Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/January 1873/Art in the Stone Age

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 2 January 1873  (1873) 
Art in the Stone Age


WHEN Shakespeare represented his philosophical Duke as finding "sermons in stones," and "books in the running brooks," he was but unconsciously exhibiting the prophetic faculty which has been attributed to all true poets. He could hardly have foreseen that his pretty yet fanciful conceit would one day be found to be sober earnest. But so it is; we have here a goodly volume of more than six hundred pages, illustrated by nearly as many excellent woodcuts, discoursing learnedly of nothing save stones and streams, and finding in them sermons of great and, to many readers, novel interest.

It might have been supposed, when Mr. Evans had published his well-known work on "The Coins of the Ancient Britons," that he had gone back as far as possible in the history of our land and nation; but, in archeological as in other sciences, there is in the lowest known depth one lower still remaining to be fathomed; every chamber opened to the light discloses others lying beyond it. From a people who had no literature, or none of which they have left any trace beyond the rude characters inscribed on their rude coins, we are now carried back to tribes and races which possessed neither coins nor letters; people who have left us neither their sepulchres nor their ashes, nor indeed any trace of their existence, save the rude triangular or subtriangular fragments of worked stone which served them for tools or weapons; and even these are usually found buried beneath the wreck and ruin, it may be, of continents or islands which have long since been worn and wasted away.

The publication of this work is remarkable as an evidence of the quickened pace which characterizes scientific research in our days. Paleontology and geology, vigorous and flourishing as they are, are still hardly "out of their teens;" but prehistoric archæology has made comparatively more rapid progress than either. Not more than fourteen years have passed since the discoveries made by Boucher de Perthes of flint implements in the gravel-beds of Abbeville and Amiens, although at that time discredited and disparaged by the geologists

PSM V02 D360 Polished celts.jpg
Fig. 1.—Polished Celts, Santon Downham, Suffolk.

of his own country, were confirmed and supplemented by Mr. Prestwich and Mr. Evans. Previously to that time these objects had attracted but little notice; the things were "neither rich nor rare;" men looked at them and wondered, and then forgot them, just as before William Smith's time they gazed with a profitless curiosity on fossil shells and bones, and thought with Dr. Martin Lister, that they might he "the efforts of some plastic power, in the earth, being the regular workings of Nature, whereby she sometimes seems to sport and play, and make little flourishes and imitations of things, to set off and embellish her more useful structures."

PSM V02 D361 Solway moss hatchet.jpg
Fig. 2.—Hatchet from the Solway Moss.

But, since the discoveries in the Somme Valley were recognized, a flood of light has been shed upon the subject. These dry bones live, and these rude stones are found to be useful, indeed indispensable, materials for building up the earliest history of the human race. The savants of every country in Europe have hastened to take part in an inquiry so novel and so interesting; many volumes of memoirs have been written; our French neighbors, with their usual vivacity, have

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Fig. 8.—Axe-Hammer, Thames, London.

established a journal devoted to prehistoric archæology, as well as an annual Congrés; and these researches having been for several years conducted by so many able and eager observers, we need not wonder that Mr. Evans, having studied the whole bibliography of the subject, both ancient and modern, and explored every considerable museum or collection, is now enabled to produce this encyclopædia of the new-born science, which for want of a better word may, perhaps, be called petrology or petro-tomology. He has introduced us into the workshops and armories of our most remote predecessors, it may be of our ancestors, as they existed not at any particular epoch, but in all probability through a long succession of ages; and he has shown us so clearly what were their weapons and tools, of which any vestiges remain, and how they were made and used; and has correlated them so accurately, as far as might be, with similar objects found in all quarters of the globe, as well as with those described by classical writers, or in use by modern savages, that in reading his work we know not which most to admire, the industry shown in the collection and examination of such a vast amount of material, or the skill with which the information thus obtained has been methodized and arranged. The book completely exhausts the subject, and will long continue to serve as a perfect manual for the collector, as well as furnishing most useful materials for archaeologists and anthropologists.

