Monthly Archives: May 2023

Nathalie Richard, “From Dinan to La Plata. How a prehistoric axe travelled from a small provincial city in France to the La Plata Museum in Argentina”



Fig. 1 – Neolithic axe from France, Ameghino collection, La Plata Museum (Argentina). On the label « Robenhausien. Arr[ondissement] de Dinan. Côtes du Nord ». @N. Richard


On May 10, 1881, Gabriel de Mortillet (1821-1898), one of the prominent French prehistorians of his time, wrote to Fiorentino Ameghino (1853-1911), a scholar from Argentina who was then living in Paris. He offered his “colleague”, as he called him, three prehistoric objects and enclosed a sketch with his letter (Figure 2).

Fig. 2 – F. Ameghino, Obras completas. Vol. XX Correspondencia científica, La Plata, Taller de impresiones oficiales, 1935, p. 203.


All three objects came from French sites. A polished diorite axe, dated to the so-called “Robenhausian” period corresponding to the early Neolithic, and a bronze votive axe representative of that period, came from localities in the Côtes-du-Nord, now Côtes d’Armor, in northern Brittany. A carved point, representing the Solutrean period, came from Le Placard cave, in the Charente department.

The letter and the sketch are evidence, among others, of one of Ameghino’s key activities during his stay in Paris. Since the early 1870s, this teacher from the city of Mercedes in north-central Argentina had been searching the area and collecting both fossil bones and archaeological remains. By the mid-1870s, he was arguing that man had been contemporary with the great extinct animals of the Pampas and that human antiquity in these southern regions of America was equal to the antiquity now accepted in Europe. Circulating his ideas in the scholarly circles of Buenos Aires and in the Argentinian press, Ameghino also wrote to European scientists about his discoveries. In this way, he engaged in the debates about the antiquity of the American man that had been unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic for a decade.

In 1878, Ameghino traveled to Paris with his collection. He was in charge of the organization of the Argentinian exhibition of anthropological, archaeological and paleontological material at the 1878 World Fair. He spent three years in Paris and took advantage of this stay to meet influential scientists, mainly paleontologists, geologists, anthropologists and prehistorians. He attended several international congresses and became a member of the Société d’anthropologie de Paris in 1879, then of the Société géologique de France in 1880. While in Paris, he wrote a catalog of the items exhibited in the Argentinian anthropological exhibition, published together with Henri Gervais, the son of the professor of the National Museum of Natural History Paul Gervais, a catalog of the fossil mammals of South America, considered to be one of the most complete available at the time, and produced a long article in the Revue d’Anthropologie summarizing his ideas on the antiquity of man in the Pampas (Revue d’Anthropologie, 1879, 2, pp. 210-249). He also visited prehistoric sites and carried out excavations at Chelles (Seine-et-Marne), a site 20 kilometers northeast of Paris discovered in 1874, which he and Mortillet believed to be the oldest then known in France.

During his stay in Europe, Ameghino also put a lot of energy into selling and trading specimens exhibited by Argentina in 1878. He sold and bartered duplicates and casts from his own collection and collected, thanks to these exchanges, a set of European prehistoric objects and casts which allowed him to carry out comparisons with the remains discovered in Argentina. In his letters, he mentioned a total of more than 4000 European prehistoric objects so obtained through purchases, exchanges, donations and in excavations. The three items sketched by Mortillet were part of this set.

In 1886, Ameghino sold his collection to the province of Buenos Aires for inclusion into the Museo de La Plata, which had recently been founded by Francisco Moreno. He was then deputy director of this museum, before leaving to run the National Museum in Buenos Aires. The archaeological collection of the Ameghino is thus one of the important historical collections in the Museum of La Plata. It is now inventorized by the museum’s team of archaeologists under the direction of Mariano Bonomo, a task sometimes complicated by the lack of information on the provenance of the pieces. The Argentinian part of the collection is more easily studied, especially because the artefacts provided the factual basis for the important work that Ameghino published in 1880-1881 under the title La antigüedad del hombre en el Plata. The two volumes contain many plates, and the drawings are sufficiently precise to provide additional information about the objects. Some details can also be found in Ameghino’s catalogue of the Anthropological and Paleontological Section of the Argentine Republic at the Paris World Fair of 1878. Such is not the case for the European objects, for which no inventory was made at the time. Some of them carry indications written on labels or directly on the item. But others are completely devoid of such indications. Therefore, only a minority of these objects will probably be fully documented.

