Ceraunia, Thunderbolts and Antiquarians: The early History of Prehistory

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Greek natural philosophers, where the first that proposed, that that humans, like any animal are part of nature and subject to natural laws. They were convinced that natural phenomena should be explained through natural causes and natural agents, and those supernatural causes (a god, an “intelligent design”…) should be removed from scientific explanations of nature.

For example, the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius (97–54 BC) speculated about a history in which the first animals and humans were generated spontaneously from the soil. These early humans were savage and brutish, eating wild fruits and nuts and seeking shelter in caves. Confronting a harsh environment and wild animals, these early humans learned to make weapons from stone. Other techniques, such as metallurgy and agriculture would have emerged only much later. Although these ideas were partially verified ca. 2000 years later, it is also important, that the Greek natural philosophers did not establish a praxis of testing their ideas by the evaluation of any archaeological record.

The collapse of the Roman Empire during the fifth century and the rise of Christianity in the Mediterranean had a profound impact on the history of European philosophy and science. The new paradigms about the creation of the world were entirely based on the reading of the Bible. According to Genesis, God first creates the world, then plants and animals. Adam and Eve are created on the last day of the creation week, only after the earth has been prepared for them. In Eden they live from a plenty of the fruits of the earth, but after the expulsion from Eden they must find ways to survive in a harsh environment. The domestication of animals and agriculture and the first cities are developed quickly. Metallurgy is invented several generations later. When the Deluge is sent to destroy all humanity, with the exception of Noah and his family, an important historical and anthropological consequence is that Noah’s three sons must repopulate the world (Goodrum 2004).

This was the intellectual master narrative during the medieval period in Europe. The bible was considered as the only one certain source of knowledge about the past. The world was believed to be of recent origin and thinking about the world did not include any evolutionary approach. In summary scholars were even less conscious of historical changes in the material culture than their Greek and Roman antecessors. The interest in the reconstruction of prehistoric times was almost lost.

Ceraunia or “thunderbolts” are stones, arrowheads, stone axes, and similar artifacts, believed to have fallen from the sky when lightning stuck the ground. During the middle Ages in Europe thinking about “thunderbolts”  was dominated by the belief that ceraunia had magical properties and the same belief was supported by scholars. In the 11th century bishop Marbodo wrote in his poem “Liber lapidum” how ceraunia protect its owner and his house from being struck by lightning, dying at sea, losing in battles, as well as guarantees good sleep at nights.

During the 14th–17th century, the Italian Renaissance established for the first time a connection between ‘thunderbolts’ and man-made stone tools. The background of this discovery lies in the remarkable rise in the interest in the study of natural history. This interest was triggered by the appearance of naturalists at Italian courts but also by voyages of exploration and discovery. The scholars at this time began to emerge as an important intellectual power in advanced European societies, next to the courts and the clergy. The so-called virtuosi of the Renaissance were both interested in natural history and arts. Their collections included natural specimens and cultural artifacts and were known as cabinets of curiosities, or “Wunderkammern”.

Late in the sixteenth century, the Italian naturalist Michele Mercati (1541-1593) formulated the argument supporting the idea that ceraunia were not produced when lightning struck the ground, but were instead implements made by humans. He arrived at this novel conclusion as a result of being the curator of the Vatican botanical garden, where he was responsible for an expanding natural history collection that included fossils, as well as ethnographic material from the New World. It was through working with these materials that Mercati noticed that the ceraunia in the geological collection closely resembled some stone arrowheads made by the Indians. This insight led him to suggest that all ceraunia were implements made for use as weapons or tools. It seems that during these early modern times in Europe, there was an over-individual epistemological change, a new attitude to man, to life and existence as well as a new way of ordering and classifying the world. This new attitude led to the perception, that ceraunia belonged not to the natural world, but were artifacts made by humans.

The recognition that ceraunia were, in fact, cultural artifacts from Europe’s remote past opened the way for the development of a genuine prehistoric thinking. But this began only late in the seventeenth century because Mercati’s ideas were not published in his lifetime. It is interesting that naturalists took a lead in classifying stone artifacts in the middle of the seventeenth century. This is not surprising since natural history was grounded in the task of classification and taxonomy. Classification systems in prehistory are a late fruit (other would say: a necessary evil), that was first generated by these early naturalists.

Although naturalists and antiquarian properly identified and classified ceraunia as stone artifacts made by humans, they has no concise theory about the people who made these things and the time depth of the prehistoric period. These questions were only resolved by scientists of the next centuries that where more independent from theological thinking.

Suggested Reading:

http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol42/johanson.pdf

http://www.sts.vt.edu/faculty/goodrum/ceraunia.pdf

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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One Response to Ceraunia, Thunderbolts and Antiquarians: The early History of Prehistory

  1. Dempsey says:

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