Monthly Archives: February 2024


by Mariano Bonomo

CONICET-División Arqueología, Facultad de Ciencias Naturales y Museo Universidad Nacional de La Plata E-mail:

My case study centres on the provenance of the French archaeological collections of Florentino Ameghino (1853-1911), currently housed at the Museo de La Plata in Argentina. The collection primarily consists of lithic materials, alongside casts, bones, and pottery from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze periods of France and Belgium. The study aims to elucidate how Ameghino obtained his European collection through fieldwork, purchases, or exchanges with amateurs and specialists in European Prehistory. This research is part of the SciCoMove project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie (grant agreement No 101007579).

Florentino Ameghino resided in Paris from 1878 to 1881 (see Podgorny 2021). During this period, he actively participated in the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1878, where he exhibited archaeological and paleontological materials from the Pampean region in Argentina. These Pampean materials were specifically included in the exposition’s special catalogue of the Argentine Republic (1878). A comprehensive representation of these materials can be found in 18 plates within his catalogue book titled La antigüedad del hombre en el Plata (1880-81), originally published in Paris (Simón 2023). Presently, this collection is predominantly housed at the División Arqueología of the Museo de La Plata (MLP), with a partial inventory conducted by Luis María Torres (1878-1937) in 1915. Ameghino’s Pampean and European archaeological collections have remained within the institution since he was the Secretary-Deputy Director of the MLP between 1886 and 1888. While the Pampean materials underwent extensive research, the European collection lacked comparable documentation and study. Notably, no catalogues or inventories exist, only the objects themselves.

To begin with, one can examine the provenance information that can be gleaned from Florentino Ameghino’s publications and scientific correspondence (Torcelli 1915). Ameghino contributed five papers to the journals of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris and the Société géologique de France, focusing on prehistoric sites of Chelles. Chelles was a series of quarries situated on the right margin of the Marne valley between Chelles and Brou-sur-Chantereine (Seine et Marne), approximately 20 km from Paris. The initial description of Chelles was provided by Louis Chouquet (1878), who noted the presence of lithic bifacial tools along with bones of ancient extinct fauna, including Elephas antiquus, Rhinoceros merckii, and Cervus belgrandi. Ameghino’s work (1880) supplemented Chouquet’s report and categorized the stratigraphic associations of prehistoric objects and animal bones from Chelles into three successive epochs: two from the Paleolithic (Chelléen and Moustérien) and one from the Neolithic (Robenhausien). Through his fieldwork, Ameghino made a significant contribution to the site’s geology, aiding in the industrial and paleontological characterization of the layers. This contribution remained valuable and subject to ongoing discussion for decades (Roy 1984). The significance of Chelles lies in the discovery of flint bifacial axes in the deepest and oldest grey sand layers. These axes, similar to those found at the ancient site of Saint-Acheul, were associated with remains of extinct animals from a warm climate epoch, including Elephas antiquus (also found in Saint-Acheul), Rhinoceros merckii, Cervus belgrandi, and hippopotamus. This fossil faunal association, coexisting with human-made tools, differed from those of the later Mousterian cold climates. Indeed, the warm epoch was specifically identified by Gabriel de Mortillet (1821-1898) as a characteristic of the early stages of the Quaternary.

Based on publications and scientific correspondence, it is evident that Ameghino acquired materials from Chelles through his recurrent fieldwork efforts between 1880 and 1881. In one of his presentations to the Société d’Anthropologie (Ameghino 1881), he noted that continuous exploration of the site had led to an expansion of his collection. Additionally, in a letter to Chouquet (April of 1881), he stated that he brought back more than 300 objects from Chelles site. This information aligns with the content of a letter (Figure 1), presumably written by Ameghino and housed in the Gabriel de Mortillet Archive at the Universität des Saarlandes, Sarrebruck, Germany. According to this letter, the objects recovered by Ameghino at the Chelles archaeological site from July 1880 to March 1881 amounted to 401 lithic artifacts and 167 bones plus fragments. Furthermore, the description of the Ameghino collection of fossils and antiquities, acquired in 1886 for the MLP, includes a mention of a collection of fossils from Chelles, comprising large molars of ancient elephants and rhinoceroses. Additionally, it notes a collection of knapped axes and other stone instruments from Chelles (Farro 2008). The documentation highlights that this collection is considered the most complete set of fossils from that locality and that the collection of artifacts representing the oldest Quaternary epoch is unparalleled and cannot be found in any French museum. Podgorny (2021) shows that since December of 1880, Ameghino planned to visit Saint-Acheul and other locations in Amiens (Somme) to explore the renowned Paleolithic sites of the northern region of France. Additionally, he intended to visit Abbeville during this time to observe the Quaternary terrains. These sites, situated on the middle and high terraces of the Somme River, were crucial in providing the first French evidence demonstrating the ancient origin of humanity and the coexistence of humans with large extinct mammals. Basing his classification on the discovery of bifacial flint axes in these locations, with Saint-Acheul being the most typical and well-known site, Gabriel de Mortillet (1869) first defined the Acheuléen epoch as the first human industry of the Lower Paleolithic. However, since the site of Saint-Acheul exhibited a mixture of bifaces with Mousterian triangular points from the subsequent epoch, Mortillet introduced the term Chelléen in 1878. This epoch is characterized by the oldest flint amygdaloidal bifaces, found at the terrace base of Chelles. Notably, Chelléen was considered by Mortillet as the oldest epoch in his classification of the Quaternary.