Those who are not already somewhat versed in this science will be astonished to learn the infinite variety of uses to which the apparently stubborn and unmanageable rock called flint has been converted. We may, perhaps, doubt if in the very earliest ages it was used for purposes of warfare, and we prefer to give our progenitors the benefit of that doubt, and to believe that those were "golden ages"—times of primitive piety and peace; and that it was only for purposes of husbandry, and the chase, and domestic use, that they worked up the materials found in their plains and valleys. Thus, we find descriptions of celts, or axes for felling trees, or hewing canoes, hoes, threshing-machines—as now used in the East—or perhaps harrows, scrapers for preparing skins, arrows for birds or other "small deer," knives, gouges,

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Fig. 4.—Arrow-head, Isle of Skye.

saws, mullers, or pounding-stones, chisels, hammer-axes or picks, and polishing or grinding stones, of which there must have been great need; nor were the women of the period left destitute of their share of the stony spoil; for we find in these pages descriptions and figures of rings, armlets, amulets, spindle-whorls, pestles, and, in the cave-deposits, needles of bone of admirable workmanship, which might have been, and probably were, drilled by flint-flakes.

As these primitive people have left us no record of their progress in arts and manufactures, and the material evidences bearing on the subject are found in a very confused and dislocated condition, it is a work of no small labor to classify and arrange them in order of date, or rather of sequence, and thus none but a rough and wide scheme of classification is possible. The Danish and French authors, as well as many of our own, usually divide the stone-implement period into two principal stages only, the paleolithic and neolithic—unpolished and polished; placing them both before what has been called the Bronze age. This arrangement, however, although found convenient for popular use, and in that sense adopted by Mr. Evans, can hardly be regarded as scientifically accurate; as he has himself observed, there are blanks in the chronology of stone implements, which it is hard to fill up. The classification may be, and indeed is, too wide in one respect, and too limited in another. While, on the one hand, the drift and the cave implement periods, which are usually bracketed together as paleolithic, are characterized by very various conditions, both paleontological and geological, and, indeed, technological also—conditions which may indicate their separation by a vast interval of time; so, on the other hand, as Mr. Evans has shown at the close of the fourth chapter, some of the unpolished stones, chipped or rough-hewn celts, were probably of a date not earlier than some that were ground and polished; and, in Great Britain, at least, there are not wanting indications that the use of bronze was coeval with the polished-stone period, if not, indeed, with one or two exceptions (which were probably imports) anterior to it.

One of the most perplexing questions suggested by the discovery of the drift-implements relates to the means by which they came into their present position. They are often met with at a depth of twenty or even thirty feet, usually at or near the base of thick beds of coarse flint-gravel, which in its turn is overlain by masses, more or less thick, of brick-earth or loess. Occasionally, and indeed not rarely, they occur entirely beneath the gravels, and on the surface of the subjacent rock, whatever it may chance to be. Mr. Evans deals with them merely as constituent portions of the beds of sand, gravel, and clay, in which they occur, and so indeed they now are, but they are something more. Although of the drift, drifty, each has its own separate history; for each has been held and fashioned by hands guided by an intelligent will, and thus we are led irresistibly to inquire when, and why, and how did they come where we now see them, and why are they never found on the surface, nor under any other conditions?

To a certain extent this inquiry is involved in the far larger question of the forces by means of which the superficial gravels, of which the implements are as it were but the accidents, became dispersed—a subject which does not necessarily come within the scope of a work designed to be technological rather than geological. Mr. Evans has, however, very judiciously devoted one of his chapters to it; and, as it is one of great interest, and is still involved in much obscurity, we may gladly welcome any attempt to deal with it, especially by one who has given so much attention to its investigation.

