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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access April 20, 2022

A Little Mystery, Mythology, and Romance: How the “Pigmy Flint” Got Its Name

Stephanie F. Piper
From the journal Open Archaeology

Abstract

The term “pigmy flint” was coined in 1895 and frequently used to describe small flint implements, many of them microliths, in British and Irish archaeology during the earliest decades of the 20th century. It was briefly adopted in France over a decade later to describe the same tools, translated as “silex pygmée”, the simultaneous emergence of the French term “microlithique” saw the latter become more widely used, however. The Anglicised “microlith” was not commonly incorporated into British archaeological terminology until the mid-1920s. The international interplay in nomenclature and the changing nature of the terminology that was used to describe such “very small implements of flint” are mirrored by the different attitudes of early archaeologists to these tools. They were dismissed by some and marvelled at by others. Moreover, the definitions that surround these terms are embedded within the problematised acceptance of the “Mesolithic” as a distinct chronological entity. The recognition of morphologically similar “pigmies” across the world sparked questions of migration, function, and chronology – in its broadest culture-historical sense – thus shaping the way in which this microlithic technology and its association with the Mesolithic came to be understood by early archaeologists in Western Europe.

1 Introduction

In 1872, the term “Mesolithic” had been coined by Hodder M. Westropp, a period by which “Man, emerging slowly from the primitive and barbarous stage, becomes a nomadic hunter and fisher” (Westropp, 1872, p. 8), whose tools were “fabricated for the purpose of the chase, for killing game of all kinds…” (Rowley-Conwy, 1996; Westropp, 1872, p. 65). These implements were seen to characterise the second and third stages of tool manufacture in the human race’s advancement towards civilisation, which took the form of flint flakes and flint chipped into shape, by way of contrast with “rough” flint implements of the Drift, and the eponymous tools of the subsequent Polished Stone Age (Lubbock, 1869; Westropp, 1872, Table facing p. 1).

At the same time, another tool type was becoming widely reported from across the European continent, as well as India, the Near East, and Japan (Figure 1). These were “specialised and diminutive forms of flint implements” (Abbott, 1896, p. 137), which played a fundamental role in the attempts of early archaeologists to reconcile the Great Hiatus between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic (Peake, 1934, p. 105). Dedicated attention to the form and manufacture of such tools emerged at the turn of the 20th century, which began to shape the definitions of iconic periods of culture history at the time – the Magdalenian, Campignian, Azilian, and the Tardenoisian. It is to these minute implements, and the remarkable contribution of a keen-eyed clergyman, that this paper now turns.

Figure 1 
               Illustrations of “pigmy flints” from Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire and Vindhya Hills, India, showing their similarity in form (Gatty, 1905b, p. 296).

Figure 1

Illustrations of “pigmy flints” from Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire and Vindhya Hills, India, showing their similarity in form (Gatty, 1905b, p. 296).

2 Reverend Reginald A. Gatty and the Pigmy Flints of Yorkshire

Reginald Alfred Gatty was born in 1844, the eldest son of Reverend Dr Alfred Gatty, a published theologian, and Margaret Scott, a children’s author, seaweed collector, and marine botanist (Plaisier et al., 2016; Venn & Venn, 1947). Gatty graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1867 with a Bachelor of Laws, after which he returned to York and was ordained as Deacon (Figure 2). Gatty’s ecclesiastical career kept him local to the counties of North and South Yorkshire. In 1869, he became the Rector of Bradfield, near the city of Sheffield, and later Rector at Hooton Roberts, eighteen miles away.

Figure 2 
               Portrait of the Rev. Reginald Alfred Gatty, LL.B; date unknown. Image reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives and Picture Sheffield.

Figure 2

Portrait of the Rev. Reginald Alfred Gatty, LL.B; date unknown. Image reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives and Picture Sheffield.

