"...It is judicious to regard archaeological narratives of very early human history as probably largely false."

Robert G. Bednarik, The Human Condition, 2011.

Palaeoart* - the collective term defining all art-like manifestations of the distant past

Palaeolithic art* - the surviving palaeoart of the Pleistocene, from the Lower Palaeolithic to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic

* Definitions as published in the Rock Art Glossary, Rock Art Science: The Scientific Study of Palaeoart, Robert G. Bednarik, 2007, Aryan Books International, New Delhi.

Pierre-Figures (Figure-stones): The incorporation of iconography in stone artefacts

Since Boucher de Perthes first suggested the existence of figure-stones over 160 years ago archaeology has rejected the idea. It is widely accepted that Pleistocene people incorporated natural features, including the edges and surfaces of rocks in their palaeoart. Without any evidence Pleistocene archaeologists have rejected the suggestion that this practice extended to portable rocks.

"…His (Boucher de Perthes) credibility was low. His problem lay not in the many hundreds of genuine handaxes he had found, but in his exaggerated claims for ancient flint “sculptures” of horses, bears and humans. In fact these were all natural shapes; his claims laughable." Clive Gamble, 2008.

Fortunately some scholars have challenged the mainstream narrative.

“I have suggested that the most archaic art in the world consists of responses to edges or surface aspects, enhancing them or making them more interesting" Bednarik 1994.

Figure-stones from Fontmaure, France - a working hypothesis only

The following photographs are of lithics from the site of Fontmaure, France. They are all suggested to depict carnivores, in most cases bears. The majority are made from Jasper, some are made from sandstone, and others from Upper Tourain flint. They date from approximately 30,000 years ago or older. Jasper of Fontmaure found at a nearby site has been dated to around 600,000 years ago which suggests that activity at the Fontmaure site continued over a period in excess of half a million years. Technologically these artefacts could be described as ranging from 'Developed Acheulian' to 'Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition' to 'proto-Aurignacian'. They are all modified by Pleistocene hominins.

Read more about Figure-stones here.

Jasper flake shaped and retouched, Fontmaure.

Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile

Jasper flake shaped and retouched, Fontmaure.

Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile

all scales are 2 cm unless otherwise stated
 

Sandstone flake bifacially shaped and retouched, Fontmaure.

Interpretation: 'Bear head'

Jasper flake bifacially shaped, proximally and bilaterally retouched, Fontmaure. See illustration below.

Interpretation: 'Cave/juvenile bear head'

Jasper flake distally and bilaterally retouched, Fontmaure.

Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile

Pictured above. Jasper flake bifacially shaped, proximally and bilaterally retouched, Fontmaure.
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Wolf head?' - left profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Wolf head?' - right profile
   
Jasper flake, ventral. Interpretation: Partial 'Bear' - left profile Same item as left, detail. Interpretation: Partial 'Bear' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile, 'Bear head' (down) left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - roaring, right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - roaring, right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile, 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bear' - right profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bear' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - roaring, right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bears' - mating, left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bears' - mating, left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - roaring, right profile Same item as left. Interpretation: 'Bears' - mating, left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bears' - mating, left profile Sandstone, modified. Interpretation: 'Bears' - mating, right profile
   
Chalky jasper. Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile N.B., poor quality of flint. Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile Interpretation: 'Bear head' - left profile
   
Pierre-Figures (Figure-stones)

Stone is the most common of all the materials utilised by hominins which have survived from the Pleistocene. Archaeologists often base their narratives about the development of hominins, their cognition, culture and behaviour on the stone (lithic) evidence which is questionable for many reasons, not least because very little of the aforementioned information is recoverable by archaeology from material evidence anyway. Stones modified by hominins are viewed almost exclusively within the context of being 'tools'. The discussion of lithics is framed and bound within a context of 'tools' and 'tool-making'. It is a debate which systematically distorts the already taphonomically distorted "archaeological record". Although approaches are changing in some quarters, it is not uncommon for the analysis of lithic assemblages at palaeolithic sites to be merely an exercise in selection and confirmation bias with archaeologists applying favoured interpretations of meta-data describing fragmented remnants. This exercise is often made without recourse to taphonomic logic or metamorphology. It follows that the further back in time the stories created by archaeologists portend to the less likely they are to be an accurate interpretation of the past. The 'tool types' archaeologists construct are not falsifiable - they cannot be tested by scientific method. Consequently the cultural markers that are based on these imaginary 'tool types' have no relevance beyond their use in sustaining the dominant paradigm. A narrative which can safely be assumed to be largely false since it relates to a period in deep-time.