The Dinan axe sketched by Mortillet is one of the pieces that can be documented. It is the only one of the three specimens mentionned in the 1881 letter that has been found so far. Its shape and the inscription on the label, on which Mortillet’s handwriting can be recognized, allow us to identify it with certainty (Figure 1). This axe may have come from Mortillet’s own collection, or from excavations carried out in the area by the amateur Jules Lemoine, a watchmaker and jeweler from Lamballe, who gathered a remarkable set of stone and bronze axes in the 1870s and 1880s. This axe is typical of the duplicates that museums and private collectors kept specifically for exchange. It was given to Ameghino in return for fossil bones that he himself had donated to the Ecole d’anthropologie de Paris where Mortillet taught prehistoric anthropology.

This axe is fully representative of the economy of bartering between collectors. Its travel underlines the crucial role of duplicates in the circulation of objects. It also highlights the fluidity of the boundary between public and private collections. This axe may have been withdrawn either from Mortillet’s private collection, or from the Musée des antiquités nationales de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where Mortillet was in charge of the prehistoric collections. In any case, it came as compensation for a donation made to another institution, the Ecole d’anthropologie de Paris, in which Mortillet was a teacher. The trade occurred between some French public institutions and one or two private collectors. The intricacy of the exchange underscores the fact that the movement of specimens did not occur solely out of private into public collections – the only move that museum historiography has tended to focus on –, but that specimens also moved from public museums into private collections.

The Dinan axe in the La Plata Museum also illustrates the significance of types in the construction of collections and the interpretation of prehistory in the 19th century. It was chosen by Mortillet because it was, in his opinion, representative of the period called the Polished Stone Age, or “Robenhausian”. These type objects, which helped identify and place finds in a relative chronology, were described by Mortillet in an illustrated work setting out a form of canon, Le Musée préhistorique (1881). This book was a reference and guide for many prehistorians of the time, including Ameghino. The researchers tried to build up the most complete collections by gathering a series of artifacts corresponding to the one represented in the Musée préhistorique. The dissemination of these types allowed Mortillet to promote the timeline of prehistory that he had designed in the early 1870s. Furthermore Mortillet argued, as did many of his contemporaries, that the succession of industries observed in Europe had universal value, and that the European timeline was applicable throughout the world. Ameghino partly shared this conception and dated the remains found in Argentina by comparison with European objects and fauna-object associations. The European series brought back to Argentina and exhibited for a time in the Museum of La Plata thus provided a comparative reference.

To conclude, Mortillet sending Ameghino artifacts from the late Paleolithic and Neolithic periods may not be innocent, as the two scholars disagreed on the age of the remains found in Argentina. Ameghino claimed that some remains (incised bones and carved flints) proved the antiquity of the American man to be equal to that of the European. Mortillet was not convinced. In 1873, he examined, at the request of Paul Gervais, similar flints from Argentina and estimated that they dated from the early Neolithic (Journal de zoologie, 1873, 2, p. 233). In the Musée préhistorique, a single Argentinian flint is depicted. It is included in a plate dedicated to the Neolithic period (Musée préhistorique, 1881, pl. XLIV).


References :

Simón, C.; Bonomo, M.; Lanzelotti, S.; Suarez, G.A. “Materiality and Images: Ameghino’s Collection of La Antigüedad del Hombre en el Plata in the La Plata Museum, Heritage 2023, 6, 1605–1621.

Irina Podgorny, El sendero del tiempo y de las causas accidentales. Los espacios de la prehistoria en la Argentina, 1850-1910, Rosario, Prohistoria, 2009.

Irina Podgorny, Florentino Ameghino y hermanos: empresa argentina de paleontología ilimitada, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2021.

Nathalie Richard, Inventer la préhistoire. Les débuts de l’archéologie préhistorique en France, Paris, Vuibert-Adapt, 2008.

Un hueso de camélido grabado

De Marina L. Sardi

En las colecciones del museo BASA (Bonner Amerikas-Sammlung) de la Universidad de Bonn, muchos objetos, pertenecientes a sociedades indígenas precolombinas y contemporáneas de las Américas, están confeccionados con huesos. Entre los más frecuentes se distinguen algunos collares e instrumentos musicales. Existen también huesos sueltos que no presentan evidencia clara de haber sido modificados intencionalmente y algunos de ellos son huesos humanos de los que desconocemos cómo y por qué han sido incorporados en colecciones etnográficas. Otro objeto, que llamó mi atención durante mi visita al BASA, es único en su tipo dentro de estas colecciones y consiste en la primera falange de un camélido grabado con diseños iconográficos Tiwanaku (Fig. 1).

Estos huesos suelen ser bien conocidos entre quienes estudian los contextos arqueológicos de la región andina porque los restos de camélidos son elementos conspicuos; la primera falange, además de ser abundante y tener buena preservación, es un elemento clave que permite identificar especies de este diverso grupo taxonómico (Gasco et al. 2014). La importancia de su estudio es que estos animales han jugado durante milenios un rol fundamental en los modos tradicionales de vida de las sociedades de los Andes Centro-Sur; no solo como transporte y fuente de alimentos y lana, sino que también están asociados a la cosmovisión, la cultura y las prácticas espirituales y religiosas (Vilá 2015). Así lo sugiere el objeto que encontramos en Bonn.

