Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man/Chapter 7


CHAPTER VII.

PEAT AND POST-PLIOCENE ALLUVIUM OF THE VALLEY OF THE SOMME.

GEOLOGICAL STRUCTURE OF THE VALLEY OF THE SOMME AND OF THE SURROUNDING COUNTRY—POSITION OF ALLUVIUM OF DIFFERENT AGES—PEAT NEAR ABBEVILLE—ITS ANIMAL AND VEGETABLE CONTENTS—WORKS OF ART IN PEAT—PROBABLE ANTIQUITY OF THE PEAT, AND CHANGES OF LEVEL SINCE ITS GROWTH BEGAN—FLINT IMPLEMENTS OF ANTIQUE TYPE IN OLDER ALLUVIUM—THEIR VARIOUS FORMS AND GREAT NUMBERS.

Geological Structure of the Somme Valley.

THE Valley of the Somme in Picardy, alluded to in the last chapter, is situated geologically in a region of white chalk with flints, the strata of which are nearly horizontal. The chalk hills which bound the valley are almost everywhere between 200 and 300 feet in height. On ascending to that elevation, we find ourselves on an extensive table-land, in which there are slight elevations and depressions. The white chalk itself is scarcely ever exposed at the surface on this plateau, although seen on the slopes of the hills, as at b and c (fig. 7). The general surface of the upland region is covered continuously for miles in every direction by loam or brick-earth (No. 4), about five feet thick, devoid of fossils. To the wide extent of this loam the soil of Picardy chiefly owes its great fertility. Here and there we also observe, on the chalk, outlying patches of tertiary sand and clay (No. 5, fig. 7), with eocene fossils, the remnants of a formation once more extensive, and which probably once spread in one continuous mass over the chalk, before the present system of valleys had begun to be shaped out. It is necessary to allude to these relics of tertiary strata, of which the larger part is missing, because their denudation has contributed largely to furnish the materials of gravels in which the flint implements and bones of extinct mammalia are entombed. From this source have been derived not only the regular-formed egg-shaped pebbles, so common in the old fluviatile alluvium at all levels, but those huge masses of hard sandstone, several feet in diameter, to which I shall allude in the sequel. The upland loam also (No. 4) has often, in no slight degree, been formed at the expense of the same tertiary sands and clays, as is attested by its becoming more or less sandy or argillaceous, according to the nature of the nearest eocene outlier in the neighbourhood.

Fig. 7

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 7.png

Section across the Valley of the Somme in Picardy.

1 Peat, twenty to thirty feet thick, resting on gravel, a.

2 Lower level gravel with elephants' bones and flint tools, covered with fluviatile loam, twenty to forty feet thick.

3 Upper level gravel with similar fossils, and with overlying loam, in all thirty feet thick.

4 Upland loam without shells (Limon des plateaux), five or six feet thick.

5 Eocene tertiary strata, resting on the chalk in patches.

The average width of the Valley of the Somme between Amiens and Abbeville is one mile. The height, therefore, of the hills, in relation to the river-plain, could not be correctly represented in the annexed diagram (fig. 7), the hills having been reduced to one fourth of their altitude. It would otherwise have been necessary to make the space between c and b four times as great. The dimensions also of the masses of drift or alluvium, 2 and 3, have been exaggerated, in order to render them sufficiently conspicuous; for, all important as we shall find them to be as geological monuments of the post-pliocene period, they form a truly insignificant feature in the general structure of the country, so much so, that they might easily be overlooked in a cursory survey of the district, and are usually unnoticed in geological maps not specially devoted to the superficial formations.

It will be seen by the description given of the section, fig. 7, that No. 2 indicates the lower level gravels, and No. 3 the higher ones, or those rising to elevations of eighty or a hundred feet above the river. Newer than these is the peat No. 1, which is from ten to thirty feet in thickness, and which is not only of later date than the alluvium, 2 and 3, but is also posterior to the denudation of those gravels, or to the time when the valley was excavated through them. Underneath the peat is a bed of gravel, a, from three to fourteen feet thick, which rests on undisturbed chalk. This gravel was probably formed, in part at least, when the valley was scooped out to its present depth, since which time no geological change has taken place, except the growth of the peat, and certain oscillations in the general level of the country, to which we shall allude by and by. A thin layer of impervious clay separates the gravel a from the peat No. 1, and seems to have been a necessary preliminary to the growth of the peat.