Gatty spent much of his later life actively involved in archaeology and began collecting flint artefacts in the first of his two parishes during the 1880s. He recovered this material walking in the upland moors, as well as prospecting in the Don valley, and later excavating at Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire – the place he deemed the “home of the pigmies” (Gatty, 1901, 1902, 1905a; 1905b). Gatty was extremely diligent in his collection and retention of material and paid particular attention to the conditions under which it could be found, as well as the areas most dense in artefacts. Within twelve years of searching at Hooton Roberts, he professes to have collected “perhaps 20,000 flints” (Gatty, 1901, p. 99). A catalogue of these collections, which are held between Doncaster, Rotherham, and Sheffield museums was published in 1920, 6 years after his death (Armstrong, 1920).

The Reverend sought to disseminate his work widely, speaking to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, as well as exhibiting many of his finds (Gatty, 1904). He appealed to both professionals and amateurs alike to search for these implements and “contribute to the sum of scientific knowledge” (Gatty, 1895; 1905a; 1905b, p. 293). He is lauded in later publications for the significance of his findings, which brought what he termed “pigmy flints” to the attention of the wider archaeological community (Armstrong, 1920; Evans, 1897; Paterson & Lacaille, 1936). The entry under his name in the Alumni Cantabrigienses describes Gatty as “an authority on microlithic flint implements” (Venn & Venn, 1947, p. 24).

Gatty was well connected in archaeological circles. Letters of correspondence from 1908 to 1913 between himself and the amateur archaeologist William Morfitt discuss his “pigmy flints” in Yorkshire and Scunthorpe, Morfitt’s excavations of later prehistoric pit-dwellings in Holderness, and his thoughts on other archaeological sites, finds, and theories (DDX7/41). They both worked with the geologist and antiquarian William Boyd Dawkins, and he was very good friends with Canon Greenwell, whose opinion on flint artefacts was often sought. Greenwell appears to have had a strong influence in shaping Gatty’s conservative and cautious approach in discussing theoretical aspects about the possible chronology of the “pigmy flints.” He often repeats the advice from Greenwell to simply state the facts as he observes them (Gatty, 1900, p. 24; 1902, p. 22). This advice was well founded, given that these were the decades during which attempts to fully establish the nature of the transition between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic, and define relative chronologies and cultural type facies, were debated at length. Nevertheless, Gatty does propose a “distinct origin” for these tools, noting: the variety of types as so remarkably different to conventional Neolithic forms; that their absence from sites of this later age was too coincidental that they had hitherto gone unnoticed; and the coincidence of morphology over vast geographic and stratigraphic contexts (Gatty, 1902).

3 Earliest Identifications: Flints of Minute and Delicate Work

The first edition of Sir John Evans’ authoritative tome Ancient Stone Implements was published in the same year as Westropp’s book, yet it was Evans’ work that set the precedent for the prehistoric periods in Britain, and conspicuously without the as-yet undefined Mesolithic (Evans, 1872; Rowley-Conwy, 1996). By comparing the content of this edition with that of the second edition published twenty-five years later, a more nuanced chronological resolution for the significance of the recognition of these very small tools emerges. In the first edition, Evans makes only a passing reference to minute flakes in relation to what is clearly a single-platform microblade core, identified at Weaverthorpe, North Yorkshire. He states, “Such small objects are so liable to escape observation, that though they may exist in considerable numbers, they are but rarely found on the surface of the ground,” but that they are known from the “cave dwellers of the Reindeer Period” from southern France, and as barbs of bone harpoons from Scania (Evans, 1872, p. 249).

In the intervening years, several publications and presentations to archaeological societies in England began to highlight discoveries of very fine and delicately worked flint points. These primarily emerged from the upland regions of northern England: Lancashire, in particular March Hill and Marsden (Honywood, 1877; Law & Horsfall, 1882; March, 1887), and Gatty’s early work in West and South Yorkshire (Gatty, 1895). Discoveries were also made in Cambridgeshire and Sussex, the latter where the first British kjökkenmödding was excavated by William Lewis Abbott at Hastings (Abbott, 1896). It is somewhat telling of attitudes at the time therefore, when Gatty states that his initial finds in the 1880s were dismissed –  “I could not get the authorities on flint implements to allow that they were genuine tools” (Gatty, 1905a, p. 294; 1905b, p. 24713).

