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2.1: Archaeology in Europe

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    The early excavators sometimes attributed the stone tools they would find to mythological creatures, such as elves, and not to humans. These conclusions were largely a result of limited frames of reference and perspectives that guided their research. During this early period of archaeology, researchers and the general public in Western Europe and the United States believed that the Bible was a literal, historical document. Consequently, they understood that humans did not exist before Biblical times, which restricted human history to approximately 4,000 years at that time. Anything discovered that appeared to be incongruent with this strict interpretation of the Bible, such as “primitive-looking” stone tools and structures, was attributed to non-human sources.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sir William Dugdale

    However, in 1656, the British prehistorian and antiquarian, Sir William Dugdale, in his work, the Antiquities of Warwickshire, identified stone tools as "weapons used by the Britons before the art of making arms of brass or iron was known" (Ashmore & Sharer, 2014, p. 29). Although originally met with skepticism and ignored, the scientific community of the day eventually accepted that these stone tools were evidence of human activity in prehistory, the span of time before recorded history in written form.


    The span of time before recorded history in written form.

    Three Age System

    Once it was accepted that early stone tools were made by humans, early archaeologists looked for a way to classify and date the past. A breakthrough came when the Danish antiquarian/archaeologist, Christian J. Thomsen, grouped artifacts that were found near in proximity to each other into three chronological categories (Fagan, 2006, p. 7). Stone Age included stone tools with little to no metal, the Bronze Age included stone and bronze tools, and finally, the Iron Age, which included iron tools. The work of Jens Jacob Warsaae provided further support for Thomsen's theory. His excavations of burial mounds, middens, and other sites revealed that Stone Age artifacts were deposited in a sequence: stone artifacts at the bottom oldest level, followed by bronze artifacts in the middle level, and iron artifacts in the top youngest level (Fagan, 2006, p.7). This historical model of dating artifacts, based on tool technology, became known as the three-age system (see Figure 2.1.2).


    A theoretical scheme constructed to understand a specific set of data or phenomena (Ashmore & Sharer, 2016, p. 282).


    An accumulation of debris and refuse from human activity.

    three-age system

    A model of categorizing artifacts in the Old World into three historical time periods based on the materials used in tool production: Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

    As research continued, the timeline and sequence of the three-age system became more detailed. In 1865, Sir John Lubbok, distinguished the skills used in producing stone tools and defined them as the Old Stone Age and New Stone Age. Eventually, the Stone Age was divided into Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic Period (2.5 mya to 10,000 BC), comprised of stone tools that were chipped to form edges and points (Ashmore & Sharer, 2016, p.35). The Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic Period (10,000 BC to 8,000 BC), in which the tools were still chipped and flaked stone but also composite tools, such as bows and arrows as well as the use of ceramics in art objects. Finally, the New Stone Age, or Neolithic Period (8,000 BC to 3,000 BC), is when humans began to transition to the cultivation of plants and animals as well as the use of ground or polished stone tools. Likewise, the Bronze Age could be divided into two periods: the Copper Age, in which tools were made of copper, and the Bronze Age, when copper and tin were mixed to produce bronze metal works.

    Three Stage System.jpeg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Three-Age System

    Cultural Evolution

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Unilineal Cultural Evolution

    The three-age system contributed to the development of early anthropological theory about culture. Continued research and data from geologists, biologists, and botanists provided evidence that humans had existed far longer than had been interpreted from the Bible. Scientists were challenging literal Biblical translations and were drawing new conclusions. culminating in Charles Darwin’s work on evolution via natural selection, which described how species had changed over time. This became established as part of the realm of science and general public knowledge. Darwin’s work fundamentally changed the study of biology and human history. Researchers tried applying his premises to other fields, including the study of human civilizations. Herbert Spencer, E.B. Tylor, and William Henry Morgan independently applied Darwin’s principles to the study of civilizations across the globe, developing approaches that collectively became known as the theory of Unilineal Cultural Evolution, sometimes referred to Progressive Social Evolutionary Theory (PSET), in which human civilizations were seen as points on a continuum and as having progressed in a linear fashion along this continuum from savagery to barbarism and, ultimately, to enlightened, civilized society (see Figure 2.1.3). It was assumed that all cultures originated as primitive societies and were in the process of becoming more civilized—more evolved. These theorists placed cultures along the continuum using particular diagnostic characteristics that included the adoption of agriculture, the development of a writing system, tool technologies that relied on metallurgy, and belief systems focused on a single god. Proceeding along the continuum (toward civilization) indicated the level of progress a culture had achieved.

    Perhaps it is not surprising that the traits of a "civilized" society essentially described the Western European culture of the theorists and developments made possible by the environmental conditions in those areas. Metallurgy, for example, was possible because Western Europe was endowed with many natural ores. However, the data they collected in other geographic regions of the world did not always fit the model. They labeled many early cultures such as the Maya, Aztecs, Incas, and North American tribes as having “devolved”—moved backward on the continuum—because they found evidence that those cultures had possessed “civilized” traits at one time but no longer did.

    Unilineal Cultural Evolution

    The belief that cultures moved through various stages (savagery, barbarism, and civilization) of development according to different levels of rational knowledge resulting in a culture that resembled Western European society. Sometimes referred to as Progressive Social Evolutionary Theory (PSET).

    Unilineal Cultural Evolution has long been abandoned for its flawed concept of progress and biased view of culture and society. However, the three-age system remains a primary method in placing prehistoric artifacts into a chronological timeline in Europe, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia.


    Ashmore, W., & Sharer, R. J. (2014). Discovering our past: A brief introduction to archaeology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.


    Figure 2.1.1 William Dugdale by Wenceslas Holler. (1665). Under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Figure 2.1.2 The Three Age System. (2021). By Crystal Scheib under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

    Figure 2.1.3 Unilineal Cultural Evolution. (2020). By Crystal Scheib under  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

    A derivative work from

    "Digging into Archaeology:A Brief OER Introduction to Archaeology with Activities" by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros, Faculty (Anthropology) at Cosumnes River College & American River College, ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI), 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    2.1: Archaeology in Europe is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.