The Origins and Growth of European Prehistory

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Europeans have always been curious about the past, but before archaeology or even antiquarianism came into being, their only notions of remote antiquity came from written records, oral histories, religious beliefs, and above all, legends and superstitions, which often ascribed ancient relics and monuments to the devil, giants, elves, mythological heroes, and the like. Buried antiquities often came to light accidentally, through plowing or construction: large stone tools were explained as thunderbolts, and in eastern Europe, pottery vessels that mysteriously emerged from the ground through the activities of burrowing animals were seen as "magic crocks." In medieval Europe, Christian beliefs ruled supreme, the Bible was seen as literal truth, and it was thought that God created the world in seven days. In 1650 James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, claimed that the world was created on 23 October 4004 b.c., a calculation that seems ridiculous now but was quite conventional at that time, in an age before techniques were developed that could establish a chronology based on natural science.

From the end of the fifteenth century onward, and especially during the European overseas expansion from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, there were encounters with foreign cultures, many of them "primitive." They were equated in culture and appearance with the ancient peoples of the Old World, who were known from classical sources. This period also saw the rise of antiquarianism, a growing awareness of the remains of the past. In the sixteenth century in particular, some European scholars came to realize that information about the remote past could be derived from the study of field monuments. Thus in 1586 William Camden, for example, published Britannia, the first general account of early British remains, including Stonehenge, and the seventeenth-century antiquaries John Aubrey and William Stukeley did pioneering work on British monuments, combining ever improving standards of fieldwork with somewhat uncritical interpretations. Scandinavia, too, produced distinguished antiquaries in this period who studied antiquities and systematically documented ancient remains—especially megalithic monuments and burial mounds.

It was at this time, too, that the first serious attempts to obtain information from excavation took place when the Swedish antiquarian Olof Rudbeck showed that, rather than simply retrieving objects from the ground, one could treat the process like an anatomical dissection and note the objects' relationships to different soil layers. He published stratigraphic sections of the monuments he studied in this way. Similarly, at Cocherel in France in 1685, the nobleman Robert le Prévôt excavated a prehistoric chambered tomb with painstaking care and recorded his discoveries of skeletons and objects with minute detail (fig. 1). In eastern Europe, Jan Johnston, a seventeenth-century physician, explained the mysterious "magic crocks" more rationally as prehistoric urn burials.

One of the most important advances in this period was the discovery of the true nature of early stone tools. A few scholars had observed analogies between the flaked and polished stone artifacts brought back by explorers from foreign lands and comparable objects found in Europe. The abovementioned excavations also provided important confirmation of this notion, while in the early eighteenth century experiments began to replicate flint objects and reconstruct the manufacturing techniques of the ancients.

the establishment of prehistory

In the seventeenth century, when increasing numbers of early flint tools were coming to light, the conception of human antiquity still did not extend beyond written memory, and so hand axes, like megalithic monuments, were attributed to Celts or pre-Roman peoples such as the Gauls. A book by the French polymath Isaac Lapeyrère, in which he argued that "thunderbolts" were artifacts of an ancient "pre-Adamite" race, was publicly burned in Paris by the Inquisition, and the author was forced to recant before the pope. By the Age of Enlightenment, in the second half of the eighteenth century, a new spirit of inquiry in all domains had arisen. It included a strong sense of human progress—that is, a conviction that the human condition was improving from cruder beginnings, that the ways of life of contemporary hunter-gatherers thus might resemble those of early Europeans, and that stone artifacts were indeed tools from before the use of iron. Lucretius, a Roman poet of the first century b.c., already had written of the likely sequence of human technologies from stone to bronze to iron. It was only with the reorganization of the Danish National Museum for History in Copenhagen by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in the early nineteenth century that this "Three Age System" finally became established as the cornerstone of prehistoric chronology. Order was brought to chaos, and objects could be placed in a sequence, grouped according to the period to which they belonged, and characterized by tools of stone, bronze, or iron.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a craze for barrow digging—the excavation of ancient burial mounds—took hold in western Europe (fig. 2). This was a phenomenon that caused terrible damage to numerous ancient monuments, especially as few records were kept and finds were subsequently lost. Some digs nonetheless were noteworthy in Denmark and particularly in Britain, where William Cunnington and Richard Colt-Hoare were pioneers of careful and scientific excavation. They were unable, however, to assess how old the objects they unearthed might be.