Moreover, unmistakable parallels with similar forms reported from India (Figure 1), Egypt, Syria, France, and Belgium (Black, 1892, pp. 409–411; Brown, 1889) prompted speculation that the people who manufactured these tools had migrated along this route (Brown, 1889; Gatty, 1900). In discussing this, Abbott provides a clear sense of the contemporary prevailing attitudes to race, and the conflicting ideas of migration and innovation:

Whether these were the fathers of the so-called Indo-European branch of the human family is another question, for if they were we should be able to answer the question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” in the affirmative, a conclusion which I fear would not prove acceptable to many of our leading Continental and English anthropologists (Abbott, 1896, p. 145).

The publications from this decade therefore provide the earliest undisputable identification of what we recognise as microliths. These early reports detail a variety of forms – crescentic, triangular, and trapezoid, with one or more worked points or sides, as well as the exceedingly fine secondary flaking and, most significantly, their diminutive dimensions (Gatty, 1900, and quotes from Carlyle and Pierpont within). Gatty, upon overcoming his disbelief that they were not waste chips, professed his amazement for the skill and patience in the hands and eyes of the makers of these “perfect” implements (Gatty, 1895, p. 35); Dr Colley March remarked on the “minuteness and delicacy of workmanship” (March, 1887, cited in Gatty, 1895), and Abbott described them as “charming little objects” (Abbott, 1896, p. 137). In every instance, their collectors emphasised that it was only through the retention of all fragments, and subsequent examination using a hand-lens, was it possible to determine whether they had been deliberately manufactured; due to their minute size, they could be too easily discarded as waste (Gatty, 1895, p. 36; Honywood, 1877, p. 180).

Overall, it seems that on the strength of such an increasing corpus of evidence the “authorities” acquiesced and in the second edition of his book, Evans directly credits Gatty and his contemporaries for drawing “special attention” to “a series of minute tools of flint” (Evans, 1897, pp. 324–325). Like Westropp before him, Evans asserted that the emergence of similar tool forms in different geographic regions did not necessarily imply any connection between their users but was the result of adaptation to meet their needs (Evans, 1897, p. 325; Westropp, 1872, pp. 70, 121–122).

Findings of “pigmy flints” became frequently reported from counties across eastern and southern England for the next fifteen years, including Gatty’s further work in Lincolnshire (Gatty, 1901, 1902; Hunt, 1908), from Suffolk (Dutt, 1907; Lawrence, 1900; Sturge, 1912), Essex (Kenworthy, 1901), Sussex (Anonymous, 1915; Toms, 1915), and Cornwall (Anonymous, 1907; Arnold, 1913; Kendall, 1907, 1914, 1915), as well as in London (Lawrence, 1900) and Bournemouth (H., 1913). In eastern Scotland around the Dee, the earliest find of a “pigmy” that was recognised as such was made in 1906 –  “of which I am extremely proud,” wrote the finder (Paterson, 1913, p. 104), and with just cause. Paterson reports sending this piece immediately to Gatty for verification, who “requested me to forward it to Dr Joseph Anderson, at the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh, as he (Dr Anderson) did not believe that pygmy flints were to be found in Scotland” (Paterson & Lacaille, 1936, p. 420). From there, Anderson was convinced and further discoveries of pigmy flints became widespread (e.g. Callander, 1928; Corrie, 1916; Mason, 1927; Saville, 2004); although illustrations of microliths found in Berwickshire and Ayrshire are present from as early as 1895, they are simply labelled as “Flint Implements of a peculiar type” (Scott, 1895, p. 168, pl. 2; Smith, 1895, in Saville, 2004).

