Before Boucher de Perthes: Casimir Picard at the Somme

 

amiens katzman somme neolithique

The Somme is a river in Picardy, northern France. The name Somme comes from a Celtic word meaning “tranquility”.  The river is 245 km long, from its source in the high ground of the former Forest of Arrouaise at Fonsommes near Saint-Quentin, to the Bay of the Somme, in the English Channel. It lies in the geological syncline which also forms the Solent. This gives it a fairly constant and gentle gradient.

The Quaternary formations of the Somme, Seine and Yonne river valleys have long been studied because of their rich Palaeolithic localities. These valleys played an important role in the emergence of prehistoric archaeology in France and in the development of the research on the Quaternary sequences, especially in the case of the Somme (http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/01/handaxe-from-the-somme-valley/).

The Somme is incised into Upper Cretaceous chalk, and the richness in flint of these strata has likely influenced the number of Palaeolithic sites that characterizes the region around Amens and Abbeville.

This is a flat 28 cm long Neolithic axe from the Somme, formerly part of the collection of Casimir Picard (1806-1840), a physician from Abbeville, who- like many physician at this time-had a strong antiquarian interests and a passion for  natural history.

In 1837, Picard conducted highly detailed and rigorous studies of the stratigraphy of the lower Somme river valley; some of these sites of the region of Abbeville would become, after his premature death in 1844 (he succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 34), the sites of renewed research by Boucher de Perthes.

It was Picard, and not Boucher de Parthes, who claimed for the first time, that stone tools and an extinct fauna in the Somme valley were contemporaneou but as an early 19th century antiquarian, he also thought the flint artifacts found in the gravels belonged to the ancient Gauls. He had no idea about the real time depth of such findings.

Picard was a  empiricist who believed that a scientific antiquarian must first gain a detailed knowledge of the intrinsic makeup of artefacts themselves before becoming overly concerned about their possible culture-historical significance. In the few short years left to him, Picard worked out the basics of lithic technology, among other things how blade and flake tool blanks are detached from prepared cores; and, equally important, how chipped stone tools such as handaxes differed fundamentally from the polished axes that are nowadays dated to the Neolithic and later prehistoric times. He may have been the first to recognize clearly that Paleolithic handaxes do not simply represent roughed-out tool blanks destined to be converted into the polished forms. Anyhow it is not clear how far he came to suspect that the two different classes are not only simply functionally different but could represent different stages in the archaeological record.

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