Figure 1: Letter housed in the Gabriel de Mortillet Archive at the Universität des Saarlandes, Sarrebruck, Germany

After being deposited at the MLP in the 1880s, the Ameghino collection remained unstudied for over seventy years. In the 1950s, Austrian prehistorian Oswald Menghin took on the task of revising Ameghino’s European collection as part of the scientific work conducted by the Chair of Prehistory at MLP, where Menghin was a professor (Memoria CP 1958). The 1958 report from the Chair of Prehistory at MLP Institute indicated that Menghin, along with his teaching assistant Horacio Delfor Chiappe, was preparing a publication on the collection. However, only a brief one-page note about the collection was published by Chiappe in 1967. According to Chiappe, the Ameghino includes 3,588 lithic artifacts from various French archaeological sites and localities, including Chelles, Saint-Acheul, Laugerie-Basse, Le Moustier, Bergerac, Colombier, Issy-les-Molineaux, La Quina, Abry Soucy, La Reviére, Joinville, Braine, Duzancy, Wimy, Coeuvres et Valsary, Le Placard, and Les Eyzies. Notably, materials from Chelles and Saint-Acheul are present, but materials are absent from Abbeville. Additionally, materials from other sites and locations appear in the collection that do not correspond to those mentioned in Ameghino’s publications or scientific correspondence. To extract valuable information from the objects of the Ameghino European collection, the first step involved addressing the collection’s deteriorating condition. Conservation and documentation efforts were initiated by the staff of the División Arqueología of MLP in 2006 and are still ongoing, with additional objects awaiting curation and counting. Presently, the recorded European objects number 1,323, encompassing lithic artifacts (n=1,265), bones (n=10), pottery sherds (n=7), and casts (n=41) from France (n=1,081), Belgium (n=74), and European sources yet to be determined (n=168). A standardized database with 63 common categories for each object was employed to record relevant information. For photographic documentation, established standards and parameters were adhered to, ensuring uniform characteristics for all digital repository images. The digitized materials have been uploaded to the Culturalis repository: (Figure 2), facilitating online access to a significant portion of Ameghino’s collection. This digital availability not only aids in preserving the original artifacts but also enhances accessibility to information, serving research and educational purposes.

Figure 2: Ameghino´s collection in Culturalis digital repository

As the collection was organized, the inscriptions and labels attached to the objects started to provide clues. Numerous data from 26 sites and localities in different departments in France began to emerge (Table 1). It is interesting to note that there is only a small part of the assemblage that could be identified with Chelles sites, but there are many materials without any information, some of them are bifaces (n=33), mostly amygdaloid and ovoid and made of flint of the same type recorded in Chelles. In this regard, in a letter from Moreno to Dr. Dn Manuel Gonnet, in addition to the Chelles materials, a numerous series of stone tools (and some bone tools from the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods) from Le Moustier, Solutré, Langerie-Basse, and Brumiquel, France, were mentioned in Ameghino’s collections. As well as a series of stone tools and pottery from the polished stone period, from various points in the northern region of France (Farro 2008).

Table 1: French archaeological sites and localities recorded in División Arqueología of MLP

DepartmentArchaeological sites and localities
AisneAbri Soucy, Braisne, Coeuvres et Valsary, Duzancy, Wimy
CharenteBrives, Le Placard
DordogneBergerac, Cours-de-Pile, La Madelaine, La Quina, La Reviére, Laugerie-Basse, Laugerie-Haute, Le Moustier, Les Eyzies
Seine et MarneChelles
SommeAmiens, Saint-Acheul
S/DN.O. Stat. Leval, Roqueville

In addition to materials from Chelles, Saint-Acheul, and Amiens, which may have been partially or entirely recovered by Ameghino, there are also materials from numerous rock shelters from the Dordogne region, near other major Paleolithic center of French Prehistory in the 19th century: Les Eyzies. For example, in the MLP collections, there are lithic artifacts from the type site of the classic shelter of Le Moustier. Mortillet (1869) characterized the Moustérien epoch of the Middle Paleolithic with Le Moustier artifacts, especially the triangular points, in his typological scheme of technological transformational progress in prehistoric times. Some MLP objects indicate the year 1873. Another type site recorded in MLP collections is La Madeleine. The tools found at this site, used as fossil directors, were also employed by Mortillet (1869) to define the Magdalénien period of the Upper Paleolithic. The labels attached to these artifacts indicate the year 1863. The entry of archaeological pieces from La Madeleine in 1863 and Le Moustier in 1873 is recorded in the old entry books of archaeological objects at the Musée des Antiquités nationales (now named Musée d’Archéologie nationale) in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, as per my consultation. Could Ameghino’s MLP collection be part of that set? Everything seems to indicate no, primarily because the numbers on the labels of the pieces found in La Plata do not match the content of those same numbers in the French museum’s entry book. In MLP collections, there are also artifacts from the Paleolithic sites of Les Eyzies, Laugerie-Basse, and Laugerie-Haute with the same label as La Madeleine and the same date of 1863 (Figure 3). Laugerie-Basse was a famous site because it was one of the richest Upper Paleolithic sites in the Les Eyzies area. The dates of these materials from Dordogne are before Ameghinos visits France in 1878, so he must have obtained them through other people. Indeed, according to scientific correspondence with Estanislao Zeballos (year 1878), at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878, Ameghino sold duplicates and paleontological objects from the Pampas and acquired numerous collections of prehistoric objects from Europe.

