Victor Commont and the French Prehistory in the early 20th century

These are some pages from Commonts publication about the geology and the Paleolithic around Amiens published in 1909.

Gabriel De Mortillet’s classification of the Paleolithic has been revised and modified by himself many times, but it still forms the basis for the scheme we use today. Originally the findings from St Acheul should represent the oldest Paleolithic “culture”, but in 1883, Gabriel de Mortillet changed the name of the earliest Paleolithic epoch from “Acheulean” to “Chellean”, which should be characterized solely by handaxes. De Mortillet emphasized, that the name “Acheulean” in his new definition was a transitional phase between the Chellean and the Mousterian and contained a combination of perfected handaxes and some Mousterian tools.

De Mortillet, primed by his unilinear evolutionary paradigm introduced the Acheulean as a transitional epoch, because increasing numbers of collections from Quaternary deposits found in the quarries and railroad trenches of northern France revealed industries containing both handaxes and retouched flake tools, and he was forced to incorporate these new data into his scheme.

amiens-aggsbachFig 2: Handaxe from Montiers / OIS8.

In contrast to Mortillet, Victor Commont was not an „armchair archeologist“. Day by day he vistited the quarries and (rail) road cuts around Amiens in the Somme valley and made his meticulous observations. He was often digging himself and he created detailed maps of the geological sections and carefully noted which types of artifacts were found in each level. Through these rigorous studies, he developed a geological model of the Somme Valley, which he suggested was to be divided it into four major terraces. He identified the types of artifacts found incorporated in these deposits. Instead of being the buyer of “belles pieces”, preselected by the quarry man he was personally present when the artifacts were excavated. Commont soon noticed the presence of retouched flake tools in pre-Mousterian levels ( for example at the famous “Atellier Commont”), but also the presence of small handaxes during the “Mousterian” of St. Acheul. Commont was the first who took notice of the enormeous  variability of the old and middle paleolithic technocomplexes. Another point is that Commont was the first, who defined the lower to middle Paleolithic boundary by the presence / absence of the Levalloisian technique. Victor Commont revolutionized the Mortillet-system in a similar way as  H. Breuil a few years later, who definitively re-introduced the Aurignacian into the Paleolithic sequence. Such progress could only be made by men who had first-hand observations, when  working in the field in combination with the use of inductive epistemological methods –  not by theoretical considerations. While there are several books about the history of archaeological thought and archaeological theory, we have no corresponding work on the history of archaeological praxis. In such a book, Victor Commont would have a place of honor.

Unfortunately, the collections of V. Commont were dispersed after his death and the few
pieces preserved in museum collections (Amiens, Musée de l’Homme) do not allow any synthetic study on the subject.


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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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