Lost and Found: The Remarkable Curatorial History of One of the Earliest Discoveries of Palaeolithic Portable Art

By Bello, S. M.; Delbarre, G. et al. | Antiquity, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Lost and Found: The Remarkable Curatorial History of One of the Earliest Discoveries of Palaeolithic Portable Art


Bello, S. M., Delbarre, G., Parfitt, S. A., Currant, A. E., Kruszynski, R., Stringer, C. B., Antiquity


Introduction

Reassessment of archives, early publications and the auditing of museum collections have often led to the discovery or rediscovery of long-forgotten specimens (e.g. Hollmann et al. 1986: 330; Paillet & Man-Estier 2011: 506, 520). The combination of initial poor recognition, insufficient scientific analysis and inadequate storage conditions, can cause the loss to science of important archaeological specimens. New analytical techniques may allow reconsideration of previous interpretations (e.g. Petillon 2008: 720, 723-24; Bello et al. 2011; Higham et al. 2011: 522, 524) but in some cases it is the scientific value of a specimen that is not recognised at the moment of its discovery (e.g. Rosendahl et al. 2003: 277; Kaagan et al. 2011). Particularly revealing examples are those where the specimen found is the first of its kind. This was the case with the first handaxe recognised as manufactured by humans (Gamble & Kruszynski 2009: 468-70) or the first two sets of Neanderthal fossil remains found respectively at Engis in 1829-30 and Gibraltar in 1848, which were not recognised as an early human species until after the 1856 discovery of 'Neanderthal 1' at the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte in the Neander Valley near Dussddorf, Germany (Stringer & Gamble 1993: 13). Similarly, lack of recognition caused the near loss of an engraved antler from the Magdalenian site of Neschers (France), possibly one of the first examples of Palaeolithic portable art.

The Neschers antler is a reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) antler with the engraving of a stylised partial figure of a horse in left profile. The head, front legs and the torso of the horse are engraved on the flat surface of the palmation, while part of the posterior portion of the neck extends along its edge (Figure 1). It is likely that the engraving was not recognised at the rime of its discovery by Jean-Baptiste Croizet in the early 1800s. The specimen was acquired by the British Museum (London) in 1848 and was subsequently moved to the newly built Natural History Museum (London) where the engraving was eventually recognised and exhibited in the galleries from 1882. After this date, the engraving was returned to the museum stores and all but forgotten in the palaeontological collections. In 2010-2011, an audit of the fossil mammal and artefact collections and a documentary search were carried out to reconstruct the curatorial history of its discovery, acquisition and rediscovery among museum specimens. Different written sources (Table 1), held in the archives of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, in London and the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris, were consulted. During this process, it became apparent that the Neschers engraving was amongst the (if not the) first example of Palaeolithic mobiliary art ever uncovered.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Discovered but not recognised

The site of Neschers, an open-air Magdalenian settlement dating to about 12 500 BP (Miallier et al. 1994: 119, 121), is located in the Puy-de-Dome in the Auvergne region of France. It was excavated by the local village priest Jean-Baptiste Croizet, who moved there in August 1818 (Golfier 1998: 263-64). Interested in the natural sciences, he systematically collected or bought fossils of extinct animals from sites near and beyond the village of Neschers. He established a collection said at the time to be one of the richest and most beautiful in the world (Table 1: 1; Grellet 1863). In the early 1820s, Croizet started corresponding with the renowned scientist Baron Georges Cuvier, based at the Musee du Jardin des Plantes, Paris (now Museum national d'Histoire naturelle, hereafter MNHN), to whom he and Aine Jobert dedicated their monograph Recherches sur les ossements fossiles du department du Puy-de-Dome (Croizet & Jobert 1828). There is no mention of ah engraved antler in the volume. It is, however, worth noting that Croizet was well acquainted with artistic representations from his studies of ancient artefacts and monuments (Golfier 1998: 49-53). …

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