It was the opinion of the late Dr. Buckland, an opinion which was concurred in by Greenough, Conybeare, and other able writers of their time, that the general dispersion of gravel, sand, and loam, over hills and elevated plains, as well as valleys, was the result of a universal deluge, which is described as transient, simultaneous, and of a date not very remote; that the existing system of valleys was mainly due to the same cause, and that thus both valleys and gravels preceded our present river systems. Cuvier, and the French geologists generally, have held the same opinion, but of late years it seems to have been altogether discredited by English authors, with perhaps the exception of the late Sir Roderick Murchison. We may well entertain doubts as to the occurrence of a deluge that should be both universal and simultaneous; and it is probable that it is chiefly on that account that Dr. Buckland's theory has met with so little favor. Still, although we may be unable to adopt his views in their entirety, his statements, as to the diluvial characters of the English drifts, seem entitled to some .further consideration before they are set aside altogether, and on this account it is fortunate that the recent discoveries of flint implements have excited so much interest in the gravels in question, as to induce Mr. Evans to devote no inconsiderable portion of his work to the history and antiquity of the river-drift.

In the last chapter he has adduced an elaborate argument in favor of the belief in fluviatile transport as opposed to diluvial, by showing first, hypothetically, the possibility that "deposits now occupying the summits of hills have originally been formed in and about river-beds," and then, by reference to the actual phenomena, the probability that the implement-bearing beds were thus formed. No one can doubt, upon the hypothesis here stated, that rivers may have possessed at one time a far greater power of excavating and deepening their channels than now; but then the author is obliged to assume the prevalence of several conditions, and notably a far more rigorous climate, and a greater amount of rainfall; conditions as to which we have but little evidence, and some of that is of a doubtful tendency. If, as is now supposed, the hippopotamus and elephant and rhinoceros remained here all the winter, they would have fared but badly, had the climate been as severe as is supposed.

But passing by these topics as not bearing very immediately upon the question of transport, it cannot be doubted that submergence, by means of diluvial action, is quite possible, since we have many instances of it within the historical period, and some indeed within the last few years; and, both modes of transport being alike possible, the probabilities of the case have alone to be considered; and, notwithstanding the various reasons so ably stated by Mr. Evans, it does not seem that there are sufficient grounds for rejecting Dr. Buckland's theory, and there are, besides, some inferences to be drawn from the position of the implements, which, so far as they are concerned, are at variance with the theory of fluviatal transport. For instance, when met with in valleys, it appears that the implements are not found along the whole course of those valleys, as well where flint-gravels are wanting as where they abound, as would have been the case had they been carried down promiscuously by the streams from time to time; but, only in certain limited areas, and then usually in large numbers, and at about the same levels; and further, that in several of these deposits the implements are distinguished from those of neighboring deposits by some slight difference in form. From these indications it may be inferred that they were made and left at or near the spots on which they were found, and afterward covered up, and occasionally displaced, by the masses of drifted material which now overlie them; and this seems the more probable, when it is seen that some of them were formed from stones of the same kind as those composing the beds in which they rest, and that some of these appear to have lain exposed upon the surface for long periods before they were worked.

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Fig. 5.—Sling-Stone, from Aberdeenshire.

If, indeed, it had happened that these things had never been found elsewhere than in river-valleys, the conclusions arrived at by Mr. Evans would have been irresistible, but, so far from this being the case, it is certain that these implement-bearing gravels are occasionally found on the extreme margin of sea-cliffs, or isolated hills on the verge of far-stretching plains—situations to which no river flowing in the same channels, and draining the same areas as now, could have carried them.

Mr. Evans has noticed several of these deposits as met with at Bournemouth, the Reculvers and the Foreland cliffs in the Isle of Wight (to these probably should be added Southampton and Brandon Down, and some others); and he has also alluded to the remarkable discovery, in the Madras Presidency, of implements of quartzite of true drift-type, found on the cliffs at an elevation of 300 feet above the sea, in a bed of ferruginous clay, which forms the coast-line for several hundred miles, and is intersected at right angles, at various intervals, by the rivers of the country in making their way to the sea.

