There is something Neanderthal in the suburbs of Paris. Or at least there was.
Line 3 of the Paris Metro terminates in the west at Levallois. So what?
This observation, which I can’t believe I had not thought harder about in the past, led me to an interesting story at the cusp of archaeology as a modern discipline and a new candidate for the label of the first urban prehistorian. It also made me realise that archaeologists often take for granted the familiar labels that we use, and often don’t stop to think about the historiography of these terms and from whence they came.
Levallois is a name most archaeologists should be familiar with, as it is describes a reductive technique used by Neanderthals to make flaked stone tools back in the mists of time. There is a good deal of discussion as to the significance of this method of making tools – to what extent does this indicate the agency of Neanderthals and their ability to think ahead and in abstract terms tens of thousands of years ago? Is this a technique that was recognised, shared and duplicated across a wide geographic area (not restricted to Europe), or is this simply our characterization of a narrow aspect of the archaeological record? Such ‘types’ are the bred and butter of archaeology, for good and for ill.
The attribution of a site name to a type of material culture, architectural style or craft technique has a long tradition in archaeology, although not all terms have had the longetivity of Levallois and often we find modern and more boring ways to describe stuff we find in the archaeological record. My favourite example, now sadly rarely used, is the British late Neolithic pottery style Rinyo-Clacton Ware aka Grooved Ware, only really now known beyond prehistoric archaeology through the name of a Russell Hoban novel. (As another aside, one of the best future urban prehistory novels ever written is Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)
Nathan Schlanger has noted that this Parisian suburb has gained ‘everlasting archaeological notoriety’, as if often the fate of obscure places where a technology or style of object was recognised for the first time.
However, it is not clear exactly when the first Palaeolithic stone tools were recovered from sand quarries in the Levallois-Perret area, but it was probably in the 1850s. At this time Paris was an expanding city surrounded by quarries and urban development.
Matthew Pope and David Herisson via the medium of twitter suggested that Victor Commont ‘first described’ the Levallois technique, decades after these initial discoveries.
But the earliest publication of the tools themselves was by Jules Reboux. The images below appear to be from the first ever description of these lithics, which came out in 1967. (This is dated 1951 in an online source but this appears to be too early.) Here, Silex Tailles means knapped flints (thanks Becky Wragg Sykes!) and the title of the pamphlet notes the ancient, geological context from which they were found. The specific reductive preparation of the flints was noted here, but it was not yet called Levalloisian.
These initial discoveries were courtesy of excavation and fieldwork by Reboux in the 1860s and 1870s. He was a geologist and antiquarian / archaeologist who lived near the edge of Paris at the time, and Schlanger suggests his work in the likes of Levallois and Clichy was akin to proto-rescue archaeology. In fact he appears to have been the first urban prehistorian.
He wrote in 1866 (in French I assume), ‘dedicated research has for long been undertaken in distant lands, when we have under our own feet, in Paris itself, the most certain proofs of the ancient stone industry’.
Apparently Reboux spend years visiting quarries, monitoring building sites, and surveying railway cuttings, all around Paris and collected thousands of worked flint tools and objects.
There seems to have been a good deal of innovation around Reboux’s work at, and about, Levallois. Schlanger suggests that one of the sand quarries at Levallois was also the location of one of the earliest documented episodes of ‘comparative experimental flint-knapping’ during a fieldvisit lead by Reboux on 30th August 1867. And Reboux published, in 1873, a stratigraphic section of a quarry at Levallois, one of the first drawings of its kind in an archaeological context ever attempted.
It isn’t clear when the objects found at the quarries at Levallois became the objects upon which all similar stone tools were compared in terms of their manufacturing process, although Victor Commont wrote about Levallois tools and debitage in the 1910s, noting differences with other Palaeolithic stone tool ‘industries’.
Commont was credited with bringing the study of the Palaeolithic in northern France into the ‘scientific era’ by Tuffreau. Like Reboux, although decades later, he was an observer of discoveries in quarries, in this case near Amiens, and studied the Quaternary from his home in Edinburgh Street.
The term was further refined and given its classic modern characerisation through new discoveries and experimental flint-knapping in the early to middle twentieth century. Much of this hands-on and intellectual heavy lifting was undertaken by Francois Bordes. A significant figure in Palaeolithic archaeology in the twentieth century, Bordes was responsible for refining our concept of the flake method of Levallois in notable publications during the 1950s such as ‘Technique Levallois et Levallois ancient’ in L’Anthropologie 56 (1952), and in his 1961 book Typologie.
Lewis Binford even had a go at the Levallois in various famous studies around the same times as Bordes, and the concept, and what it tells us about Homo Neandertalensis, is still a very important aspect of Palaeolithic archaeology across the world.
Sadly I have reached the depth of my knowledge about this technique and I have little sense what the current state of play in Palaeolithic studies is with regards the Levallois so apologies to colleagues working in this field! Unless someone wants to write a fictional story called something like Monsieur Levallois comes to town I am unlikely to learn any more.
However, there is one thing left for me to do. It is clear that a visit to Levallois itself by Metro is needed to bring this narrative to a satisfactory conclusion and I’ll do this next time I’m in Paris. I’ll remember to pack a cow….
Sources and acknowledgements: I’m indebted to the many Palaeolithic experts who responded to my plea for information on twitter (link in text above) and directly to emails. Thanks especially to Nathan Schlanger and Dene Wright who helped me via email, as well as the following tweeters.
- David Herrison = @david_herisson
- Joseba Rios-Garaizar = @jorios
- Matt Pope = @MatthewPope
- Becky Wragg Sykes = @LeMoustier
- Helen Loney = @Worsted2
Apologies if I missed anyone, and these good folks cannot be held responsible for how I have mangled their responses and pointers to sources of help….and most of the quotes in this post have benefited from the translation skills of others such as Schlanger.
The following academic sources were also consulted in preparing this blog post:
- Pettit, P. 2009 Francois Bordes. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009, pages 201-212. Lithic Studies Society, London.
- Schlanger, N. 1996 Understanding Levallois: Lithic technology and cognitive archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6.2, 231-54.
- Schlanger, N. 2013 One day hero. Jules Reboux at the crucible of prehistory in 1860s Paris. Complutum 24.2, 73-88.
- Tuffreau, A. 2009 Victor Commont. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009. Lithic Studies Society, London.
A sense of the mining landscape that was nineteenth century Paris can be gained by reading this fascinating blog post about Paris’s historic gypsum quarries (Written in Stone blog). This was also the source of the Montmartre quarry picture.
The source of the Levallois technique drawing is another interesting source (find it here): Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11
Illustrations (unless source given in the caption)
Hoban and Typologie book covers – widely available online
Stone tool drawing – this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1867 in the following place:
- Reboux, J. 1867 Silex tailles associes a des ossements fossiles dans les terrains quaternaires de environs de Paris. Congres international d’archaeologie et d’anthropologie prehistorique, 2e session: 103-9.
Stratigraphic section from the quarry at Levallois – again this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1873 here:
- Reboux, J. 1873 Des trois epoques de la pierre. Bulletin de la societe d’anthropologie de Paris 8, 523-31.
Victor Commont from Tuffreau 2009.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Dene Wright for information on the Levallois technique.
Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11