Despite Evans’ early acknowledgment of these tools, the scepticism and lack of awareness in their recognition, and pervading antiquarian fascination with rather more aesthetically impressive artefacts, were a continued source of exasperation for Gatty. He criticised the way that their “nondescript” nature had led to them being overlooked by collectors, who were far more concerned with “high class” arrowheads and suchlike, which precluded clearer recognition of the distribution of these artefacts in Britain (Gatty, 1900, p. 21). In a letter to William Morfitt a decade later, he complains “I shall not go to the British A. [Association for the Advancement of Science] meeting. I have lost all interest in their proceedings. I sent my flints to York when the meeting was there, but got no attention drawn to them.” (letter dated 24th September 1910, DDX7/41). March had been met with similar rebuff by the anthropological experts of the British Association on three separate occasions (March, 1901, p. 125). These frustrations were echoed by Hunt, who also rebukes the “few people [who] are prepared to question the reality of what are called Pygmy Flints,” based on the fact these forms were not described in the “Standard Books” of Evans, Boyd Dawkins and the Canon Greenwell, despite their later endorsement – including, ironically, in a speech made at the York British Association meeting in 1906 (Hunt, 1908, pp. 6–7).

Consequently, the few individuals of the time that had observed the coincidence of these same tool types in Europe, Britain, and its colonies were faced with several problems, not least of which the legitimacy of their artefacts was often in doubt. These collections represented a suite of implements for which the level of skill and craft involved in their manufacture was at odds with the existing notion of ancient savages, and invoked the possibility of the spread of an unknown race that made them. Furthermore, it became increasingly clear that these tools could not be fully reconciled with the established chronologies of the time. Typologically, they neither accorded with the great handaxe industries recognised from the Palaeolithic nor with the arrowheads and polished celts of the Neolithic; stratigraphically they were not of the Drift, but sometimes buried beneath deep peat or dune formations, or scattered on the surface (Gatty, 1902; Law & Horsfall, 1882; March, 1887, cited in Gatty, 1895). Consequently, it is hardly surprising that these minute artefacts were initially rejected as genuine. It was Gatty who thus called for collections of these “pigmy flints” to be made across the world, in order that “the pre-historic story of our race might have considerable light thrown upon it.” (Gatty, 1895, p. 37).

4 Of Thunderstones and Elf-Shot: How the Pigmy Flint Got Its Name

During the late 16th and 17th centuries, there was a renaissance in the field of natural history, when naturalists and antiquarians began to question the pervading belief in the supernatural origin of “thunderstones,” or ceruania (Goodrum, 2008). Initially thought to be pieces of stone that were retrieved from the earth where lightning had struck, they were “believed to be ‘elf-darts’ or ‘elf-bolts’ hurled by the fairies in their efforts to injure man and beast” (Munro, 1890, p. 335). More often than not, these were curious geological specimens and prehistoric stone artefacts, which were used as amulets and in folk medicine against bewitchment, and their origins in folklore is evidenced the world over (e.g. Dowd, 2018; Evans, 1897; Goodrum, 2008; Irving, 1861). By the 18th century, it was generally recognised that many of the so-called thunderstones were in fact stone artefacts of ancient human origin, although arguments that “elf-shot” and other prehistoric monuments were evidence of an ancient fairy race of pygmy people continued into the 20th century (Goodrum, 2008; MacCulloch, 1932; MacRitchie, 1890, 1909).

Gatty was no stranger to the tales of dwarves, fairies, and elves – his mother, after all, was a children’s writer. In his publications aimed at more popular audiences, he confesses to the “delightful illusions” of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and other childhood myths (Gatty, 1900, p. 15; 1905a; 1905b). As such, Gatty indulges in this fantasy:

In applying the term “pigmy” to the small flint implements described in this paper I am perhaps adopting a mythological expression which has no real connection with the matter in hand… Why should not fairy rings, fairy pipes and elf-bolts still retain their romance? And are we quite certain no brownies ever danced on this matter-of-fact world of ours?