Peat of the Valley of the Somme.

As hitherto, in our retrospective survey, we have been obliged, for the sake of proceeding from the known to the less known, to reverse the natural order of history, and to treat of the newer before the older formations, I shall begin my account of the geological monuments of the Valley of the Somme by saying something of the most modern of all of them, the peat. This substance occupies the lower parts of the valley far above Amiens, and below Abbeville as far as the sea. It has already been stated to be in some places thirty feet thick, and is even occasionally more than thirty feet, corresponding in that respect to the Danish mosses before described (Ch. II.). Like them, it belongs to the recent period; all the embedded mammalia, as well as the shells, being of the same species as those now inhabiting Europe. The bones of quadrupeds are very numerous, as I can bear witness, having seen them brought up from a considerable depth near Abbeville, almost as often as the dredging instrument was used. Besides remains of the beaver, I was shown, in the collection of M. Boucher de Perthes, two perfect lower jaws with teeth of the bear, Ursus Arctos; and in the Paris Museum there is another specimen, also from the Abbeville peat.

The list of mammalia already comprises a large proportion of those proper to the Swiss lake-dwellings, and to the shell-mounds and peat of Denmark; but unfortunately as yet no special study has been made of the French fauna, like that by which the Danish and Swiss zoologists and botanists have enabled us to compare the wild and tame animals and the vegetation of the age of stone with that of the age of iron.

Notwithstanding the abundance of mammalian bones in the peat, and the frequency of stone implements of the Celtic and Gallo-Roman periods, M. Boucher de Perthes has only met with three or four fragments of human skeletons.

At some depth in certain places in the valley near Abbeville, the trunks of alders have been found standing erect as they grew, with their roots fixed in an ancient soil, afterwards covered with peat. Stems of the hazel, and nuts of the same, abound; trunks, also, of the oak and walnut. The peat extends to the coast, and is there seen passing under the sand-dunes and below the sea-level. At the mouth of the river Canche, which joins the sea near the embouchure of the Somme, yew trees, firs, oaks, and hazels have been dug out of peat, which is there worked for fuel, and is about three feet thick.[1] During great storms, large masses of compact peat, enclosing trunks of flattened trees, have been thrown up on the coast at the mouth of the Somme; seeming to indicate that there has been a subsidence of the land and a consequent submergence of what was once a westward continuation of the Valley of the Somme into what is now a part of the British Channel, or La Manche.

Whether the vegetation of the lowest layers of peat differed as to the geographical distribution of some of the trees from the middle, and this from the uppermost peat, as in Denmark, has not yet been ascertained; nor have careful observations been made with a view of calculating the minimum of time which the accumulation of so dense a mass of vegetable matter must have taken. A foot in thickness of highly compressed peat, such as is sometimes reached in the bottom of the bogs, is obviously the equivalent in time of a much greater thickness of peat of spongy and loose texture, found near the surface. The workmen who cut peat, or dredge it up from the bottom of swamps and ponds, declare that in the course of their lives none of the hollows which they have found, or caused by extracting peat, have ever been refilled, even to a small extent. They deny, therefore, that the peat grows. This, as M. Boucher de Perthes observes, is a mistake; but it implies that the increase in one generation is not very appreciable by the unscientific.

