Why Didn't Westropp's 'Mesolithic' Catch on in 1872?

By Rowley-Conwy, Peter | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Didn't Westropp's 'Mesolithic' Catch on in 1872?


Rowley-Conwy, Peter, Antiquity


The European Mesolithic was defined by Grahame Clark (1932: 5) as the period 'between the close of the Pleistocene and the arrival of the Neolithic arts of life'. This marked the full acceptance of the word in its modem sense, referring to the post-glacial but pre-agricultural archaeology of Europe. It was thus by far the last major period name to come into general use. 'Mesolithic', however, first appeared as early as 1872 in Hodder M. Westropp's book Pro-historic phases; or, Introductory essays on pro-historic archaeology (e.g. Clark 1980: 3; Daniel 1967: 249; Graslund 1987: 38). The long delay contrasts markedly with the rapid acceptance of 'Palaeolithic' and 'Neolithic' after they were put forward by Sir John Lubbock in 1865. The delay was due not to some aspect of disciplinary philosophy or of the archaeological record, but to a more prosaic reason. Lubbock used 'Palaeolithic' in a manner sufficiently imprecise to admit two alternative readings. Following one reading, Westropp was obliged to insert 'Mesolithic' into the scheme. The other reading was followed by John Evans (1872) in The ancient stone implements, weapons, and ornaments of Great Britain, published in the same year as Westropp's book, which uses only 'Palaeolithic' and 'Neolithic'. Evans' book - huge, authoritative and meticulous - was written by a central figure in the archaeology of the day. It effectively saw off the less impressive volume by the outsider Westropp, casting 'Mesolithic' into oblivion for a generation.

What did Lubbock mean by 'Palaeolithic'?

All histories of archaeology describe Lubbock's division of the Stone Age into 'Palaeolithic' and 'Neolithic'. These histories usually assume that Lubbock meant by these terms what we mean by them today; what we describe as Mesolithic remains had simply not yet turned up. This is open to question. Few groups of data were available to archaeologists in 1865. Megalithic monuments or tumuli were widely known; the Swiss lake dwellings and Danish kjokkenmoddings (shell middens) had been described; river gravels or 'drift' in the Somme and other valleys contained artefacts and the bones of extinct mammals; and the bone caves of France, Britain and elsewhere contained reindeer and extinct mammals associated with artefacts. The question was how to arrange these data groups in time.

In the second edition of Pre-historic times of 1869, the edition from which Westropp and Evans both worked, Lubbock defines his periods (pp. 2-3):

I. That of the Drift; when man shared the possession of Europe with the Mammoth, the Cave Bear, the Woolly-haired rhinoceros, and other extinct animals. This we may call the 'Palaeolithic' period.

II. The later or Polished Stone Age; a period characterized by beautiful weapons and instruments made of flint and other kinds of stone; in which, however, we find no trace of the knowledge of any metal. . . . This we may call the 'Neolithic' period.

His chapter 5 argues that the megaliths belonged to the Neolithic. The earlier Swiss lake dwellings considered in chapter 6 - with polished stone and also pottery and domestic animals - were clearly Neolithic too. Lubbock read Danish well enough to follow the debate about whether the Danish shell middens, considered in chapter 7, were contemporary with or older than the megaliths: the middens contained pottery but no domestic animals except the dog. No extinct or exotic species were present. Polished stone implements were present but very rare. Lubbock inclined towards a chronological difference (p. 240):

On the whole, the evidence appears to show that the Danish shell-mounds represent a definite period in the history of that country, and are probably referrible [sic] to the early part of the Neolithic Stone Age, when the art of polishing flint implements was known, but before it had reached its greatest development.

This left the bone caves, not mentioned in the period definitions quoted above. …

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