I must say I was astonished when a very able man, whose archaeological work has been recognised by the best authorities, gravely pronounced that my three thousand pigmy tools had been fabricated by a pigmy race. I will not enter here into his reasons for coming to this conclusion, but I felt they were enough to justify me in throwing a little mystery over the tiny implements by using the word “pigmy” (Gatty, 1900, p. 15).

Who this “very able man” was remains its own mystery. In reality, Gatty’s use of the word “pigmy” to describe these diminutive flints was only ever on account of their size, which he states plainly on multiple occasions (e.g. Gatty, 1905a; 1905b; Gatty in Sutcliffe, March, Gatty, Boyd Dawkins, & Parker, 1913).

The Reverend was strongly influenced by Pierpont’s work in Belgium during the early 1890s and based on the similarities between their artefacts tentatively accords that his collections were likely to be of Neolithic date. However, he remains forthright in asserting that these tools were not found in association with polished stone artefacts that so characterised the later period and was therefore inclined to the belief that they were made by “a particular people,” who lived alongside those that fashioned the larger polished stone tools (Gatty 1900; 1902, p. 22). In doing so, this introduces an element of ambiguity between what is presented as playful allegory and accordance with accepted discourse. Given that there is no further explanation of who these people may have been, it is left to the imagination of the reader to speculate on whether they may have been like the characters of those stories of make-believe. Consequently, despite his continual and adamant refutations of any correlation between the size of the artefacts and the people that made them, the association with people of small stature, either real[1] or fantastical, seems to have become pervasive (Knowles, 1900–1902, p. 364); enough so that later discussions of the implements are almost always prefaced with a caveat to the contrary (e.g. Arnold, 1913; Corrie, 1916; Holmes, 1907; McCabe, 1910).

5 From Pigmy Flints to Microliths

Gatty’s first publication to introduce the term “pigmy flint” was made in 1895. In tones that echo Westropp, he called for a better classification of flint implements and proposed “leaving the beaten track of ordinary flint weapons and entering upon what is almost a novel phase” (Gatty, 1895, p. 36). What he meant by this, as I understand it, is that later prehistoric tools – arrowheads, scrapers, and knives – were already easily classified by purpose and function, as were the “big Palaeolithic weapons of the drift,” whereas these tools were far more difficult to categorise (Gatty, 1895, p. 36). This challenge was compounded by the difficulties in ascertaining their chronological affinity. The morphology of the “pigmy flints” did not fit with the arrowheads that Westropp used to illustrate his Mesolithic “flints chipped into shape” (Westropp, 1872), nor did they resemble any of the chipped axes and celts presented in Brown’s attempt to elucidate the Mesolithic (Brown, 1893, pp. III–IV).

Sir John Evans fully endorsed the term in 1897, albeit with a slight change of spelling, when describing Gatty’s work in recovering ‘some thousands of these ‘Pygmy flints’ from the Don valley (Evans, 1897, p. 325). He placed the description of these tools within the Neolithic chapters of his book, resolutely denouncing Westropp’s term ‘Mesolithic’ on the grounds that no intervening period could be applied between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ‘when we know neither when the one ended nor when the other began’ (Evans, 1897, p. 702). The term “Mesolithic” was not to become widely accepted in academic discourse for another third of a century (Rowley-Conwy, 1996), with parallel implications for the chronological association of these artefacts.

Gatty’s seminal publication in The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist in January of 1900 (with the original spelling, and promoted as a short note in Nature, Anonymous, 1900) drew together his observations from thirty years of collecting in Yorkshire, firmly cementing his reputation on the subject. From this, and undoubtedly bolstered by Evans’ validation, the use of “pigmy” or “pygmy” flint became a popular descriptive term as discoveries were made across the United Kingdom (Jackson, 1933; Saville, 2004).