In all these cases, all traces of the ancient rivers, if indeed they ever existed, have been entirely effaced; neither channels, nor outlets, nor adequate water-sheds, nor a single land or river shell, remaining to testify of them; and not only so, but we find many deposits of quaternary gravel (which Mr. Evans justly concludes to be of the same geological period as those of the implements, and to owe their existence and position to the same causes) on hills which could not have been reached by modern rivers. The whole country would have been a vast lake before such heights could have been submerged; and under such circumstances it may be fairly assumed that the same forces, whatever they were, that covered the hill-tops, may have partially filled up the valleys; the presence of gravel may suggest, but cannot prove, that the river brought it, however much it may have rearranged and sorted it; both valley and gravel may have had an existence before the river began its course. We have many valleys and gravels without rivers, and rivers without gravels; they can very well exist apart, and doubtless have often done so.

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Fig. 6.—Spindle-Whorl, from Holyhead.

One of the arguments usually relied upon, in support of the belief in fiuviatile, as opposed to diluvial, agency in the formation of the deposits in which the stone implements are found, is founded on the assumption that the constituents of these quaternary gravels are petro-logically such, and only such, as belong to existing river-basins; and this fact, Mr. Evans says, holds good in France and England, and cannot be too often reiterated. Without pausing to consider how far this argument might avail as against those who, like Dr. Buckland, believe in a simultaneous and universal cataclysm, it seems hardly applicable to the conditions under which the implement-hearing drifts are found; for if the term petrological is to be understood as meaning rocks found in situ in the river-basins, and thus native to the soil, then it is not the fact that the constituents of the gravels in question belong to those basins; for we know that they are often largely made up—in one instance cited by Mr. Evans, to the extent of 50 per cent.—of the quartzose stones known as Lickey pebbles, and rounded fragments of jasper, quartz, and other foreign rocks. Such rocks certainly do not belong petrologically, in the proper sense of that term, to the river-basins in which they occur, but to strata of a far earlier date. As Dr. Buckland has shown, the quartzite pebbles are derived from the New Red sandstone beds in Warwickshire and Leicestershire, and were at some remote period forced over the escarpment of the Oolite into the south and east of England. Whether they were brought in before or after the present river-valleys were formed is not very clear, nor perhaps very material. It is incontestable that they were transported from a great distance, and possibly by the same forces that brought the flint-gravels; and it is equally certain, in several instances, that their transport cannot be attributed to rivers now in action, because those rivers flow, as at Brandon, toward the quarter from which the stones were brought.

Nor, if it were certain that the intrusion of these rocks dated back to the Glacial epoch, as is usually supposed, or to some other very distant period, and had thus become denizens, if not natives of the soil, could the inference which is drawn from the absence of extraneous rocks be regarded as satisfactory.

The occurrence of alternate elevations and depressions of the land above or below the sea-level, during the post-glacial times, has been suggested by several English writers; and, if we suppose a district comprising the south of England and the north of France, corresponding, or nearly so, with that in which no bowlder-clay is found, to be sufficiently depressed, and then invaded by a deluge, the argument drawn from petrological conditions will cease to apply; for, no rocks are found in the drift-gravels, but such as belong to the supposed deluge-basin. A delude of short duration would not necessarily introduce any foreign rocks into the submerged area, but would sweep into hollows and valleys those that came in its way; and, even should the submergence be of long continuance, as in some provinces of Holland, it would leave no more traces than those exhibited in our drift-gravels. That such a partial deluge was both possible and probable is evident, when it is considered that a depression of 600 feet would perfectly well effect it; and, as we have evidence that the land has risen in several places 30 feet and more within the historical period, it is not difficult to believe that, in the infinitely longer time that probably intervened after the Glacial epoch, the same process of elevation may have been going on for many ages.

The absence of all traces of a marine fauna, and the occasional presence of land and fresh-water shells in these beds, are circumstances on which much stress is laid by the author; but, when fully considered, they hardly seem to warrant the inferences drawn from them. A marine fauna requires a marine flora for its sustenance, and, unless the submergence had been of long duration, this could not have existed. We find extensive marine deposits of older date, in which no marine organisms are ever seen; and, if marine fossils are wanting in drift-beds, those of the land and fresh water are usually equally wanting. We have, probably, hundreds of square miles of quaternary gravels, in which not a single specimen has ever been discovered. In those instances, comparatively rare, in which they occur in the implement-bearing beds, they are usually lying above the gravel, and may thus be ascribed to a later date; or, if of an earlier date in some instances, their occurrence would not of necessity exclude diluvial action, as regards the gravels.