Figure 3: Lithic artifacts from La Madeleine and Laugerie of MLP collections

Those who initiated work at the mentioned sites in the Vézère valley in the Dordogne in 1863 were Édouard Lartet (1801-1871) from France and Henry Christy (1810-1865) from England (Lartet and Christy 1875). As Richard (2023) indicated, pieces from La Madeleine, Laugerie-Basse, and Les Eyzies indeed bear an ‘L’ for Lartet and a ‘C’ for Christy on their labels, indicating that they are from their collections. The name of La Madeleine on these labels is in English, suggesting that the objects belong to Christy’s collections. In the Prehistory section of the Musée de l’Homme, there is a large number of pieces from the Lartet collection with the same labels as those in the MLP. In this French institution, the name of La Madeleine is also in English: La Madelaine. Apart from the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle de Paris, the Musée d’Archéologie nationale, and the British Museum, where Lartet and Christy’s collections primarily remained, these collections distributed numerous pieces with similar labels to various institutions worldwide (Richard 2023). This widespread exchange of materials between individuals and institutions, beyond the original collectors like Lartet and Christy, contributed to the global dissemination of the emerging discipline of prehistory.

It is important to note here that some French objects of División Arqueología of MLP may belong to the collection of Francisco Pascasio Moreno. Moreno’s collections included stone objects from Syria, France, and England, donated by the British Museum (Memoria DGPBA 1882). For instance, among the archaeological objects from Moreno’s collection exhibited between July and August of 1876 at the Segunda Exposición Científica e Industrial organized by the Sociedad Científica Argentina in Buenos Aires, 20 arrows, scraping axes and knives from the Quaternary man stations of Madelaine (France) and Spiegues (Belgium) were presented (Farro 2008). It is noteworthy that in the case of La Madeleine, the name of the site is written as it appears in Lartet and Christy labels, and Chiappe (1967) did not record this site within Ameghino’s collection.

The reciprocal exchange of objects among colleagues was a common practice at the time. In a letter from Gabriel de Mortillet (May of 1881), he expresses gratitude to Ameghino for donating two molars of Rhinoceros merckii from Chelles to l’Ecole d’Anthropologie de Paris for the Broca Museum, named in honor of Paul Broca, who established the Ecole in 1875. In the same letter, Mortillet mentions gifts for Ameghino, including a polished diorite axe from Dinan (Côtes-d’Armor), found in MLP (Richard 2022), and a Solutrean point from the Grotte du Placard (Charente), recently discovered in MLP collections (Figure 4). The third item, a votive bronze axe from Lamballe, was not found, but it was exhibited at the Exposición Continental in Buenos Aires in 1882, along with a selection of French items from the Ameghino collection (Chellean, Achellean, Mousterian, Solutrean, Magdalenian and Neolithic objects) (Podgorny 2021). Similar to the rhino molars, other collections of Ameghino remain in France, such as 50 casts of fossil vertebrates from South America, which were entered into the Paleontology section (MNHN).

Figure 4: Solutrean point from the Grotte du Placard (Charente) of MLP Collection

In summary, Ameghino’s French Prehistoric collection at MLP comprises materials acquired through diverse means. Objects from Dordogne, Charente, and Côtes-d’Armor were obtained through exchanges, purchases, and gifts. Materials from La Madeleine, Laugerie-Basse, and Laugerie-Haute seem to originate from the collections of Lartet and Christy, possibly including those from Le Moustier. Some items, such as those from La Madelaine, may be part of Moreno’s collections acquired from the British Museum. Gifts from de Mortillet include materials from Le Placard and Dinan. In contrast, objects from Chelles, and likely from Amiens and Saint-Acheul, were acquired through Ameghino’s fieldwork. This diversity in sources sheds light on how Ameghino assembled his French Prehistoric collection through varied scientific connections in the 19th-century community.


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Ameghino, F. 1880. Sur quelques excursions aux carriéres de Chelles. Superposition du moustérien au chelléen et du robenhausien au moustérien. Bulletin de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris 3: 638-646.

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Catalogue spécial de la section anthropologique et paléontologique de la République Argentine a l’exposition Universelle de París 1878

Chiappe, D. H. 1967 Nota preliminar sobre la colección Ameghino de material perteneciente en especial a la prehistoria europea existente en el Museo de La Plata. Antiquitas 4: 10.

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