The history of this term has a short, but significant, trajectory in France. The year after Gatty first published on “pigmy flints,” the French pre-historian Adrien de Mortillet described the flint implements found in sites around the Tardenois region as “petits silex taillés à contours géométriques [small flints cut with geometric outlines],” and henceforth establishing the Tardenoisian as a cultural type-facies (de Mortillet, 1896; Rozoy, 1994).[2] , [3] By 1905, “pigmy flint” had been incorporated into French archaeological literature, when Cartailhac refers to “silex pygmées” in a paper on the question of possible forgeries from the Dordogne (Cartailhac, 1905, p. 241). However, variations of de Mortillet’s descriptions, in which the geometric element was the most crucial feature, were more commonly preferred (e.g. de Mortillet, 1900; Rutot, 1907).

Questions regarding the transition between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic were also occurring in France at this time. In August 1900, the 12th international congress on prehistoric archaeology and anthropology took place in Paris. During the fifteenth session of the congress, artefacts from transitional industries were presented. In particular, the Abbé Breuil describes “quelqes stations donnent l’industrie tardenoisienne, à petites pièces géométriques [some stations yield the Tardenoisian industry, with small geometric pieces]” and a discussion ensues in which the notion of a new subdivision for the Neolithic is proposed, but not agreed upon (Verneau, 1902, pp. 24–28). Notably, Evans was present in this session, and although he contributed little to the session proceedings, he would have been all too aware of the similarity of the Tardenoisian forms to the “pigmies” of Britain, and the subsequent debate cannot have escaped his notice.

The first use of the word “microlith” in an archaeological sense[4] was to describe the sepulchral dolmens of Europe and Asia, in which numbers of smaller stones were used in their construction, by way of contrast to single, large megaliths (Fergusson, 1872, p. 40). Descriptions of megalithic architectural construction of this nature, such as the Microlithe détruit de Saint-Nicolas-de-Brem, “constitué par quelques petits blocs de quartz, [made up of a few small blocks of quartz],” and the Microlithe du Moulin-Cassé, continued in French literature until around 1906 (Baudouin & Lacouloumère, 1906, pp. 306–307). It is in 1907 that the earliest reference to “microlithic,” as understood in its present sense, was made by the Abbé Breuil. In describing the upper Solutrean deposits in La Ferrassie cave, Breuil lists a range of fauna and lithic types including “outillage microlithique abundant [abundant microlithic tools]” (Breuil, 1907, p. 33).

The following year, Déchelette’s influential Manuel d’Archéologie Préhistorique, Celtique et Gallo-Romaine used both “silex pygmée” and “microlithique” to describe the Tardensoisian industries as defined by de Mortillet (Déchelette, 1908, and see footnote 2). This book was perhaps the most internationally significant publication of its time, marking the cross-over of the use of both terms, and a secure association with a typological facies that became the go-to text for several decades. Déchelette was cautious in the assignation of this industry to a definite time period however and preferred to describe it as a special facies of the Neolithic era, rather than a distinct level (Déchelette, 1908, pp. 332–337; de Saint-Venant, 1908, p. 201). From this point on “microlithique” became the preferred term in French literature, albeit primarily to describe industries of Magdalenian affinity; the connection with the Tardenoisian endured (e.g. Anonymous, 1909; Fleury, 1909; Pittard, 1909; Raymond, 1909; Viré, 1909). Consequently, “silex pygmées” rapidly fell out of use, and only sporadically appears in French texts beyond the end of the decade as an anachronistic term (Camille, 1913; Daniel, 1932, p. 424; Octobon, 1925, p. 50).

