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Prehistoric Times

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE first appearance of man in Europe dates from a period so remote, that neither history nor tradition can throw any light on his origin or mode of life. Under these circumstances, some have supposed that the past is hidden from the present by a veil, which time will probably thicken, but never can remove. Thus our prehistoric antiquities have been valued as monuments of ancient skill and perseverance, not regarded as pages of ancient history; recognized as interesting vignettes, not as historical pictures. Some writers have assured us, that, in the words of Palgrave, "We must give it up, that speechless past; whether fact or chronology, doctrine or mythology; whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America; at Thebes or Palenque, on Lycian shore or Salisbury Plain; lost is lost; gone is gone forever." Others have taken a more hopeful view, but in attempting to reconstruct, the story of the past, they have too often allowed imagination to usurp the place of re-search, and have written in the spirit of the novelist, rather than in that of the philosopher.

Of late years, however, a new branch of knowledge has arisen; a new Science has, so to say, been born among us, which deals with times and events far more ancient than any which have yet fallen within the province of the archeologist. The geologist reckons not by days or by years ; the whole six thousand years, which were until lately looked on as the sum of the world's existence, are to him but one unit of measurement in the long succession of past ages. Our knowledge of geology is, of course, very incomplete ; on some questions we shall no doubt see reason to change our opinion, but, on the whole, the conclusions to which it points are as definite as those of zoology, chemistry, or any of the kindred sciences. Nor does there appear to be any reason why those methods of examination which have proved so successful in geology, should not also be used to throw light on the history of man in prehistoric times. Archaeology forms, in fact, the link between geology and history. It is true that in the case of other animals we can, from their bones and teeth, form a definite idea of their habits and mode of life, while in the present state of our knowledge the skeleton of a savage could not always be distinguished from that of a philosopher. But on the other hand, while other animals leave only teeth and bones behind them, the men of past ages are to be studied principally by their works : houses for the living, tombs for the dead, fortifications for defence, temples for worship, implements for use, and ornaments for decoration.

From the careful study of the remains which have come down to us, it would appear that Prehistoric Archaeology may be divided into four great epochs.

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 I have proposed to call the "Paleolithic" 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, excepting gold, which seems to have been sometimes used for ornaments. For this period I have suggested the term "Neolithic."

III. The Bronze Age, in which bronze was used for arms and cutting instruments of all kinds.

IV. The Iron Age, in which that metal had superseded bronze for arms, axes, knives, etc.; bronze, however, still being in common use for ornaments, and frequently also for the handles of swords and other arms, though never for the blades.

Stone weapons, however, of many kinds were still in use during the Age of Bronze, and lingered on even into that of Iron, so that the mere presence of a few stone implements is not in itself sufficient evidence that any given "find" belongs to the Stone Age. In order to prevent misapprehension, it may also be well to state, at once, that, for the present, I only apply this classification to Europe, though, in all probability, it might be extended also to the neighboring regions in Asia and Africa. The civilization of the south of Europe, moreover, preceded that of northern Europe. As regards other civilized countries, China and japan for instance, we, as yet, know but little of their prehistoric archaeology, though recent researches have gone far to prove that the use of iron was there also preceded by bronze, and bronze by stone. Some nations, indeed, such as the Fuegians, Andamaners, etc., are even now, or were lately, in an Age of Stone.

It is probable that gold was the metal which first attracted the attention of man; it is found in many rivers, and by its bright color would certainly strike even the rudest savages, who are known to be very fond of personal decoration. Silver does not appear to have been discovered until long after gold, and was apparently preceded by both copper and tin; for it rarely, if ever, occurs in tumuli of the Bronze Age; but however this may be, copper seems to have been the metal which first became of real importance to Man; no doubt owing to the fact that its ores are abundant in many countries, and can be smelted without difficulty; and that, while iron is hardly ever found except in the form of ore, copper often occurs in a native condition, and can be beaten at once into shape. Thus, for instance, the North American Indians obtained pure copper from the mines near Lake Superior and elsewhere, and hammered it at once into axes, bracelets, and other objects.

Tin also early attracted notice, probably on account of its great heaviness. When metals were very scarce, it would naturally sometimes happen that, in order to make up the necessary quantity some tin would be added to copper, or vice versa.. It would then be found that the properties of the alloy were quite different from those of either metal, and a very few experiments would deter-mine the most advantageous proportion, which for axes and other cutting instruments is about nine parts of copper to one of tin. No implements or weapons of tin have yet been found, and those of copper are extremely rare in Western Europe, whence it has been inferred that the art of making bronze was known elsewhere before the use of either copper or tin was introduced into Europe. Many of the so-called "copper" axes, etc., contain a small proportion of tin; and the few exceptions indicate probably a mere temporary want, rather than a total ignorance, of this metal.

The ores of iron, though more abundant, are much less striking in appearance than those of copper. Moreover, though they are perhaps more easily reduced, the metal, when obtained, is much less tractable than bronze. This valuable alloy can very easily be cast, and, in fact, all the weapons and implements made of it in olden times were cast in moulds of sand or stone. The art of casting iron, on the other hand, was unknown, until a comparatively late period.

