1902 Encyclopedia > Archaeology > Archaeology - Neolithic Period

(Part 3)


Archaeology - Neolithic Period

2. This first of palaeolithic period, with its charactetistic implements of chipped flint, belonging to an epoch in which man occupied central Europe contemporaneously with the mammoth, the cave-bear, and other long-extinct mammals, was followed by the second or Neolothic Period, or, as it has been sometimes called, the Surface-Stone Period, in contradiction to the Drift Period, characterized by weapons of polished flint and stone. The discovery and exploration of the ancient Pfahlbauten or lake villages of Switzerland and other countries, including the crannogs of Ireland and Scotland, and of the kjokken-moddings or refuse-heaps of Denmark, Scotland, and elsewhere, have greatly extended the illustrations of this period, and given definiteness to the evidence of its antiquity. But while it thus includes works of a very remote epoch, it also embraces those of later regular sepulture, with the sepulchral pottery of rudest type, the personal ornaments and other remains of the prehistoric races of Europe, onward to the dawn of history. It even includes the first traces of the use of the metals, in the employment of gold for personal adornment, though with no intelligent recognition of its distinction from the flint and stone in which the workmen of this Neolithic period chiefly wrought.

The nearly indestructible nature of the materials in which the manufacturers alike of the palaeolithic and the Neolithic period chiefly wrought, helps to account for the immense number of weapons and implements of the two prolonged ages of stone-working which have been recovered. The specimens now accumulated in the famous collection of the Christiansborg Palace at Copenhagen amount to several thousands. The Royal Irish Academy, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the British Museum, and other collections, in like manner include many hundreds of specimens, ranging from the remotest periods of the cave and drift men of western Europe to the dawn of definite history within the same European area. They include hatchets, adzes, gouges, chisels, scrapers, discs, and other tools in considerable variety; axes, lances, spear and arrow heads, mauls, hammers, and other weapons and implements of war and the chase; besides a variety of utensils, implements, with regard to which we can but vaguely guess the design of their construction. Many of these are merely chipped into shape, sometimes with much ingenuity, in other cases as rudely as the most barbarous and massive implements of the palaeolithic period. But from their association, in graves or other clearly-recognised deposits of the later period, with ground and polished implements, and even occasionally with the first traces of a time when the metals were coming into use, there is no room to question their later origin. In part they may be legitimately recognized, like the whole elements of archaelogical classification, to mark different degrees of rudeness in successive steps towards civilization; in part they indicate, as in manufactures of our own day, the economy of labour in roughly-fashioned implements designed only for the rudest work, or for missiles the use of which involved their loss.

To the same primitive period of rude savage life must be assigned the rudiments of architectural skill pertaining to the Megalithic Age. Everywhere we find traces, alike throughout the seats of oldest civilization an din earliest written records, including the historical books of the Old Testament Scriptures, of the erection of the simple monolith, or unhewn pillar of stone, as a record of events, a monumental memorial, or a landmark. There is the Tanist Stone, or kingly memorial, like that set up in Shechem when Abimelech was made king; the Hoar Stone, or boundary-stone, like "the stone of Bohan, the son of Reuben," and other ancient landmarks of Bible story; the cat Stone, or battle-stone, a memorial of some great victory; and the stone set up as the evidence of some special treaty or agreement, like Laban and Jacob's pillar of witness at galled. To the same primitive stage of architecture belong the cromlech, the cairn, the chambered barrow, and other sepulchral structures of unhewn stone; as well as the weems, or megalithic subterranean dwellings common in Scotland and elsewhere, until with the introduction of metals and the gradual mastery of metallurgic art, we reach the period the great temple of Stonehenge is the most remarkable example. But it is in Egypt that megalithic architecture is seen in its most matured stage, with all the massiveness which so aptly symbolizes barbarian power, but also with a grandeur, due to artistic taste and refinement, in which the ponderous solidity of vast megalithic structures is relieved by the graces of colossal sculpture and of an inexhaustible variety of architectural detail. There appears to be a stage in the development of the human mind in its progress towards civilization when an unconscious aim at the expression of abstract power tends to beget an era of megalithic art. The huge cromlechs, monoliths, and circles still abounding in many centres of European civilization perpetuate the evidence of such a transitional stage among its prehistoric races. But it was in Egypt that an isolation, begot by the peculiar conditions of its unique physical geography, though also perhaps ascribable in part to certain ethnical characteristics of its people, permitted this megalithic art to mature into the highest perfection of which it is capable. There the rude unhewn monolith became the graceful obelisk, the cairn was transformed into the symmetrical pyramid, and the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge, or the megalithic labyrinths of Carnac in Brittant, developed into colonnaded avenues and temples, like those of Denderah and Edfu, or the colossal sphinx avenue of Luxor.