Figura 1. Diferentes vistas del objeto. Museo BASA, Universidad de Bonn, Alemania.

Su longitud varía entre 70 y 73 mm. La orientación del objeto a lo largo de su eje longitudinal, siguiendo la iconografía, sigue una dirección distal-proximal; es decir, el extremo distal del hueso (que articula con la segunda falange) constituye el extremo superior y que está atravesado por un orificio por el cual pasaría algún hilo; por lo que se trataría de un colgante. Los grabados representan un personaje central, frontal y antropomorfo, cuyos brazos están unidos al cuerpo, la mano izquierda abierta extendida y apoyando la palma en el cuerpo, en tanto que la derecha está cerrada en una posición anatómicamente imposible. Por encima del rostro hay una banda de zigzags que podría representar un tocado; debajo del rostro se representa un objeto radiado que podría ser un pectoral y completan el conjunto iconográfico dos bandas que ocupan todo el perímetro, una con forma de plumas y, por debajo, otra de zigzags. Este tipo de representación nos remite a los monolitos Ponce y Bennett y otras obras líticas del Estado de Tiwanaku en los que los personajes centrales representarían a algún miembro de la elite gobernante, ancestro o deidad (Agüero Piwonka et al 2003; Viau-Courville 2014).

El Estado de Tiwanaku se extendió aproximadamente entre los años 600 y 1.000 AD y su principal centro de desarrollo se dio en torno del lago Titicaca, si bien alcanzó diversas regiones del sur de Perú, este de Bolivia y partes de Chile y Argentina. Sin embargo, desconocemos de dónde exactamente y cómo se obtuvo este colgante. Su buen estado de conservación, para tratarse de un objeto pequeño realizado en hueso, sugiere que pudo haber sido parte de un ajuar funerario exhumado para su venta. Los archivos no aportan demasiada información a este respecto. El inventario del Museo BASA señala que fue comprado en 1981, por un valor de 5 marcos alemanes, junto con otros ocho objetos de Bolivia (Potosí) y Ecuador, a A. Seufert, sin más detalles sobre su identidad. El mismo fue catalogado con el número 3528, como “Hueso con decoración geométrica incisa (motivo Tiahuanaco)” (Fig. 2). Otros objetos que componen la colección son: alfiler de plata en forma de cuchara, cabeza de animal de arcilla, figura de barro, pequeño toro de plata, adorno de plata, placas de joyería y taza pequeña de plata.

Figura 2. Inventario con el registro de objetos vendidos por A. Seufert. Museo BASA, Universidad de Bonn, Alemania.

Objetos como este colgante no son tan visibles en la literatura arqueológica, que se ha concentrado en elementos más monumentales y durables de Tiwanaku, como la Puerta del Sol y los monolitos mencionados. Pero son, no obstante, visibles en los sitios de venta de antigüedades, ofrecidos como pieza de arte o talismán (Etsy 2023, LiveAuctioneers 2023). En dichos sitios suelen ofrecerse certificados de autenticidad y se afirma, inclusive, que se han realizado estudios para garantizar el origen geográfico y cronológico. Quién hizo los estudios y con qué métodos, lo desconocemos. Pero muchas de estas preguntas, así como las preguntas sobre el modo en que este colgante llegó a una universidad a orillas del Rin, podrán resolverse con investigaciones en los archivos y el estudio del objeto.

Agradecimiento: a María Cecilia Páez, de la División Arqueología del Museo de La Plata, por aportar datos relevantes.

Citas bibliográficas

Agüero Piwonka C, Uribe Rodríguez M, Berenguer Rodríguez J. 2003. La iconografía Tiwanaku: el caso de la escultura lítica. Textos Antropológicos 14, 47-82

Etsy. 2023. Estela de hueso grande de Tiwanaku c. 650 – 1050 d.C. Descargado el 30 de marzo de 2023 de

Galeria Contici. 2017. Tiwanaku bone talisman. Descargado el 31 de marzo de 2023 de:

Gasco A, Marsh E, Kent J. 2014. Clarificando variables osteométricas para la primera falange de camélidos sudamericanos. Intersecciones en Antropología 15, 131-138.

LiveAuctioneers. 2023. Pr. Tiwanaku carved llama bone carvings. Descargado el 30 de marzo de 2023 de:

Viau-Courville M. 2014. Spatial configuration in Tiwanaku art. A review of stone carved imagery and staff gods. Boletín del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino 19, 9-28.

Vilá B. 2015. Los camélidos como parte del patrimonio biocultural de los Andes. Revista Rúbricas 9, 40-51.