The antiquary finds near the surface Gallo-Roman remains, and still deeper Celtic weapons of the stone period. But the depth at which Roman works of art occur varies in different places, and is no sure test of age; because in some parts of the swamps, especially near the river, the peat is often so fluid that heavy substances may sink through it, carried down by their own gravity. In one case, however, M. Boucher de Perthes observed several large flat dishes of Roman pottery, lying in a horizontal position in the peat, the shape of which must have prevented them from sinking or penetrating through the underlying peat. Allowing about fourteen centuries for the growth of the superincumbent vegetable matter, he calculated that the thickness gained in a hundred years would be no more than three French centimetres.[2] This rate of increase would demand so many tens of thousands of years for the formation of the entire thickness of thirty feet, that we must hesitate before adopting it as a chronometric scale. Yet, by multiplying observations of this kind, and bringing one to bear upon and check another, we may eventually succeed in obtaining data for estimating the age of the peaty deposit.

The rate of increase in Denmark may not be applicable to France; because differences in the humidity of the climate, or in the intensity and duration of summer's heat and winter's cold, as well as diversity in the species of plants which most abound, would cause the peat to grow more or less rapidly, not only when we compare two distinct countries in Europe, but the same country at two successive periods.

I have already alluded to some facts which favour the idea that there has been a change of level on the coast since the peat began to grow. This conclusion seems confirmed by the mere thickness of peat at Abbeville, and the occurrence of alder and hazel-wood near the bottom of it. If thirty feet of peat were now removed, the sea would flow up and fill the valley for miles above Abbeville. Yet this vegetable matter is all of submarine or fresh-water origin, for where aquatic shells occur in it they are all of terrestrial or fluviatile kinds, so that it must have grown above the sea-level when the land was more elevated than now. We have already seen what changes in the relative level of sea and land have occurred in Scotland subsequently to the time of the Romans, and are therefore prepared to meet with proofs of similar movements in Picardy. In that country they have probably not been confined simply to subsidence, but have comprised oscillations in the level of the land, by which marine shells of the post-pliocene period have been raised some ten feet or more above the level of the sea.

Small as is the progress hitherto made in interpreting the pages of the peaty record, their importance in the Valley of the Somme is enhanced by the reflection that, whatever be the number of centuries to which they relate, they belong to times posterior to the ancient implement-bearing beds, which we are next to consider, and are even separated from them, as we shall see, by an interval far greater than that which divides the earliest strata of the peat from the latest.

Flint Implements of the Post-pliocene Period in the Valley of the Somme.

The alluvium of the Valley of the Somme exhibits no thing extraordinary or exceptional in its position or external appearance, nor in the arrangement or composition of its materials, nor in its organic remains; in all these characters it might be matched by the drift of a hundred other valleys in France or England. Its claim to our peculiar attention is derived from the wonderful number of flint tools, of a very antique type, which, as stated in the last chapter, occur in undisturbed strata, associated with the bones of extinct quadrupeds.

As much doubt has been cast on the question, whether the so-called flint hatchets have really been shaped by the hands of man, it will be desirable to begin by satisfying the reader's mind on that point, before inviting him to study the details of sections of successive beds of mud, sand, and gravel, which vary considerably even in contiguous localities.

Since the spring of 1859, I have paid three visits to the Valley of the Somme, and examined all the principal localities of these flint tools. In my excursions around Abbeville, I was accompanied by M. Boucher de Perthes, and during one of my explorations in the Amiens district, by Mr. Prestwich. The first time I entered the pits at St. Acheul, I obtained seventy flint instruments, all of them collected from the drift in the course of the preceding five or six weeks. The two prevailing forms of these tools are represented in the annexed figures 8 and 9, each of which are half the size of the originals; the first being the spear-headed form, varying in length from six to eight inches; the second, the oval form, which is not unlike some stone implements, used to this day as hatchets and tomahawks by natives of Australia, but with this difference, that the edge in the Australian weapons (as in the case of those called celts in Europe) has been produced by friction, whereas the cutting edge in the old tools of the Valley of the Somme was always gained by the simple fracture of the flint, and by the repetition of many dexterous blows.

The oval-shaped Australian weapons, however, differ in being sharpened at one end only. The other, though reduced by fracture to the same general form, is left rough, in which state it is fixed into a cleft stick, which serves as a handle. To this it is firmly bound by thin straps of opossum's hide. One of these tools, now in my possession, was given me by Mr. Farquharson of Haughton, who saw a native using it in 1854, on the Auburn river, in Burnet district, North Australia.

