Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages

Date: 1865

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The first appearance of Man in Europe dates from a period so remote, that neither history, nor even 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 pre-historic 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 for ever." 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 research, 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 archaeologist. 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 Pre-historic 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 we may call the "Palaeolithic" 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. This we may call the "Neolithic" period.

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 even during 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 of Asia and Africa. As regards other civilized countries, China and Japan for instance, we, as yet, know nothing of their pre-historic archaeology. It is evident, also, that some nations, such as the Fuegians, Andamaners, etc., are even now, or were very 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 colour would certainly attract 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, as it is rarely, if ever, found 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 the great heaviness of its ores. 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 determine 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, whence it has been inferred that the art of making bronze was known elsewhere, before the use of either 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. . . .

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 after copper and tin. Speaking of those who were ancient, even in his day, he says that they used bronze, and not iron. . . . His poems, as well as those of Homer, show that nearly three thousand years ago, the value was known and appreciated. . . . We may, therefore, consider that the Trojan war took place during the period of transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age.

In the Pentateuch, excluding Deuteronomy, bronze, or as it is unfortunately translated, brass, is mentioned thirty-eight times, and iron only four times.


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Chicago: Sir John Lubbock, ed., Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, edited by Sir John Lubbock, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: (ed.), Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from