A carved Bone

by Marina L. Sardi

In the collections of the BASA Museum (Bonner Amerikas-Sammlung) at the University of Bonn, many objects from pre-Columbian and contemporary indigenous societies in the Americas are made of bone. Among the most frequent are necklaces and musical instruments. There are also loose bones that show no clear evidence of having been intentionally modified and some of them are human bones of which we do not know how and why they have been incorporated into ethnographic collections. Another object, which caught my attention during my visit to BASA, is unique among these collections and consists of the first phalanx of a camelid carved with Tiwanaku iconographic designs (Fig. 1).

These bones are usually well known among those who study archaeological contexts in the Andean region because camelid remains are conspicuous elements; the first phalanx, besides being abundant and having good preservation, is a key element that enables the identification of species of this diverse taxonomic group (Gasco et al. 2014). The importance of their study is that these animals have played a fundamental role for millennia in the traditional ways of life of the societies of the Central-Southern Andes; not only as transport and a source of food and wool but also associated with the cosmovision, culture and spiritual and religious practices (Vilá 2015). This is suggested by the object we found in Bonn.

Figure 1. The carved bone in different views. Basa Museum, University of Bonn, Germany.

Its length varies between 70 and 73 mm. The orientation of the object along its longitudinal axis, based on the iconography, follows a distal-proximal direction, i.e. the distal end of the bone (which articulates with the second phalanx) is the top end and is pierced by a hole through which a thread would pass; so as, it would therefore be a pendant. The engravings depict a central, frontal, anthropomorphic figure, whose arms are attached to the body, the open left hand extended and resting the palm on the body, while the right hand is closed in an anatomically impossible position. Above the face there is a band of zigzags that could represent a headdress; below the face there is a radiating object that could be a pectoral and the iconographic group is completed by two bands that occupy the entire perimeter, one in the form of feathers and, below it, another of zigzags. This type of representation is reminiscent of the Ponce and Bennett monoliths and other lithic structures from the Tiwanaku state, in which the central figures might represent a member of the ruling elite, ancestor or deity (Agüero Piwonka et al 2003; Viau-Courville 2014).

The Tiwanaku state extended approximately between 600 and 1000 AD and its main centre of development was around Lake Titicaca, although it reached various regions of southern Peru, eastern Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. However, we do not know exactly where and how this pendant was obtained. Its good state of preservation, for a small object made of bone, suggests that it may have been part of grave goods exhumed for sale. The archives do not provide much information in this regard. The BASA Museum inventory states that it was bought in 1981, for DM 5, along with eight other objects from Bolivia (Potosí) and Ecuador, from A. Seufert, with no further details as to its identity. It was catalogued under the number 3528, as “Bone with incised geometric decoration (Tiahuanaco motif)” (Fig. 2). Other objects in the collection are: silver spoon-shaped pin, clay animal head, clay figurine, small silver bull, silver ornament, jewellery plates and small silver cup.

Figure 2. Inventory containing objects sold by A. Seufert. Basa Museum, University of Bonn, Germany.

Objects such as this pendant are not as visible in the archaeological literature, which has concentrated on more monumental and durable elements of Tiwanaku, such as the Gate of the Sun and the aforementioned monoliths. But they are nonetheless visible on antiquities sales websites, offered as artwork or talisman (Galería Contici 2017, Etsy 2023, LiveAuctioneers 2023). Such sites often offer certificates of authenticity and even affirm that studies have been carried out to ensure geographical and chronological origin. Who did the studies and by what methods is not known. But many of these questions, as well as questions about how this pendant came to be in a university on the Rhine, can be answered by archival research and study of the object.

Acknowledgement: to María Cecilia Páez, of the División Arqueología of the Museo de La Plata, for providing relevant data.

Bibliographic citations

Agüero Piwonka C, Uribe Rodríguez M, Berenguer Rodríguez J. 2003. La iconografía Tiwanaku: el caso de la escultura lítica. Textos Antropológicos 14, 47-82

Etsy. 2023. Estela de hueso grande de Tiwanaku c. 650 – 1050 d.C. Descargado el 30 de marzo de 2023 de

Galeria Contici. 2017. Tiwanaku bone talisman. Descargado el 31 de marzo de 2023 de:

Gasco A, Marsh E, Kent J. 2014. Clarificando variables osteométricas para la primera falange de camélidos sudamericanos. Intersecciones en Antropología 15, 131-138.

LiveAuctioneers. 2023. Pr. Tiwanaku carved llama bone carvings. Descargado el 30 de marzo de 2023 de:

Viau-Courville M. 2014. Spatial configuration in Tiwanaku art. A review of stone carved imagery and staff gods. Boletín del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino 19, 9-28.

Vilá B. 2015. Los camélidos como parte del patrimonio biocultural de los Andes. Revista Rúbricas 9, 40-51.