Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Recovering the Vestiges of Primeval Europe: Archaeology and the Significance of Stone Implements, 1750-1800

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Recovering the Vestiges of Primeval Europe: Archaeology and the Significance of Stone Implements, 1750-1800

Article excerpt

For the antiquaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who studied the few broken monuments and obscure artifacts that survived from the earliest periods of human history there was a dawning realization that these remote epochs were not as inaccessible as had previously been believed. This attitude was mirrored in geological research where natural historians were using fossils and geological formations to reconstruct the history of the earth, which was turning out to be considerably longer and more dynamic than had previously been thought.1 Antiquarianism and natural history shared many features and problems in common during this period and their fates would become more intertwined than either discipline realized at the time.2

Despite the growing hope that archaeological monuments could illuminate the past, a great deal of early human history remained hidden, enveloped in a fog that the antiquary could only occasionally peer through.3 Yet the nascent science of archaeology made great strides during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Antiquaries throughout Europe were investigating field monuments, collecting artifacts, and excavating barrows in an attempt to throw some light on the original inhabitants of the continent.4 Antiquarianism, a scholarly discipline dedicated to the study of antiquities and other historical documents, had close links with natural history during this period and many antiquaries employed methods and a mode of reasoning drawn from the sciences.5 By By the late eighteenth century, antiquarianism itself was changing and a new science of archaeology was emerging and defining its own professional identity.6

Among the objects investigated by these antiquaries was a particularly curious class of artifacts that had long been collected and examined in Europe. Natural historians throughout the early modern period had collected a type of stone called ceraunia, or thunderstones. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that antiquaries and natural historians suggested that these stones were not produced in clouds by natural processes but instead were stone arrowheads, axe-heads, and other implements fabricated by early Europeans. Once these objects were accepted as ancient human artifacts, entirely new sets of questions arose: for example, why would early Europeans make tools out of stone instead of metal, what were these objects used for, and what could they tell us about the culture of ancient peoples.7 The latter question was all the more disturbing since it was apparent that the stone artifacts found in Europe were very similar to the stone implements and weapons used by the so-called "savages" of the New World and the South Pacific. By the middle of the eighteenth century there was an increasing amount of evidence and a growing consensus that the inhabitants of many parts of northern Europe prior to the Roman era possessed only stone implements and culturally were rude and barbarous peoples. This idea that early Europeans had been barbarians was not new; Roman historians had asserted as much, but what was new was the quantity of archaeological evidence for this idea and the way it was understood within the context of European contact with the indigenous peoples of the New World and the South Pacific who still used stone tools.

Antiquaries and natural historians during the first half of the eighteenth century were still accumulating evidence to support the idea that socalled thunderstones were in fact archaeological artifacts. They were also attempting to understand what they meant as historical and cultural artifacts, and importantly they were trying to integrate this new understanding within the traditional biblical view of human history.8 A great deal has been written about the study of prehistoric stone artifacts in the early nineteenth century, especially since it was during this period that Scandinavian archaeologists formulated the Three Age System that organized prehistory into a succession of periods from the Stone Age through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. …

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