctic or semi arctic climate which succeeded the glacial era; but like implements are found associated with the remains of the bones of the lion the tiger and the hippopotamus all of which, and the last especially, are rarely found outside the torrid zone. This would imply that the drift implements lasted through the change from a frigid to a torrid climate and probably back again to a cold temperate one. Still the age of the drift implements does not seem to comprise the whole period of man's life before what is called the polished stone age begins.


Hearst Museum # 7-4881
Acheulean handaxe; brown flint
England; Swanscombe
Collected by the British Museum of Natural History, unknown date 

There is a remarkable series of discoveries made in caves in various parts of Europe which are of a more interesting character than the drift remains and appear to carry us farther down in the history of man. These caves are natural caverns generally formed in the limestone rocks and at present the most remarkable finds have been obtained from the caves of Devonshire, of the Department of the Dordogne in France, from various caves in Belgium, and from a very remarkable cavern in the Neanderthal near Dusseldorf in Germany; but there is scarcely any country in Europe where some caves containing human bones and weapons have not been opened. The rudest drift implements seem older than almost any of those found in caves and on the whole the cave remains seem to give us a picture of man in a more civilized condition. They show us more of his way of life and a greater variety in his implements which are made not of stone only but of wood and bone as well. We have various worked bone implements harpoons with many barbs whereby no doubt man slew the animals which afforded him food and clothing. Some implements of stone and bone which have been found in caves have been called arrow heads; but they are in all probability lance heads, for it seems doubtful whether these primitive men had made the great discovery of the use of the bow and arrow. We may imagine that their lance or harpoon was their great weapon; and a curious and close inquiry has discovered by the marks on some of the animal bones which are found mixed up with the cave implements, that the sinews had been cut from these bones, and used, it may be conjectured as thongs for the bone harpoons. Other implements of a more domestic character have been found - bone awls, doubtless for piercing the animals' skins that they might be sewn together with sinew thread, and bone knives and needles.


Hearst Museum # 7-3783
Lump of flint flakes and bone fragments in breccia
France; Dordogne; Cavern of Les Eyzies
Collected by the University of California Paleontology Department, 1963

What is still more interesting than all these, we here find the rudiments of art. Some of the bone implements as well as some stones are engraved or even rudely sculptured generally with the representation of an animal. These drawings are singularly faithful and really give us a picture of the animals which were man's contemporaries upon the earth so that we have the most positive proof that man lived the contemporary of animals long since extinct. The cave of La Madeleine in the Dordogne, for instance, contained a piece of a mammoth's tusk engraved with an outline of that animal; and as the mammoth was probably not contemporaneous with man during the latter part even of the old stone age this gives an immense antiquity to the first dawnings of art. How little did the scratcher of this rough sketch - for it is not equal in skill to which have been found in other caves - dream of the interest his performance would thousands of years after his death! Not greatest painter of subsequent times, and scarcely the greatest sculptor, can hope for near an approach to immortality for their works. Had man's bones been only found juxtaposition with those of the mammoth his contemporary animals, this might possibly have been attributed to chance of the soil, to the accumulation river deposits, or to many other accidental occurrences; or had the mammoth's bone only been found worked by man, there was nothing positive to show that the animal had not been long since extinct, and this a chance bone which had come into the hands of a later inhabitant of the earth, just as it has since into our hands; but the actual drawing of this old-world, and as it sometimes almost seen fabulous, animal by one who actual saw him in real life, gives a strange picture the antiquity of our race, and withal a feeling of fellowship with this stone-age man who drew so much in the same way as a clever child among us might have drawn to-day.



Hearst Museum # 7-202
Magdalenian scratched bone
France, Dordogne, La Madeleine
Collected by the Musee de Toulouse, unknown date

Excerpts from:
THE DAWN OF HISTORY: An introduction to pre-historic study.
Edited by C. F. Keary M.A. of the British Museum
Humboldt Publishing Co., 1883

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