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2016-10-08 13:41:04   •   ID: 1519

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

Figure 3
Figure 3: This is a Handaxe from Montiers / OIS8, first excavated by Victor Commont.
Figure 2
Figure 3

Figure 2-4 and 4 show some pages from Commont's publications about the geology and the Paleolithic around Amiens and Montiers published between 1904- 1909, mainly displaying Middle Paleolithic artifacts.

Commont was one of the first, who noticed the flaws in Gabriel de Mortillet’s influential system of Paleolithic evolution, which was based based on insecure informations, made by others and finally synthesized by him into a stringent apodictic system.

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 flake tools.

He 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.

In contrast to Mortillet, Victor Commont could overcome such one-dimensional thinking because was he 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 described and published excellent drawings of artifacts, found incorporated in these deposits and on this solid ground he developed a geo-archeological local succession of the Somme Valley, not flawed by biased collections and inductive paradigms.

Commont was the first, who described at the Bultel-Tellier pit in Amiens / St. Acheul that the major chronostratigraphical division in the Loess cover of the Middle Terrace was the “limon fendillé”, a paleosol now attributed to the Last Interglacial pedogenesis.

He 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, therefore arguing for an enormeous  variability of early and middle Paleolithic  technocomplexes, instead of unilinear successions.

Another point is that Commont was the first, who defined the lower to middle Paleolithic boundary by the presence / absence of the Levalloisian technique.

At Montières he described one of the oldest Middle Palaeolithic industries of continental north-west Europe, characterized by a volumetric laminar débitage - see here: 1627 .

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In sum, Victor Commont revolutionized the Mortillet-system by meticulous and first-hand observations, by 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.