In the writings of the early poets, iron is frequently characterized by an epithet and its adjective which were used metaphorically to imply the greatest stubbornness.

These considerations tend very much to remove the à priori improbability that a compound and comparatively expensive material like bronze should have been in general use before such a common metal as iron, and the evidence that it was so seems conclusive.

Hesiod, who is supposed to have written about 900 B.C., and who is the earliest European author whose works have come down to us, appears to have lived during the transition between the Bronze and Iron Ages. He distinctly states that iron was discovered later than copper and tin. Speaking of those who were ancient, even in his day, he says that they used bronze, and not iron. . . . It is significant that the Greek word from which bronze is de-rived means to work in metal. Moreover, the forms of early weapons indicate that those of iron were copied from bronze, not those of bronze from iron. Hesiod's poems, as well as those of Homer, show that nearly three thousand years ago the value of iron was known and appreciated. It is true, as we read in Dr. Smith's Dictionary. of Greek and Roman Antiquities, bronze "is represented in the Iliad and Odyssey as the common material of arms, instruments, and vessels of various sorts ; the latter [iron] is mentioned much more rarely." While, how-ever, the above statement is strictly correct, we must re-member that among the Greeks the word iron was used, even in the time of Homer, as synonymous with a sword.. .

Coming down t more modern times, Eccard in 1750 and Goguet in 1754 mention the three latter ages in plain terms; the same idea runs through Borlase's "History of Cornwall," and Sir Richard Colt Hoare also alludes to "instruments of stone before the use of metals was known" and expresses the opinion that instruments of iron "denote a much later period" than those of bronze.

To the Northern archæologists, however—especially to Mr. Thomsen, the founder of the Museum at Copenhagen, and to Professor Nilsson—must be ascribed the merit of having raised these suggestions to the rank of a scientific classification.

Copper and tin were perhaps discovered in Central Asia. The earliest evidence of their use is in Egypt. Neither of them, however, occurs in that country, though the copper mines of Mount Sinai were worked by King Dyezer of the 3d Dynasty, about 4000 B.C., and small implements of bronze occur in the tombs of Abydos, El Amreh, etc., which are referred to an even earlier period. The museum of Gizeh contains an admirable bronze statue of Pepi I., who is supposed to have reigned about 3400 B.C. It seems probable that the use of metal was not discovered in Egypt, but that the Pharaonic Egyptians brought the knowledge of metals with them from the East.

As regards iron, Mr. Budge informs me that in a passage in the funeral text of Pepi I., about B.C. 3400, it is said that this king will sit upon a "throne of iron ornamented with lions' faces," and the hoofs of the bull Sma-ur, and in several places in the texts of this period there is abundant reference to iron. Thus the abode of the blessed was in heaven, the floor of which was made of iron, and the Nile flowed across it. The earth below was lit by night either by lamps being suspended from holes which had been bored in it, or by the light which made its way through the holes. The recensions of these texts which we now have cannot have been made after B.C. 3800, and in his opinion they are much earlier.

There is a prayer in the Harris papyrus, written during the reign of Rameses III. (1300 B.C.), that the words of the king may be "firm as iron." In the same papyrus, vessels of iron are mentioned, and the king is said to have made the wall of the temple of Horns like a "hill of iron." Objects of iron are also mentioned in the Karnac tribute. In the lists of Thothmes III. (1600 B.c.) iron comes third in the series of metals paid as tribute. These references, however, imply that the use of iron was already well known. This renders less improbable the authenticity of the piece of iron said to have been found wedged in between two of the stones of the Great Pyramid. Maspero, moreover, in 1882 found some pieces of iron in the Black Pyramid of Abousir (6th Dynasty) but no iron has been found in any of the tombs belonging to the earlier Egyptian dynasties.

The earliest evidence of iron in Assyria is an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser (1120 B.C.), who says: "In the desert of Milani near Araziki, which is in front of the land of Hatti, I slew four mighty buffaloes with my great bow and iron arrows, and with my lance."

In China copper is said to have been used as far back as the reign of Yu Nai Hwang-ti, 2200 B.C.; and iron in that of Kung Kiu, about 1900 B.c. Copper axes of very simple type have also been discovered in India, but we have no means of determining their date.

The remarkable phase of archaic culture known as Mycenæan—when arms of bronze were beautifully in-laid with gold, when gems were cut, and the potter's art had attained a high degree of perfection—appears to have attained its zenith about 1500 B.C. It must there-fore have commenced much earlier.