The rapid association of “pygmy flints” with the Tardenoisien (and astoundingly numerous other classifications for the transitional industries emerging from France, e.g. Abbott, 1909; Evans in Anonymous, 1916; Camille, 1913; Sollas, 1915; Sturge, 1912) contrasts starkly with the slow rate of adoption of “microlithique” into English. Its first appearance occurs in 1910, following a lengthy criticism of the term “pygmy” in association with these implements, and that the immediate effect of this word was to invoke the notion by some that they were produced by a race of people small in stature (McCabe, 1910, p. 75). Consequently, McCabe suggests “microliths” as a better descriptive term, since they were more probably made “by a normal race of men,” in contrast to any implied persons of diminutive stature (McCabe, 1910, p. 77). McCabe was a prolific English author – writing and translating around 200 books in his lifetime. It is assumed based on the preface of his book that McCabe’s acquisition of the term was directly derived from French sources. Although McCabe ultimately places pygmy flints in the Neolithic section of the book, he reports that by this time the Mesolithic is “generally recognised” as filling the Palaeolithic-Neolithic hiatus, and comments on its affiliation with the Azilian (McCabe, 1910, pp. 13, 63, 77). This also hints at a developing adoption of “Mesolithic” in some circles; an earlier suggestion that the pygmy flint-producing race in should be placed in the “Messeolithic” was made by Hunt (Hunt, 1908, p. 6).

McCabe’s preferred term appears in the publication of a Special Meeting and Exhibition of Pigmy Implements held at Manchester Museum in 1912 and attended by those who had first identified the tools in England: Reverend Gatty, Dr. H. Colley March, as well as W. H. Sutcliffe and W. A. Parker who, accompanied by Boyd Dawkins and Gatty, had continued to search on the hills around Lancashire, just as the “early practical pioneers” Law and Horsfall had done over thirty years previously. There is no mention of the word “microlith” within the various papers and addresses given, however. This is despite March’s admission at disliking the word “pygmy” (following the Greek etymology) for similar reasons to McCabe – ‘it is rather ambiguous and suggests a race of dwarf men, and as to this we know absolutely nothing.’ (March in Sutcliffe et al., 1913, p. 9). This was defended by Gatty, who accused the British Museum for having changed his name “pigmy,” meaning “small,” ‘to “pygmy,” a term implying a pygmy race’; his regret at the way in which this has created a misunderstanding is palpable (Gatty in Sutcliffe et al., 1913, p. 15). Henceforth, different terms for the industry, and variants of the typological names of the main forms based on their probable function were mooted. Gatty proposes the terms previously utilised by Mr Carlyle in describing the flints from India, whereas March proposed several terms that are familiar, as well as a set of apparently invented French expressions, for none of these are mentioned in the French literature either before or since (Table 1).

Table 1

Nomenclature of small flint implements proposed at the Special Meeting and Exhibition of Pigmy Implements, Manchester Museum, 1 February 1912 (after Sutcliffe et al., 1913, p. 27)

Generic names
Gatty March McCabe Sutcliffe French nomenclature proposed by Dr Colley March
Pigmy Pygmy Midget Microlith Minute Caillettes
Specific Names
Gatty March Evans Sutcliffe French nomenclature proposed by Dr Colley March
Triangular Graver Penknife Carving tool Shouldered implement Carding tooth Epaulette = (a little shoulder)
Pointed Awl Borer Alenette (a little awl)
Crescentic Saw Semi-lunar Fish Throttle Lunette (a little moon) Sciette (a little saw)
Rhomboidal Rhombette (a little squarish tool)

During this meeting, the stratigraphic situation in relation to the chronology of these flints is also considered. March surmises that, given they are always found at levels below barbed arrowheads, “the midget-makers belonged to an earlier…race than what we understand as neolithic, and I suggested, for them, the name Mesolithic” (March in Sutcliffe et al., 1913, p. 8), clearly having revised his opinion from previous works (e.g. March, 1887, 1901). Not only does this highlight another early use of the term “Mesolithic” but also an element of the controversy surrounding its use – in contrast to the common acceptance described above by McCabe, March states he has been ‘told that the word has not ‘caught on’’ (March in Sutcliffe et al., 1913, p. 12). Gatty is far more hesitant in this regard and offers no opinion on the matter, beyond quoting at length the complex Palaeolithic chronologies that were emerging from France (Gatty in Sutcliffe et al., 1913 and quotes from Sturge and de Mortillet therein, pp. 18–22). Despite these efforts, William Boyd Dawkins’ contribution to this meeting ultimately further entrenches the already established tradition, pronouncing that, based on Déchelette’s magnum opus, the material from England is of Neolithic date. Thus, on his authority, the Mesolithic association is once again cast into uncertainty (Dawkins in Sutcliffe et al., 1913, p. 24).