Elaborately-finished axes, hammer-heads, cups, and vases of the late Neolithic era serve to illustrate the high stage to which the arts of a purely stone period could be advanced, in the absence of any process of arrestment or change. But long before such a tendency to development into ornamental detail and symmetrical regularity of construction could be brought to bear on the megalithic architecture of the same era, the metallurgic sources of all later civilization had begun to supersede its rude arts. To such remote eras we strive in vain to apply any definite chronology. At best we work our way backwards from the modern or known into the mysterious dearkness of remotest antiquity, where it links itself to unmeasured ages of geological time. Buy by such means science has been able to add a curious chapter to the beginning of British and of European story, involving questions of mysterious interest in relation to the earliest stages in the history of man. The very characteristics which distinguish him in his rudest stage from all other animals have helped from remotest times to perpetuate the record of his progress.

The evidences of the various acquirements and degrees of civilisation of the prehistoric races of Britain are derived not only from weapons, implements, pottery, and personal ornaments found deposited in ancient dwellings and sepulchers; but from still older traces supplied by chance discoveries of the agriculturist, miner, and builder, such as the implements of the ancient whalers of the Forth, or the monoxylous oaken canoes dug up from time to time in the valley of the Clyde, or even beneath some of the most ancient civic foundations of Glasgow. Both alike pertain to areas of well defined historical antiquity, from the very dawn of written history, or of literate chronicles in any form; and both also have their geological records, preserving the evidence of changes of level in unrecorded centuries subsequent to the advent of man, when the whales of the Forth and the canoes of the Clyde were embedded in the alluvium of those riven-valleys, and elevated above the ancient tide-marks of their estuaries. Another change of level, possibly in uninterrupted continuance of the ancient upheaval, has been progress since the Roman invaders constructed their military roads, and built their wall between the Forth and the Clyde, in the 1st and 2d centuries of the Christian era.

By evidence such as this a starting-point is gained whence we may confidently deduce the colonization of the British Islands, and of the north of Europe, at periods separated by many centuries from that in which our island first figures in history. The researches of the ethnologist add to our knowledge of thus unrecorded era, by disclosing some of the physical characteristic of the aboriginal Races, derived from human remains recovered in cave-drifts, ancient mining shafts, bogs, and marl-pits, or found in the most ancient sepulchers, accompanied by rudest evidences of art; and the researches of Nillson, Eschricht, Gosse, rathke, Broca, and other Continental ethnologists, along with those which have been carried on with minute care in the British Islands, disclose characteristic cranial types indicating a succession of prehistoric races different from the predominant types belonging to the historical period of Europe; and some of the probably contemporaneous with the changes indicated in the periods of archaeological time.

The very latest stage of archaeological antiquity, when it seems to come in contact with the dawn of historic time, was unquestionably one of complete barbarism, as is sufficiently apparent from its correspondence to that which the intercourse with European voyagers is bringing to a close among the islands of the Pacific. The ancient Scottish subterranean dwellings termed weems (Gaelic vamhah, a cave), or "Picts' houses," have been frequently found, apparently in the state in which they must have been abandoned by their original occupants; and from those we learn that their principal aliment must have been shell-fish and crustacea, derived from the neighbouring sea-beach, along with the chance products of the chase. The large accumulations of the common shell-fish of our coasts found in some of those subterranean dwellings is remarkable; though along with such remains the stone quern or hand-mill, as well as the ruder corn-crusher or pestle and mortar, repeatedly occur; supplying the important evidence that the primitive nomade had not been altogether ignorant of the value of the cereal grains.

The source of change in Britain, and throughout Europe, from this rude state of barbarism, is clearly traceable to the introduction of metals and the discovery of the art of smelting ores. Gold was probably the earliest metal wrought, both from its attractive appearance, and from its superficial deposits, and the condition in which it is frequently found, rendering its working an easy process. Tin also, in the south of Britain, was wrought at the very dawn of history: and, with the copper which abounds in the same district of country, supplied the elements of the new and important compound metal, bronze.

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