As demonstrated by the comments of Professor Gamble, many Pleistocene archaeologists adopt a position that hominins did not create exograms (external memory traces) in stone during the Early or Middle Pleistocene. Critically, unlike the imaginary 'tool type' forms conceived and refined by archaeologists throughout the 20th century, animal forms do have valid frames of reference in the palaeoart record. When evidence of figure-stones is presented it is commonly dismissed by archaeologists with suggestions of pareidolia and chance. This attempt at negating the validity of such a suggestion underscores the inability to approach the subject of figure-stones without bias. It is evident that pareidolia plays a critical role in the predictive processing of the visual recognition system in hominins. Pareidolia specifically concerns visual-ambiguity and the detection of salient features. That pareidolia plays a role in the production of palaeoart is without doubt. And, somewhat paradoxically, it also applies to the etic detection, identification and interpretation of ALL palaeolithic art (Bednarik 2016) - not just figure-stones. To ridicule the reasonable proposal of Boucher de Perthes over 150 years ago as Gamble does is not only disrespectful but it also negates to address the growing body of research that indicates that early hominins were creating exograms in stone.

Read more about the history of Figure-stones here.

 

More figure-stones from Fontmaure, France.
   
Interpretation: 'Human' - right profile. N.B. the 'nose' has suffered post-depositional damage and is reconstructed in the photo above (grey area). Interpretation: 'Human' - left profile, 'Human' - right profile
   
Jasper biface. Interpretation: 'Face' Sandstone. Interpretation: 'Face'
   
Jasper. Interpretation: 'Bison' Main item is sandstone. Interpretation: 'Bear head'
   
Left (Dorsal) Interpretation: 'Bear head' - right profile. Middle (Ventral) Interpretation: 'Flying bird of prey'. Right (Profile).
   
Jasper core. Interpretation: 'Flying bird of prey'.
   
Typical bifaces made of Jasper from Fontmaure. From Montrot, E., 1937, Station paléolithique de Fontmore (Vienne) In: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France. 34: 4. 193-213.
   
A brief history of Pierre-Figures (Figure-stones)

 

"But Boucher de Perthes... ...also secured his position as a paid-up member of the lunatic fringe. Alongside his perceptive observations of stratigraphy and artefacts in the gravel pits of Abbeville and Amiens he also illustrated many stone sculptures. His claims for heads of birds and humans in natural lumps of gravel undoubtedly delayed the full acceptance of his scientific observations."

Clive Gamble in “The Oxford Illustrated History of Pre-historic Europe”, 2006.

 

 

Contra Gamble, it was the insistence of the archaeology community to cling to a refuted creationist paradigm that delayed acceptance of his scientific observations. Eventually it was public support for the ideas of Darwinism that forced the community to follow suit by begrudgingly accepting the antiquity of the Palaeolithic assemblages. Since then, and despite Boucher de Perthes suggestions lithics have historically been perceived only in terms of 'tools' and 'tool-making' – a narrative increasingly facing criticism.

All tool typologies are “archaeofacts”. The bases of their taxonomies are those characteristics which are selected not by objectively determined criteria but by the anthropocentrising dynamics of human reality-building processes (Bednarik 2011). The etic selection of morphological characteristics is often conflated with emic nomenclatures – subsequently typological and technological determinations have been extensively misappropriated as cultural and even biological markers.

Figure-stones have been rejected with the same silence that Boucher de Perthes suffered and upon which he remarked:

“They employed against me a weapon more potent than objections, than criticism, than satire or even persecution – the weapon of disdain. They did not discuss my facts; they did not even take the trouble to deny them. They disregarded them.” Boucher de Perthes.

 
Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes was inspired by Casimir Picard (in the early 1820’s). He began his search for stone artefacts at Abbeville in 1825. His stone tools were dismissed as “a worthless collection of randomly picked up pebbles” by French archaeologists in 1858. Much to their embarrassment the next year Prestwich confirmed the authenticity and antiquity of the artefacts. One of the figure-stones collected by Boucher de Perthes from Abbeville before 1844. Reproduced with permission from “Boucher de Perthes: Les Origines Romantiques de la Préhistoire” Cohen & Hubin, 1989. This item presents overlapping flake scars of comparable size and consistency which alone cast sufficient doubt on the suggestion from Gamble that all the items collected were "natural lumps of gravel".
   
Published in 1901, this copy was presented to M. Boule by A. Thieullen. Interestingly, Thieullen noted that figure-stones often exhibited exaggeration of characteristic features. From the Conference of Pierre-Figures organised by Dr. Raymond 1909 and at which Herve first drew attention to the quality and clarity of figure-stones deriving from the site of Fontmaure.
   