In 1797 an English gentleman farmer called John Frere found worked stone tools, including hand axes, in a brick quarry at Hoxne, Suffolk, at a depth of 4 meters (13 feet) in an undisturbed deposit that also contained the bones of large extinct animals. He not only recognized the stones as artifacts but also attributed them to "a very remote period indeed." His publication of the finds went largely unnoticed.

A major turning point came by the mid-nineteenth century, when it finally became established that humans had coexisted with extinct animals. At the beginning of that century, such scholars as François de Jouannet had begun collecting flint tools and visiting caves in the Périgord region of southwestern France, and it became apparent that the cruder flaked tools probably preceded the more advanced polished forms. All such artifacts were attributed to "Gauls." In Britain, William Buckland unearthed a burial, stained with red ochre, in a cave at Paviland in Wales and believed this "red lady" (actually a male) to be Romano-British despite the presence of elephant, rhinoceros, and bear bones. Buckland did not believe in the contemporaneity of humans and extinct animals, but John MacEnery, exploring Kent's Cavern at Torquay in southwestern England, found flint tools mixed with the bones of extinct fauna and became convinced that they were associated.

Similar discoveries were made in other parts of Europe. Paul Tournal, a French pharmacist from Narbonne, through his work at the cave of Bize, came to propose the existence of fossil humans—he also had found cut marks on associated bones of extinct animals. Tournal's great importance is that he stressed the geological evidence and broke the tradition of linking ancient cave deposits with the biblical Flood. By 1833 he already was dividing the last geological period into the historic (going back seven thousand years) and the "antehistoric," of unknown duration. This was the first use of such a term and launched the whole idea of prehistory. It was also Tournal who came to see the disappearance of extinct animals as being due not to catastrophes like the Flood but rather to the same gradual processes of change that are seen in modern times. This approach, of explaining the past through modern laws, was to become even better known through the work of the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell.

In his Principles of Geology (1830–1833), Lyell proposed that all past geological processes were the same as those of the present and spanned a tremendously long period, so that there was no need for supernatural catastrophes like Noah's Flood to explain the stratigraphic record, or fossil record. Thanks to his influential work, "catastrophism" gave way to "uniformitarianism," the notion that, if geological processes past and present are uniform, then Earth's surface must have been shaped by sedimentation and erosion over aeons, thus rendering Ussher's date of 4004 b.c. for the creation of the world nonsensical.

One factor that had helped convince Lyell was his visit to the excavations by Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes at Abbeville, France. Boucher de Perthes, a customs officer and amateur archaeologist, produced a three-volume work, Celtic and Antediluvian Antiquities (1847–1864), that drew a clear distinction between the ancient flaked industries (antediluvian) and the more recent polished tools (Celtic). His excavations in the gravels of the Somme region encountered stone tools in deep deposits alongside the bones of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.

In tandem with these developments in archaeology, the first solid remains of fossil humans also had been unearthed. In 1833 the Belgian Philippe-Charles Schmerling published the results of his work in caves around Liège, where he had discovered at Engis, for example, what are now believed to be Neanderthal burials. Another Neanderthal was found at Gibraltar in 1848, but it was in 1856, at the Feldhofer Grotto in the Neander Valley, Germany, that the existence of "Neanderthals" finally was proved, despite considerable doubts and skepticism from the scientific establishment. Everything came together in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a work heavily influenced by Lyell that saw different organisms, including humans, not as the result of divine creation but as the products of natural evolution. Four years later Lyell's own Antiquity of Man integrated all these disparate lines of evidence and laid the foundations for both prehistoric archaeology and palaeo-anthropology.

getting under way

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the investigation of the remote past had been a pastime for amateurs and country gentlemen; henceforth it began to turn into a science, with specialist practitioners and established procedures and terminology. In late-nineteenth-century Europe, archaeology developed into a serious scholarly activity in which accurate collection of data was of growing importance. The 1850s, for instance, saw the discovery of the Swiss Neolithic lake settlements, with their extraordinary preservation of organic materials that normally perish and thus elude the archaeologist. In the same period the excavations of Johann Ramsauer began in the huge Iron Age cemetery of Hallstatt in the Austrian Alps, where he investigated a thousand graves over the course of nineteen years and meticulously recorded his findings. In both cases, archaeology began to reveal to the world the sophistication of some prehistoric communities and the extensive trade networks in exotic materials that existed in some areas during prehistory.