There is one interesting topic connected with these drifts, which Mr. Evans has not dealt with at any length, as, indeed, it barely came within the design of his work; but he seems to share the general opinion that the men who made and used the drift-implements were contemporary with the hippopotamus, elephant, rhinoceros, and other animals, with whose remains they are often found associated. At present this is but a possibility, and it is an assumption founded on the fact of the bones and implements being often found in close proximity; but, if, as seems probable, the implements were formed from stones found in the gravels in which they now rest, it can hardly be doubted that the bones were already in that gravel, and may have lain there for centuries. From their shattered and way-worn condition, they have evidently been subjected to much rougher usage than that which some of the flint implements have met with. But, however this may have been, there can be no doubt, as Sir Charles Lyell has observed in the "Antiquity of Man," that "the fabrication of the implements must have preceded the reiterated degradation which resulted in the formation of the overlying beds;" a process for which vast periods must be allowed, and one which must have involved important geological changes. Among others we have very strong reasons to believe was the severance of our island from the Continent, an event, indeed, which, however brought about, could hardly have been unattended with important changes in the contour of the adjacent districts, and the courses of their rivers. When we contemplate the vast changes, geological, paleontological, and geographical, which our race seems to have survived, we are surprised to learn how very old we are, or, as Mr. Evans has better expressed it, the mind is almost lost in amazement at the vista of antiquity thus displayed.

It would seem, as might be expected, that, notwithstanding the cosmopolitan character of these objects—for, as Mr. Evans's researches have shown, they are found in one form or other in every country on the face of the globe—certain forms are pretty well confined to certain localities, as if each of the tribes or families who used them had its own manufacture. The half-polished and polished celts of Norfolk,

PSM V02 D369 Jet necklace.jpg
Fig. 7.—Jet Necklace, from Ross-shire.

Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, vastly outnumber those which have been observed in all other parts of England, from which it would seem that these countries were more populous, or the people more advanced in the arts, than in the rest of the island, or possibly they may have been the manufacturing district of the period. As regards, however, the distribution of the drift-implements, a far more suggestive and important circumstance is to be noticed. As Mr. Evans has observed, the district farthest north of the Thames, in the gravels of which flint implements are at the present time known to have been found, is the basin of the river Ouse and its tributaries. They have, in fact, been found, at one time or other, in every English county lying to the south-east of a line drawn from the Severn to the Great Ouse, corresponding thus far with the great escarpment of the oolite, but they have never been met beyond that line; and it is an interesting subject of speculation to what the dearth of these objects in the country lying to the northwest is to be attributed. If it was habitable and inhabited, it is difficult to imagine a reason for their absence, especially as in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire there is abundance of suitable chalk-flint. This line of demarcation is not very much out of that which separates the bowlder-clay districts from those in which no bowlder-clay is met with. May it not have been the case that, when the implements were fashioned, Scotland and the northwestern parts of England were still submerged beneath the glacial sea, and that on their emergence the southeast became in its turn depressed?

Notwithstanding all that has been written on the subject, there seems to be still much doubt as to the uses for which some, and no inconsiderable number, of these objects were designed. For all useful purposes it would have sufficed that the cutting-edge of a celt should alone be polished and ground; yet it is often, indeed usually, found that the entire surfaces of the faces and the sides exhibit a polish which could only have been obtained by long and apparently profitless labor. And not only so, but many of these are very fragile, being slightly made, and of delicate workmanship, and others are of such small dimensions that, as M. Boucher de Perthes pointed out, they never could have been available for any kind of hard work. Many of these exhibit no signs whatever of fracture or even of scratching, either at the butt or the edge—indications which could not possibly have been wanting, had they ever been used for weapons or tools. Besides which, while many of the districts, in which they are found, contain abundance of rocks suitable for all ordinary purposes, these implements are often made from Asiatic jade, jadeite, tremolite, serpentine, green porphyry, nephrite, and other stones of beautiful colors, and capable of taking a high polish, many of which must have been brought from great distances, and would have been very costly both to import and to work. The museums in Brittany, and particularly that at Vannes, are very rich in jadeite implements of this kind, but they are also found frequently both in England and Scotland.