William Newton's self-publication of a paper which was well received in 1909. He notes that Boucher de Perthes had emphasized the importance of being particularly cautious in identifying figure-stones recognising that nature also produced many similar items. Juritzky described flint specimens from the Levallois site in his publication of 1953. He reiterated Dharvent's conclusions that figure-stones should show definitive evidence of workmanship and have credible provenance.
   
Eiszeitkunst Im Nordseeraum published by Walther Matthes in 1969. A 'fish' from the Middle Palaeolithic site of Wittenbergen.
   
A 'bear' from the collection of Walther Matthes, Wittenbergen. A 'bear' from the collection of Walther Matthes, Wittenbergen.
   
Pradel's paper from the Bulletin of the Society of Grand-Pressigny 1971. Despite publishing many papers on the site of Fontmaure surprisingly this was the only figure-stone he publicly identified. Pradel concluded that the quartzite pebble had been modified but perhaps fearing rebuke tempered his claim by stating that he had only one piece of the puzzle. The Makapansgat Pebble - confirmed by Bednarik as a manuport - closely resembles reconstructions of Australopiths when orientated as suggested by Oakley in 1973. It was transported several kilometers from where it was found around 2.5 million years ago. Photo reproduced courtesy of Robert Bednarik.
   
Catalogue from the exhibition "Gedoogd verleden" held at the Museon Den Haag exhibiting items from Fontmaure, 2000. See images below.
   
Sandstone artefacts from Fontmaure used in promotional material advertising the exhibition at Den Haag. Jasper artefacts from Fontmaure used in promotional material advertising the exhibition at Den Haag.
   
Excerpt from "Animal Farm" produced by Jan Evert Musch following the World Archaeology Congress 1985.
   

Interpretation: 'Rhino' - right profile. Colne-Valley, England.

Finding artefacts, including figure-stones, in the proto-Thames (minimally 475,000 years old) prompted me to create this web site.

Interpretation: 'Face' - left profile. Colne-Valley, England.

In 2010 I presented a paper about figure-stones at the conference of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations. Full version

   

My marketing campaign for an exhibition at Watform Museum in 2015 played on the famous Rene Magritte painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). Of course, these artefacts (above) are not bears, anymore than Magritte's painting of a pipe was a pipe. Iconography consists of a referrent (the object being depicted) and a referrer (the depiction).

A scientific definition of art has been proposed by Robert Bednarik (2011) which is "a phenomena created by humans specifically for the purpose of appealing to the human sensory system". As such, he continues, it is one of the few phenomena which can be discussed objectively because all of the Crucial Common Denominators (CCDs) must be accessible to humans.

   
More recently (2016) Van Der Made exhibited proposed figure-stones from Fontmaure at the Rijks Museum. One of the exhibits displayed at the Rijks Museum from the collection of H. Van Der Made.
   
Notes: Most photographs have been produced using Poly Nominal Texture mapping (otherwise known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging). This web site is a work in progress. Regular updates are planned and the most recent update was made on: June 14, 2017 .
   

References:

Bednarik R. G., 2016, Rock Art and Pareidolia, Rock Art Research, 33 (2), 167-181.

Bednarik R. G., 2011, The Human Condition. Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects, Springer, New York.

 

Recommended external Links and Resources:

Robert G. Bednarik's academia.edu page - an extensive source of his publications

Lecture 2: The epistemology of Pleistocene archaeology

Lecture 1: Cognition and symbolism in human evolution

Related links:

Palaeoindian & Other Archaeological Stuff - by the late, great Tony-Baker. http://www.ele.net/ - I am indebted to Tony for his personal tutoring in flake mechanics and characteristics during my early days.

Resources/Links:

R. Wilson, 2010, Cultural Cobbles or a load of old cobblers, full version

R. Wilson, Cultural Cobbles, IFRAO 2010 pre-conference version

http://pleistocenearchaeology.blogspot.co.uk - my blog

 

Pierre-Figures/Figure stones (proto-art) and related links (inclusion here in no way denotes approval of content by Palaeoart.com):

Origins Net - extensive information on figure-stones and proto-art

Stone-age Art (DE) - Ursel Benekendorff

Figure stones (USA) - Alan Day

Palaeolithic finds (DE) - Heko Verlag

Curiosities from Wimereux (FR) - Charles Belart

Palaeolithic art magazine (IT) - Pietro Gaietto

   
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