Out of more than a hundred flint implements which I obtained at St. Acheul, not a few had their edges more or less fractured or worn, either by use as instruments before they were buried in gravel, or by being rolled in the river's bed.

Some of these tools were probably used as weapons, both of war and of the chase, others to grub up roots, cut down trees, and scoop out canoes. Some of them may have served,
Fig. 8

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 8.png

Flint implement from St. Acheul, near Amiens, of the spear-head shape.

Fig. 8 Half the size of the original, which is seven and a half inches long.

a Side view.

b Same seen edgewise.

These spear-headed implements have been found in greater number, proportionally to the oval ones, in the upper level gravel at St. Acheul, than in any of the lower gravels in the valley of the Somme. In these last the oval form predominates, especially at Abbeville.

Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 9.png
Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 10.png

Flint implements from the Post-pliocene Drift of Abbeville and Amiens.

Fig. 9 a Oval-shaped flint hatchet from Mautort, near Abbeville, half

size of original, which is five and a half inches long, from a bed of gravel underlying the fluvio-marine stratum.

b Same seen edgewise.

c Shows a recent fracture of the edge of the same at the point a, or near the top. This portion of the tool, c, is drawn of the natural size, the black central part being the unaltered flint, the white outer coating, the layer which has been formed by discoloration or bleaching since the tool was first made.

The entire surface of No. 9 must have been black when first shaped, and the bleaching to such a depth must have been the work of time, whether produced by exposure to the sun and air before it

was embedded, or afterwards when it lay deep in the soil.

Fig. 10. Flint tool from St. Acheul, seen edgewise; original, six and a half inches long, and three inches wide.

b, c Portion not artificially shaped. b, a Part chipped into shape, and having a cutting edge at a.
as Mr. Prestwich has suggested, for cutting holes in the ice both for fishing and for obtaining water, as will be explained in the 8th chapter when we consider the arguments in favour of the higher level drift having belonged to a period when the rivers were frozen over for several months every winter.

When the natural form of a chalk-flint presented a suitable handle at one end, as in the specimen, fig. 10, that part was left as found. The portion, for example, between b and c has probably not been altered; the protuberances which are fractured having been broken off by river action before the flint was chipped artificially. The other extremity, a, has been worked till it acquired a proper shape and cutting edge.

Many of the hatchets are stained of an ochreous-yellow colour, when they have been buried in yellow gravel, others have acquired white or brown tints, according to the matrix in which they have been enclosed.

This accordance in the colouring of the flint tools with the character of the bed from which they have come, indicates, says Mr. Prestwich, not only a real derivation from such strata, but also a sojourn therein of equal duration to that of the naturally broken flints forming part of the same beds.[3]

The surface of many of the tools is encrusted with a film of carbonate of lime, while others are adorned by those ramifying crystallisations called dendrites (see figs. 11—13), usually consisting of the mixed oxyds of iron and manganese, forming extremely delicate blackish brown sprigs, resembling the smaller kinds of sea weed. They are a useful test of antiquity when suspicions are entertained of the workmen having forged the hatchets which they offer for sale. The most general test, however, of the genuineness of the implements obtained by purchase is their superficial varnish-like or vitreous gloss, as contrasted with the dull aspect of freshly fractured flints. I also remarked, during each of my three visits to Amiens, that there were some extensive gravel-pits, such as those of Montiers and St. Roch, agreeing in their geological character with those of St. Acheul, and only a mile or two distant, where the workmen, although familiar with the forms, and knowing the marketable value of the articles above described, assured me that they had never been able to find a single implement.

Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13
Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 11.png
Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 12.png
Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 13.png

Dendrites on surfaces of flint hatchets in the drift of St. Acheul, near Amiens.

Fig. 11, a Natural size. Fig. 12, b Natural size. c Magnified.
Fig. 13, d Natural size. e Magnified.