The date of the introduction of iron into the North of Europe cannot at present be satisfactorily determined; nevertheless it is most likely that the use of this metal spread rapidly. Not only does it seem à priori probable that such an important discovery would have done so, but it is evident that the same commercial organization which had already carried the tin of Cornwall all over the continent, would equally facilitate the transmission of iron. However this may be, the soldiers of Brennus were provided with iron swords, and when the armies of Rome brought the civilization of the South into contact with that of the North, they found iron already well known to, and in general use among, their new enemies. Nor is there any reason to suppose that arms of bronze were also at that time still in use in the North, for, had this been so, they would certainly have been mentioned by the Roman writers; whereas the description given by Tacitus of the Caledonian weapons shows that in his time the swords used in Scotland were made of iron. More-over there are several cases in which large quantities of arms belonging to the Roman period have been found together, and in which the arms and implements are all of iron. This argument is in its very nature cumulative, and cannot, therefore, be fully developed here, but out of many, I will mention a few cases in illustration.

Some years ago, an old battlefield was discovered at Tiefenau, near Berne, and described by M. Jahn. On it were found a great number of objects made of iron, such as fragments of chariots, bits for horses, wheels, pieces of coats of mail, and arms of various sorts, including no less than a hundred two-handed swords. All of these were made of iron, but with them were several fibule of bronze, and some coins, of which about thirty were of bronze, struck at Marseilles, and presenting a head of Apollo on one side and a bull on the other; both good specimens of Greek art. The rest were silver pieces, also struck at Marseilles. These coins, and the absence of any trace of Roman influence, sufficiently indicate the antiquity of these interesting remains.

A very similar collection of antiquities has been obtained from the ancient lake-village near La Tene, on the Lake of Neufchâtel.

Some very interesting "finds" of articles belonging to the Iron Age have been made in the peat bogs of Slesvick, and described by M. Engelhardt, Curator of the Museum at Flensborg. One of these, in the Moss of Nydam, comprises clothes, sandals, brooches, tweezers, beads, helmets, shields, shield bosses, breast-plates, coats of mail, buckles, sword-belts, sword-sheaths, 100 swords, 500 spears, 30 axes, 40 awls, 160 arrows, 80 knives, various articles of horse gear, wooden rakes, mallets, vessels, wheels, pottery, coins, etc. Without a single exception, all the weapons and cutting implements are made of iron, though bronze was freely used for brooches and other similar articles.

In the summer of 1862, M. Engelhardt found in the same field a ship, or rather a large flat-bottomed boat, seventy feet in length, three feet in the middle, and eight or nine feet wide. The sides are of oak boards, over-lapping one another, and fastened together by iron bolts. On the inner side of each board are several projections, which are not made from separate pieces, but were left when the boards were cut out of the solid timber. Each of these projections has two small holes, through which ropes, made of the inner bark of trees, were passed, in order to fasten the sides of the boat to the ribs. The row-locks are formed by a projecting horn of wood, under which is an orifice, so that a rope, fastened to the horn and passing through the orifice, leaves a space through which the oar played. There appear to have been about fifty pairs of oars, of which sixteen have already been discovered. The bottom of the boat was covered by matting. I visited the spot about a week after the boat had been discovered, but was unable to see much of it, as it had been taken to pieces, and the boards, etc., were covered over with straw and peat, that they might dry slowly. In this manner, M. Engelhardt hoped that they would perhaps, at least in part, retain their original shape. The freight of the boat consisted of iron axes, including a socketed celt with its handle, swords, lances, knives, brooches, whetstones, wooden vessels, and oddly enough, two birch brooms, with many smaller articles.

Only those, however, have yet been found which remained actually in the boat; and, as in sinking, it turned partly over on its side, no doubt many more articles will reward further explorations. It is evident that this ancient boat was sunk on purpose, because there is a square hole about six inches in diameter hewn out of the bottom; and it has been suggested that these objects were sunk as offerings to the Lake, but, on the whole, it seems more probable that in some time of panic or danger the objects contained in it were thus hidden by their owner, who was never able to recover them. Even in recent times of disturbance, as, for instance, in the beginning of the last century, and in 1848, many arms, ornaments, household utensils, etc., were so effectually hidden in the lakes and peat mosses, that they could never be found again. Much interest is added to this vessel and its contents, by the fact that we can fix almost their exact date. The boat lies, as I have already mentioned, within a few yards of the spot where the previous discoveries of Nydam were made, and as all the arms and ornaments exactly correspond, there can be little doubt that they belong to the same period. Now, the previous collection included nearly fifty Roman coins, ranging in date from A.D. 67 to A.D. 217, and we cannot, therefore, be far wrong in referring these remains to the third century.

A very similar discovery has been made at Thorsberg in the same neighborhood, but in this case, owing to some chemical difference in the peat, the iron has been almost entirely removed. It may naturally be asked why, then, this should be quoted as an instance of the Iron Age? And the answer seems quite satisfactory. All the swords, lance-heads, and axe-blades have disappeared, while the handles of bronze or wood are perfectly preserved, and as the ornaments and other objects of bronze are well preserved, it is evident that the swords, etc., were not of that metal; and it is therefore reasonable to conclude that they were of iron, more especially as the whole character of the objects resembles that of those found at Nydam, and the coins, which are about as numerous as those from the latter place, range from 60 A.D. to 197 A.D.; so that these two great "finds" may be regarded as almost contemporaneous.



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