Another attempt to introduce “microlith” into the English archaeological lexicon was made in 1915 by the American archaeologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. The French connection here is unambiguous. Osborn spent three weeks touring the archaeological sites of the country in the company of that pre-eminent trio – the Abbé Breuil, Hugo Obermaier, and Émile Cartailhac, and uses the Anglicised “microlith” alongside “microlithique” through most of his book (Osborn, 1915).

At the same time, a young Miles Burkitt – who was to become the first dedicated prehistoric lecturer in archaeology in Britain, at the University of Cambridge – was under the tutelage of Breuil, having met the Abbé in 1912 or 1913, and worked extensively with Obermaier and Cartailhac in France and Spain (Díaz-Andreu, 2013). Following an inevitable hiatus in archaeological works during the First World War, it was Burkitt’s book Prehistory, published in 1921, that fixed “microlith” irrevocably into English-speaking archaeological terminology. Burkitt acknowledges not only the influence of those great French scholars but also the contribution of Osborn, and Déchelette’s manual as ‘a mine of information’ (Burkitt, 1921, pp. vi–viii). Burkitt uses “pygmy flint” and “microlith” interchangeably throughout the volume, and it is from this point that there is a surge in the latter’s use by established archaeologists in Britain over the course of the following decade (e.g. Armstrong, 1924; Buckley, 1921, 1924; Childe, 1925).

As the various microlith-dominated transitional industries of north-west Europe were gradually assimilated under the long-contested umbrella term “Mesolithic” (Balch, 1923; Burkitt, 1925; Bury, 1934; Reid Moir, 1933, 1934; Peake, 1934; Rozoy, 1994), “pygmy flint” continued to fall out of use. By 1935, it had met the same fate as its French counterpart, and only occasionally continued appear in publications for interested members of local archaeological societies (Saville, 2004, pp. 8–9).

6 Conclusion

The contribution of the Reverend R. A. Gatty’s work to the burgeoning understanding of the Mesolithic at the turn of the 20th century was small, but profound. His use of the term “pigmy flint” sparked the imagination with mystery and intrigue, and so fuelled the search of these tiny implements across Britain amongst amateurs and archaeologists alike, where previously they were only known to a handful of individuals. During the forty years in which the phrase was used in Britain, and more briefly on the Continent, it provided a mot clé by which the lithic industries of the periods that eventually became known as the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic could be better described and understood. Despite the innocence of Gatty’s rationale in coining the term as he did, it seems that its problematic ambiguity – simultaneously racially, philosophically, and literary – that brought the need for a new appellation. With a greater refinement of the type-facies of microlithic industries emerging from France, and their influence on academics such as Burkitt who was so instrumental in formally establishing the prehistoric discipline in British universities, so the romantic notion of the “pygmy flint” waned into obscurity.


Special Issue published in cooperation with Meso'2020 – Tenth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, edited by Thomas Perrin, Benjamin Marquebielle, Sylvie Philibert, and Nicolas Valdeyron


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the organisers of the conference for the opportunity to present this paper, which has been a subject that has occupied my curiosity for some years. I would also like to thank the staff at the East Riding Archives for enabling access to Gatty’s letters, and for help in the decipherment of his handwriting. My thanks are also extended to Peter Rowley-Conwy and Don Henson for their encouraging comments on the manuscript, and to Neil Gevaux for remedying the figures. The research was largely undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and coupled with my poor command of French, any inevitable errors and omissions remain entirely my own.

  1. Funding information: The author states no funding involved.

  2. Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interest.

  3. Data availability statement: Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.

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Received: 2021-02-08
Accepted: 2021-11-16
Published Online: 2022-04-20

© 2022 Stephanie F. Piper, published by De Gruyter

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