Respecting the authenticity of the tools as works of art, Professor Ramsay, than whom no one could be a more competent judge, observes: 'For more than twenty years, like others of my craft, I have daily handled stones, whether fashioned by nature or art; and the flint hatchets of Amiens and Abbeville seem to me as clearly works of art as any Sheffield whittle.'[4]

Mr. Evans classifies the implements under three heads, two of which, the spear heads and the oval or almond-shaped kinds, have already been described. The third form, fig. 14, consists of flakes, apparently intended for knives or some of the smaller ones for arrow heads.

In regard to their origin, Mr. Evans observes that there is a uniformity of shape, a correctness of outline, and a sharpness about the cutting edges and points, which cannot be due to anything but design.[5]

Of these knives and flakes, I obtained several specimens from a pit which I caused to be dug at Abbeville, in sand in contact with the chalk, and below certain fluvio-marine beds, which will be alluded to in the next chapter.

Fig. 14

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 14.png

Flint knife or flake from below the sand containing Cyrena fluminalis.

Menchecourt, Abbeville.

d Transverse section along the line of fracture, b, c.
Size, two-thirds of the original.

Between the spear-head and oval shapes, there are various intermediate gradations, and there are also a vast variety of very rude implements, many of which may have been rejected as failures, and others struck off as chips in the course of manufacturing the more perfect ones. Some of these chips can only be recognised by an experienced eye as bearing marks of human workmanship.

It has often been asked, how, without the use of metallic hammers, so many of these oval and spear-headed tools could have been wrought into so uniform a shape. Mr. Evans, in order experimentally to illustrate the process, constructed a stone hammer, by mounting a pebble in a wooden handle, and with this tool struck off flakes from the edge on both sides of a chalk flint, till it acquired precisely the same shape as the oval tool, fig. 9, p. 115.

If I were invited to estimate the probable number of the more perfect tools found in the valley of the Somme since 1842, rejecting all the knives, and all that might be suspected of being spurious or forged, I should conjecture that they far exceeded a thousand. Yet it would be a great mistake to imagine that an antiquary or geologist, who should devote a few weeks to the exploration of such a valley as that of the Somme, would himself be able to detect a single specimen. But few tools were lying on the surface. The rest have been exposed to view by the removal of such a volume of sand, clay, and gravel, that the price of the discovery of one of them could only be estimated by knowing how many hundred labourers have toiled at the fortifications of Abbeville, or in the sand and gravel pits near that city, and around Amiens, for road materials and other economical purposes, during the last twenty years.

In the gravel pits of St. Acheul, and in some others near Amiens, small round bodies, having a tubular cavity in the centre, occur. They are well known as fossils of the white chalk. Dr. Rigollot suggested that they might have been

Fig. 15

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man Fig. 15.png

a, b Coscinopora globularis D'Orb. Orbitolina concava Parker and Jones.

c Part of the same magnified.


strung together as beads, and he supposed the hole in the middle to have been artificial. Some of these round bodies are found entire in the chalk and in the gravel, others have naturally a hole passing through them, and sometimes one or two holes penetrating some way in from the surface, but not extending to the other side. Others, like b, fig. 15, have a large cavity, which has a very artificial aspect. It is impossible to decide whether they have or have not served as personal ornaments, recommended by their globular form, lightness, and by being less destructible than ordinary chalk. Granting that there were natural cavities in the axis of some of them, it does not follow that these may not have been taken advantage of for stringing them as beads, while others may have been artificially bored through. Dr. Rigollot's argument in favour of their having been used as necklaces or bracelets, appears to me a sound one. He says he often found small heaps or groups of them in one place, all perforated, just as if, when swept into the river's bed by a flood, the bond which had united them together remained unbroken.[6]

  1. D'Archiac, Hist. des Progrès, vol. ii. p. 154.
  2. Antiquités Celtiques, vol. ii. p. 134.
  3. Philosophical Transactions, 1861, p. 297.
  4. Athenæum, July 16, 1859.
  5. Archæologica, vol. xxxviii.
  6. Rigollot, Mémoire sur des Instruments en Silex, &c. p. 16. Amiens, 1854.