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Fig. 8.—Jet Armlet, from Guernsey. Fig. 9.—Bronze Armlet, from Guernsey.

But, if we conclude, as we must, with the author, that implements, for which such beautiful and intractable materials were selected, could hardly have been in common use, we may indulge in some speculation as to what were the uses they were designed to serve, notwithstanding that, as Mr. Evans says, we have not sufficient ground for arriving at any trustworthy conclusion. M. Boucher de Perthes thought that they were deposited by the survivors in the graves of deceased friends, as useful to them on their resurrection, and he argued from this their belief in a future state. It seems, however, hardly probable that objects, many of which obviously could not be serviceable, should be placed in tombs under the belief that they would be so at some future date. In the absence of any more satisfactory explanation, it may be suggested that these things were intended by our remote predecessors to represent the deities whom they worshipped, and that, by their varied sizes and shapes, they indicated the ranks and orders of their idols. We may believe that men, not having learned the art of representing the human or animal form, were obliged to content themselves with symbols of their divinities—it may be their Mars and Ceres—under the form of weapons of w r ar, or instruments of agriculture. Nor is this so unlikely as it might otherwise appear, when we know that these celts are still objects of worship in India. Mr. Evans, quoting from the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, says that they are there venerated as sacred, and it is known that, in a certain village in the Shewaroy hills, some hundreds of polished celts, of varying sizes, resembling those found in England and Scotland, are preserved in a temple, arranged in rows. They are guarded with the utmost jealousy by the priests, each representing some particular swamy or deity, and each receiving from time to time a dab of red or white paint, as a proof that the priest has performed before it the customary poojah or worship.

This being so, the discovery of these implements in Europe may have some bearing upon an important ethnological question. We have good reason to believe that the dolmen-builders came, in the first instance, from India, for we find in Wilts and Berks, and elsewhere, exact counterparts of some megalithic structures, and those of a peculiar construction, which yet remain in the same Shewaroy district in which the celt-worship is still practised. May we not, then, regard it as possible that the fabrication of polished instruments, as well as the practice of dolmen-building, originated in India, where they are still retained, and that these costly polished celts were brought hither by our Aryan ancestors, as the Israelites carried their Teraphim about with them, or as the Trojans, after the fall of their city, are represented in Virgil as carrying with them their household gods:

"Ilium in Italiam portans, victosque penates;"

and that the worship was only abandoned here as men became enlightened, or were subjected to the dominion of some race of a different theology? Since we find abundant traces of the Aryan language in our own, and of their sepulchral architecture in our dolmens, why should we not find in our fields and fens some of their idols? It is quite consistent with, and in a certain sense confirmatory of, such a belief, that, in almost every country in which these things are found, they are regarded by the common people with superstitious reverence, as if the practice of adoration had in the lapse of ages merged in a vague and faint tradition of sanctity.

Nor is it any objection to this hypothesis, but the reverse, that these implements are usually found in and about dolmens, as at Tumiac and Mont St. Michel, where nearly seventy highly-polished celts of imported materials—Asiatic jade and hard tremolite—were found ranged in regular order. It has been usual with almost all people, in all ages, that those things which they most esteemed in life should rest with them in their graves; and as we often find in our own country the priest's paten and chalice placed in his coffin, or the Anglo-Saxon’s sword and shield laid beside him in the earth; so, possibly, these prehistoric men may have wished that the stone idols which, when living, they adored—the lares and penates of their time—should be laid beside them in their tombs.

But, in pursuing the train of thought suggested by our author, we had wellnigh forgotten his book, and we have only space to congratulate all those who are interested in these researches—and they are now many—on the ample and valuable additions which he has made to this new and most interesting chapter in the history of our race.—Nature.

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  1. "The Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments of Great Britain." By John Evans, F.R.S., F.S.A. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1812.)