The French geologist Jacques Boucher de Crevecour de Perthes, was born September 10, 1788 and was noted for being one of the first academics to form the idea that archaeological history could be charted using periods of geological time.
A Customs Officer
Better known by the shorter name of Boucher de Perthes, he entered into the service of the French government, in 1802, as a customs officer. He remained a French public servant for the rest of his life. Although the position did take him to Italy for six years, he basically stayed in France succeeding his father and attaining the directorship of the customhouse at Abbeville.
Digging Around in the Gravel Pits
De Perthes’ contribution to archaeology is expressed in his devotion to the theories espoused by Darwin about antediluvian humans. Archaeology was enjoyed by de Perthes only as a hobby. His focus and primary enthusiasm was always for his position as a customs official. However, in what spare time he made for himself, he developed his archaeological skills at the gravel pits in the Somme Valley. It was in these pits that he discovered numerous archaeological tools and arrived at some remarkable conclusions.
The Proposition of Primitive Man
He discovered complete hand axes, flint objects, and many fragments of items that de Perthes claimed were also tools shaped by human endeavour. These tools were said by de Perthes to be scattered among a collection of fossilised mammal bones from animals reckoned to be very old. De Perthes implied that the people who made the tools must have been alive concurrently with the ancient animals and thus proposed this as evidence of so-called primitive man.
Subsequent to a visit by English geologist, Charles Lyell, the British Royal Society concurred with the findings of Boucher de Perthes and this fuelled a blitz of scientific interest to further study the theory. Some archaeologists had discovered animals, such as European reindeer, with whole axes embedded into their frames. All across Europe discoveries were being reported of caves with their internal walls covered in primitive drawings. The drawings exhibited extinct animals along with humans. Bones discovered in the caves appeared to be from many of the mammals in the drawings.
The scientific community was excited. A wave of British scientists, including archaeologists, geologists, and anthropologists, petitioned their employers (mostly universities) for more research funds. The proposition that this could lead the way to an alternative to the theological status quo was too enticing for the liberal revisionists and before long every academic institution had its own department of Stone Age Man.
Geologist and Writer
Boucher de Perthes was also noted for his literary contribution to archaeology. A monumental three-volume work was commenced in 1847. The issue was titled ‘Antiquitis Celtiques et Antediluviennes’ but it was not well received by intellectuals as it was not a particularly well presented case of his thesis. His work met disapproval due to its poorly executed drawings and lack of any substantial proof that clearly showed evidence of humans having worked the flint pieces. However, one lasting inclusion was that Boucher de Perthes was the first geologist to place humans in the Pleistocene and early Quaternary Periods.
In 1863, Boucher de Perthes appeared to have his evidence when he discovered a human jawbone together with humanly worked flint tools in another gravel pit near Abbeville where he worked. Some doubt as to its true antiquity was thrown upon the jawbone due to signs of interment and additional testing revealed large quantities of relatively fresh organic matter in the bone. Later, however, the truth was exposed. The jawbone was a hoax, planted in the Moulin-Quignon gravel pit by a co-worker of Boucher de Perthes after he was offered a reward of 200 French francs for finding ancient human remains. Boucher de Perthes still defended his discovery and obstinately jeered at his British critics snarling that his prehistoric man had not only political England against him but also the ecclesiastical world.
The latter part of the 19 century saw passionate discussions between liberal anthropologists and the conservative scientific community. Many forgeries and hoaxes surfaced during this period in a desperate effort to disprove the predominant theological basis that founded science originally.
Boucher de Perthes had only ever supplied as evidence, animal bones found along side lithic tools and never any human remains. He was questioned by his colleagues to produce evidence of fossilised human remains. By this time Boucher de Perthes was 75 years old. He died four years later in 1868 without providing the evidence he had so dearly wanted to find.