Another kind of sophistication—that of the remarkable art of the Ice Age—also came to light during the late nineteenth century. First were the portable carvings and engravings that were unearthed in excavations by such pioneers as Edouard Lartet and Henry Christy in rock shelters of the Dordogne during the 1860s. Their discovery of a mammoth engraving on a piece of mammoth ivory at the shelter of La Madeleine was one of the final decisive proofs of human antiquity. Then came the gradual discovery of paintings and engravings on cave walls in France and Spain, beginning with Altamira in 1879, found by the little daughter of the Spanish polymath Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. For a variety of reasons, the world was not ready to accept that such splendid artistic creations could have come from the "primitive savages" of the Stone Age, and so cave art had to wait another two decades to be authenticated and accepted by the ever reluctant scientific establishment. In 1902 the Montauban Congress of the French Association for the Advancement of Sciences officially accepted cave art based on the accumulated evidence from caves in Southwest France.

Pioneering excavators, such as the Abbé Pouech in France and William Pengelly in England, independently developed a method of laying out a grid over their sites, to record the position in three dimensions of each bone or artifact. Sir John Lubbock, in his Prehistoric Times of 1865, introduced the terms "Palaeolithic" (Old Stone Age, or period of flaked stone) and "Neolithic" (New Stone Age, or period of polished stone). The first journal devoted to prehistoric research, the Matériaux pour l'histoire positive et philosophique de l'homme, was founded in France in 1864, followed a year later by Germany's Archiv für Anthropologie. Lartet had proposed the first classification of prehistoric times based on animal palaeontology (e.g., the cave-bear age and the reindeer age). This was replaced in 1869–1872 by Gabriel de Mortillet with a classification based on stone tools rather than fauna and with each phase named after a "type site," for example, the Aurignacian, named after the French rock shelter of Aurignac.

Another French scholar, Edouard Piette, was responsible for filling the apparently empty hiatus between the end of the Palaeolithic and the start of the Neolithic. In his excavations at the huge cave of Le Mas d'Azil, he established the existence of transitional phases, such as the Azilian, characterized by painted pebbles and small harpoons. Other later industries eventually were given their own names, collectively forming the "Mesolithic," or Middle Stone Age. It was also Piette who initiated a young French priest, Henri Breuil, into the study of prehistory—Breuil was to become a dominant figure throughout the first half of the twentieth century not just in his specialized field of Ice Age art but in the whole of prehistory.

great excavations

As archaeology became more professional and painstaking toward the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, the most crucial new emphasis was on establishing the context of finds, as a source of information. In this respect, the preeminent practitioner was General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers in England. He investigated prehistoric and Roman sites on his vast estates and used his military discipline to devise fastidious new techniques of excavation and recording, attaching particular importance to "common objects" and "trivial details" to be able to date and interpret archaeological sites. Other important excavations in this period occurred in Scandinavia. The Bronze Age burial mound of Borum Esho⁄j (Denmark) was found to contain two tree-trunk coffins holding a young man and an elderly woman, whose clothing was exceptionally well preserved by waterlogging. In Serbia the Neolithic tell mound of Vinča, near Belgrade, was excavated by Miloje Vasić and became a chronological yardstick for the whole of the Balkans. And in the northern Caucasus, Nikolai Veselovskii dug a Bronze Age burial mound at Maikop in 1897 and found a wooden mortuary house holding several skeletons with extraordinarily rich grave goods of gold, silver, textiles, and other exotic materials.

Perhaps the most famous excavations at this time in European prehistory were those of the German Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae and the Englishman Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete. Schliemann began work in Anatolia at Troy in 1870, but in 1876 he turned his attention to Mycenae on the Greek mainland, where he discovered Bronze Age royal shaft graves with their famous gold face masks. Evans revealed the pre-Mycenaean Minoan civilization of Crete in the palace of Knossos with its colored frescoes.

