1902 Encyclopedia > Archaeology > Archaeology - Palaeolithic Period

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Archaeology - Palaeolithic Period

Reverting, then, to the classification which prehistoric arcaeology admits of, in the light of its most recent disclosures, it appears to be divisible into four distinct epochs, of which the first two embrace successive stages of the age of stone implements.

1.The Palaeolithic Period is that which has also been designated the Drift Period. The troglodytes, or cave dwellers, of this primitive era were to all appearance contemporaneous with the mammoth, the woolly-haired rhinoceros, and the great cave carnivora already named. In England, France, Belgium, and other countries of Europe, numerous caves have been explored which were undoubtedly the habitations and workshops of the men of this period. These caverns vary in character and dimensions according to the geological features of the localities where they occur; but all alike involve the simple features of recesses, more or less ample, affording comparatively dry and commodious shelter, and so being resorted to as places of habitation alike by wild animals and by man himself. But the most valuable for the purposes of the archaeologist are a class of caverns which occur in limestone districts, and which, from the combined mechanical action of the water operating on a rock easily eroded, and its chemical action when charged with a certain amount of carbonic acid in dissolving the calcareous rock, and found expanded into long galleries and chambers of large dimensions. There the same chemical agents, acting under other circumstances, have dissolved the limestone rock, and sealed up the ancient flooring at successive intervals, thereby furnishing a test of the duration of long periods of alternate action and repose, and yielding evidence of the most indisputable kind as to the order of succession of the various deposits and their included bones and implements.

In Belgium, at Dordogne, and in some parts of the south of France, the caves and rock-recesses are of a much simpler character. Yet there also favouring circumstances have preserved contemporary deposits of the ancient cave-dwellers, their works of art, the remains of their food, and even their cooking hearths.

The caves of the drift period accordingly present peculiarly favourable conditions for the study of the post-pliocene period. Some of these caverns were evidently first occupied by the extinct carnivora of that period, as in the case of the famous Kent's Hole Cave if Devonshire, of which the lowest deposit is a breccia of water-worn rock and red clay, interspersed with numerous bones of the Ursus speloeus, or great cave-bear. Over this a stalagmitic flooring had been formed, in some places to a depth of several feet, by the long protracted deposition of carbonate of lime held in solution in the drippings from the roof. Above this ancient flooring, itself a work of centuries, later floods had superimposed a thick layer of "cave-earth," in some cases even entirely filling up extensive with a deposit of drift-mud and stones, within which are embedded the evidences of contemporaneous life-bones and teeth of the fossil elephant, rhinoceros, horse, cave -bear, hyaena, rendeer, and Irish elk; and along with these, numerous weapons and implements of chipped flint, horn, and bone-the unmistakable proofs of the presence of man. These, again, have been sealed down, in another prolonged period of rest, by a new flooring of stalagmite; and thus the peculiar circumstances of those cave deposits render them specially favourable for the preservation of a coherent record of the period. Here are the evidences of the animal life contemporaneous with the men of the caves during the drift period; here also are many of their smaller flint implements-the flint-cores and the chips and flint-flakes, showing where their actual manufacture was carried on; and the lances, bodkins, and needles of bone, which could only have been preserved under such favouring circumstances.

But besides the actual deposits in the caves, the river gravels of the same period have their distinct disclosures. The spear-heads, discs, scrapers, and other large implements of chipped flint are of rare occurrence in the cave breccia. Their size was sufficient to prevent their being readily dropt and buried beyond reach of recovery in the muddy flooring of the old cave dwelling; and the same cause preserved, them from destruction when exposed to the violence involved in the accumulation of the old river drifts. In the north of France, and in England from Bedfordshire southward to the English Channel, in beds of ancient gravel, sand, and clay of the river valleys, numerous discoveries of large flint implements have been made-from the year 1797, when the first noted flint implements of the drift were discovered in the same stratified gravel of Hoxne, in Suffolk, in which lay bones of the fossil elephants and other extinct mammalia. The characteristics of the river-drift implements, as well as of the whole art of the stone age, have been minutely described and illustrated in various works, but especially in Evan's Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments of Great Britain. It is sufficient, therefore, to refer to such authorities for details.

But besides the numerous specimens of the manufactures in flint, horn, and bone, illustrative of the mechanical ingenuity of this primitive era, special attention is due to the actual evidences of imitative and artistic skills of the sculptors and draughtsmen of the same period.

Different attempts have been made, especially by French savans, to subdivide the palaeontologic age of man into a succession of periods, based chiefly on the character of the mammalian remains accompanying primitive works of art; and the two great subdivisions of the elephantine or mammoth age and the reindeer age have been specially favoured. Among the works of art of the cave-men of Perigord, in central France, contemporary with the reindeer, various drawings of animals, including the reindeer itself, have been found incised on bone and stone, apparently with a pointed implement of flint. But the most remarkable of all is the portrait of a mammoth, seemingly executed from the life, outlined on a plate of ivory found in the Madelaine Cave, on the river Vezere, by M. Lartet, when in company with M. Verneuil and Dr Falconer. If genuine-and the circumstances of the discovery, no less than the character of the explorers, seem to place it above suspicion - this most ancient work of art is of extreme value. The skulls and other remains of five individuals have been found to illustrate the men of this period. The cerebral development is good, and alike in features and form of head they compare favourably with later savage races. Their drawings embrace animals, single and in groups, including the mammoth, reindeer, horse, ox, fish of different kinds, flowers, ornamental patterns, and also ruder attempts at the human form. They also carved in bone and ivory. Some of the delineations are as rude as any recent specimens of savage art, others exhibits considerable skill; but the most remarkable of all is the representation of the mammoth it has been repeatedly engraved, and as, to all appearance, a genuine contemporary effort at the portraiture of that remarkable animal, its worth is considerable. But this sinks into insignificance in comparisons with its value as a gauge of the intellectual capacity of the men of that remote age. It represents the extinct elephants, sketched with great freedom of hand, and with an artistic boldness in striking contrast to the laboured efforts of an untutored draughtsman. Whatever other inference be deduced from it, this is obvious, that in intellectual aptitude the palaeolithic men of the reindeer period of central France were in no degree inferior to the average Frenchman of the 19th century.

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