Mortillet, Louis-Laurent Gabriel De

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(b. Meylan, Isère, France, 29 August 1821; d. St.-Germain-en-Laye, France, 25 September 1898)

archaeology, anthropology.

Mortillet was educated at a Jesuit seminary in Chambéry and in Paris, where he became a revolutionary freethinker. He took part in the revolution of 1848 and was a fervent disciple of Ledru-Rollin. He was found guilty of violating the laws governing the press, and left France in 1849 for Switzerland and Savoy, where he engaged in scientific and archaeological work. His scientific work was concerned mainly with zoology (particularly the study of mollusks) and geology. He organized and classified the material in the museums of Geneva and Annecy. In addition to many scientific papers he was author of the Guide de l’étranger en Savoie (Chambéry, 1856), generally accepted as a model of its kind and an early demonstration of his flair for popularization. In ltaly he directed works exploiting hydraulic lime and collaborated on the construction of railroads in Lombardy. Together with Stoppiani and édouard Desor he explored the lakes of Lombardy and discovered the first Italian Neolithic settlement, at Isolino (Isola di San Giovanni), on Lake Varese, in 1863. He edited the Revue scientifique italienne, published in French at Turin (1862–1863) as part of the political daily Italie; under his direction it became a complete and masterly summary of current scientific progress.

Mortillet returned to Paris in 1864, at a period when the study of prehistoric man through the interpretation of archaeological remains was in its infancy. Indeed, the word “prehistory” itself was not widely known until John Lubbock published his Prehistoric Times (1865): in Italy, Mortillet and his colleagues had used the term “antéhistoire.” Lyell’s Antiquity of Man and Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature, both published in 1863, greatly affected Mortillet, and he decided to devote himself to the new and growing science of early man. In September 1864 he founded in Paris a new journal, Matériaux pour l’histoire positive et philosophique de l’homme, to discuss and summarize all new prehistoric discoveries. Salomon Reinach has described the founding and editing of Matériaux as one of the greatest services ever rendered to the development of prehistoric science in France. Mortillet edited it with vigor and distinction and in his first year exposed the forgeries of M. Meillet in the rock shelters of Poitou.

The first public recognition of prehistory at a scientific congress occurred at the meeting of the Italian Scientific Congress at La Spezia in 1865. Mortillet was invited by the president to give a survey of prehistory, and as a result it was decided to found an international congress of anthropology and prehistoric archaeology. Mortillet was secretary of the first two congresses, held in Neuchâtel in 1866 and in Paris the following year.

In 1867 Mortillet was appointed secretary of the committee charged with setting up an Exposition des oeuvres caractérisant les diverses époques de l’histoire du travail at the Paris universal exposition, and he prepared a guide, Promenades préhistoriques à l’Exposition universelle (Paris, 1867), for it. In his enthusiastic appraisal of prehistory as a new discipline Mortillet declared that prehistorians had already discovered three important facts, which he termed the loi de progrès de l’humanité, the loi de développement similaire, and the haute antiquité de l’homme.

In 1867 Mortillet joined the staff of the newly created Musée des Antiquités Nationales at St.-Germainen-Laye and subsequently became its director. Largely responsible for saving the museum during the Franco-Prussian war, he directed it until 1885, when he became deputy to the national assembly from Seine-et-Oise. He held this post for four years, always voting with the extreme left.

The pressure of work at St.-Germain forced him to give up the editorship of Matériaux in 1872, but his keen journalistic sense and devotion to the need for publishing archaeological results in an easily accessible form led him in September 1872 to found a new journal, Indicateur de l’archéologue, which lasted only two years, and then Homme, published every two weeks from 1884 to 1887. In a spate of learned papers, published beginning in 1869, he dealt with such varied subjects as Paleolithic art, megalithic monuments and bronze axes, lake dwellings, and the archaeology of the Celts. His views on prehistory were set out in Musée préhistorique (Paris, 1881), written with his son Adrien, and in Formation de la nation française (Paris, 1897).

By the early 1870’s Lubbock had expanded the basic three-age system of Thomsen and Worsaae into the four-age system of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages. Mortillet subdivided these ages into periods, and the periods into epochs. His “Tableau de la classification,” published in Musée préhistorique, proposed a succession of fourteen epochs. This idea of successive epochs as well as its underlying theoretical structure represented an extension of the idea of stratigraphic geology to prehistory. It predominated until the mid-1920’s, when the concept of culture was borrowed from anthropologists and anthropogeographers, and the prehistorian’s role was seen to be the definition and description of cultures. Certain French archaeologists had already realized that Mortillet’s fourteen epochs did not represent a true and universal succession. If the Thomsen-Worsaae three-age system was the foundation stone of modern prehistory, then Mortillet’s idea of epochs was an important stepping-stone between the beginnings of classification in prehistory and the ideas of the second and third quarters of the twentieth century.

From the time of his decision to devote himself to prehistory Mortillet remained in the forefront of French archaeology. He became professor of prehistory at the school of anthropology in the école des Hautes-études in Paris. In 1878 the French government established a commission charged with listing and classifying the megalithic monuments of France and Algeria. Henri-Martin was appointed the first president and Mortillet vice-president; on Henri-Martin’s death, Mortillet became president. He retained his interest in the International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology, which he had helped to found, and participated in subsequent meetings until 1880. Following the discovery in 1879 of the Altamira cave paintings and the controversy over the authenticity of Upper Paleolithic art, Mortillet wisely accepted their true nature. “This is not the art of a child,” he declared, “It is the childhood of art.”


A listing of nearly 100 of Mortillet’s papers may be found in Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 487; VI, 730; VIII, 443–444; X, 858; XII, 521; and XVII, 367–368. On his life and work, see E. Cartailhac’s obituary in Anthropologie. 9 (1898), 601–612.

Glyn Daniel

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Mortillet, Louis-Laurent Gabriel De

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