The increasing care with which excavations were being carried out together with the chronological schemes being devised and the unearthing of key stratigraphies, such as Vinča, led to a major focus on typology and chronology at this time. Classes of objects were arranged into linear series, usually with the simplest at one end and the most complex at the other. The leading typologist of this kind was the Swedish scholar Oscar Montelius, who eventually was able to propose a division of the northern Bronze Age into a series of six consecutive phases, based on gradual changes in artifact types. Such schemes led to the possibility of cross-dating similar objects from different places, and by linking some northern European artifacts to finds from the Aegean and Egypt, where some actual dates were available, one could deduce certain dates for various phases in other parts of Europe. In the absence of a method of obtaining absolute dates in any other way, the chronological priority of the Aegean and Egypt dominated prehistory until after World War II and encouraged the view "Ex oriente lux"—that all aspects of civilization had come to northern Europe from the eastern Mediterranean. One disadvantage of this approach to prehistory was that in compiling the anonymous typologies of artifacts, with different kinds moving around and spreading, scholars tended to lose sight of the people who made them.

the twentieth century

The mid-twentieth century saw a number of revolutions in prehistory. Naturally, important discoveries were made at regular intervals, such as the Ice Age decorated cave of Lascaux in 1940, but advances in other fields and in science were far more crucial—aerial photography, pollen analysis, and especially radiocarbon dating. Aerial photography (the first archaeological air photos were taken of Stonehenge in 1906) rapidly grew to become an invaluable tool, offering views of entire landscapes, detecting earthworks and more subtle soil or crop changes, and making it possible to discover and study numerous hitherto unknown sites.

On the ground, excavation techniques continued to become more rigorous, and the number of professional archaeologists grew apace. The most eminent figure of the period undoubtedly was Sir Mortimer Wheeler in Britain. He followed Pitt-Rivers's military tradition, demanding discipline on his sites (such as Iron Age hillforts), with careful record keeping and prompt publication and particular stress on a site's stratigraphic sequence as a key to its dating and interpretation.

In the 1930s and 1940s, environmental specialists became increasingly involved in excavation and fieldwork. Once again Scandinavians were the pioneers, producing the first landscape studies by the end of the nineteenth century. The Scandinavian scientist Lennart von Post developed a technique for reconstructing ancient vegetation by counting the pollen grains surviving in each layer of a core sample. Together with the ever-increasing refinement of the study of animal bones, plant remains, insects, and other organic material, pollen analysis offered tremendous insights into ancient climate, environment, and agriculture. The most famous approach, which firmly integrated environmental studies with the highest standards of excavation, was that of the British prehistorian Grahame Clark, as exemplified in 1949–1951 at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr—a lakeside site where waterlogging had preserved wooden tools and other organic objects. Other botanical work in this period, such as analysis of the stomach contents of Tollund Man, one of the preserved Iron Age bog bodies in Denmark, helped bring the past to life for the public.

Excavation of open-air sites, rather than caves and shelters, began to open up large areas instead of small squares or test pits—from Germany to the Soviet Union, great expanses were uncovered to trace the plans and distribution of structures. Overall, excavations became extremely slow, painstaking dissections by multidisciplinary teams concerned with placing the occupants of a site into their cultural and environmental context and recovering every possible scrap of information. The aim of archaeology was no longer the simple unearthing of precious or interesting objects but rather the solving of problems and retaining representative samples of bones, pollen, and sediments for laboratory analysis. At the same time, it became possible to produce broad syntheses, assimilating material from many different areas into an integrated picture of the past. By far the greatest specialist in this exercise was the Australian Vere Gordon Childe, who not only published extremely influential syntheses of European prehistory and coined the terms "Neolithic Revolution" and "Urban Revolution" but also developed and popularized the concept of an archaeological culture. Such a culture was defined as a set of artifacts, limited to a particular time and place, that seem to represent a distinct people or ethnic group.

World War II, like World War I, had a devastating effect on archaeology in Europe through the general cessation of excavations, the drafting or demise of notable archaeologists, and the destruction of sites and collections. The mid-twentieth century also saw the manipulation of archaeology by Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. The Nazis, in particular, poured money into archaeological research, aiming to establish both the antiquity of German settlement across much of Europe and German superiority over other European peoples. One benefit that the war brought to archaeology was the invention of radiocarbon dating, which arose from the atom bomb research of the American chemist Willard Libby. His method has been the single most significant advance in the history of archaeology, with a truly revolutionary impact on the field. For the first time it proved possible to obtain an absolute age for organic materials, such as wood, charcoal, or bone, and thus released archaeologists from the endless need to spend time on artifact typologies and indirect dating. It meant that different avenues could be explored and different questions asked.

As such direct dating hitherto had been unhoped for in the field of prehistory, the first results provided by scientists were eagerly and uncritically accepted by most archaeologists. It rapidly became apparent from conflicts with already well-established calendar dates from the eastern Mediterranean, however, that all was not well with some radiocarbon ages. By the 1960s it was known that the results for some periods were unreliable, differing significantly from definite ages fixed by documents or tree rings and that certain other results needed to be corrected or "calibrated" to convert them from radiocarbon years to calendar years. One effect of this phenomenon was that the ages of the megalithic monuments of western Europe were pushed back, thus severing any possible links with the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean, which had hitherto been seen as the sources of all such ideas and monuments.

later developments

The last two decades of the twentieth century saw further advances in the scientific techniques available to archaeologists: a wide range of dating methods for a variety of materials, more accurate instruments for "seeing" beneath the soil, the use of satellites and the global positioning system (GPS), and the ubiquitous influence of computers. The application of sampling techniques and statistical analyses has become more sophisticated. Archaeology as an academic subject has increased steadily in popularity, while a far higher percentage of resources has been diverted from research to salvage projects involving surveys and excavations ahead of the bulldozers and developers. At the same time there have been numerous different theoretical approaches to the study of the past, particularly in some parts of northwest Europe.

"Processual archaeology" arose in the 1960s, primarily in the United States, in an attempt to develop archaeology as an explicit science detached from the historical sciences that supposedly had hampered its development. Processual archaeology insisted that hypotheses had to be deduced from general principles and then tested against independent data, but very few people, least of all the main proponents of processual archaeology, ever bothered to test their hypotheses in this way. Many archaeologists remained extremely skeptical of the entire approach and simply carried on as before. Some of the proponents engaged in largely fruitless attempts to define universal laws of human behavior as deduced from archaeological analysis. More lasting and worthwhile was a notable advance in investigation of how the archaeological record reflects past human behavior, how it is produced, and the transformational processes that a site undergoes before excavation.

This "revolution" inevitably brought a reaction and rejection, which came in the late 1970s in the form of "post-processual archaeology." Moving away from the determinism of the earlier approach, it emphasized the role of social mores, politics, and ideology in how archaeologists produce their interpretation of the past. No knowledge is politically innocent, no archaeological statement can be truly objective, and claims about the past cannot be ranked. Since then approaches to archaeology have splintered. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, no particular trends were discernible; indeed there has been a widespread return to basic fieldwork and excavation, while the theoretical squabbles and clamoring of the late twentieth century have died away.

Major discoveries certainly will continue, as will the ability to extract increasing amounts of information from the data, helped by new scientific techniques as yet undreamed of. What can be learned today from a prehistoric site would amaze the great pioneers of the nineteenth century let alone the seventeenth century, but in view of the constantly accelerating developments in technology and science, one cannot possibly imagine what will be learned from the sites of the future.

See alsoTollund Man (vol. 1, part 1); Maiden Castle (vol. 1, part 1); Star Carr (vol. 1, part 2); Neolithic Lake Dwellings in the Alpine Region (vol. 1, part 4); Stonehenge (vol. 2, part 5); Hallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); Hillforts (vol. 2, part 6).


Bahn, Paul G., ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Daniel, Glyn. The Origins and Growth of Archaeology. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Pelican, 1967.

Daniel, Glyn, and Colin Renfrew. The Idea of Prehistory. 2d ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988.

Schnapp, Alain. The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology. Translated by Ian Kinnes and Gillian Varndell. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Trigger, Bruce. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. Men among the Mammoths: Victorian Science and the Discovery of Human Prehistory. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993.

Paul G. Bahn

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The Origins and Growth of European Prehistory

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