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Turning geology into archaeology: how two businessmen changed the face of time

On the afternoon of 27 April 1859, two top-hatted businessmen, standing in a gravel pit outside the French city of Amiens, were about to change history. Joseph Prestwich and John Evans had brought with them a photographer, scientific witnesses, and a great deal of zeal and perseverance to answer a longstanding question: how old was humanity? They were not the first to put the question or seek its answer; nearby, in the small town of Abbeville, Jacques Boucher de Perthes, the Somme’s leading antiquary, had been trying to convince sceptics since 1841 of this scientific truth. But his claims for stone tools lying alongside the bones of extinct animals, such as mammoth, woolly rhino, and hippopotamus, were ignored.

Why did John Evans and Joseph Prestwich succeed where others had failed? The usual answer is that Boucher de Perthes, aged 71 in 1859, was wildly eccentric, possessed a butterfly mind, and was ordained for academic obscurity because of where he lived. Such traits did not help his cause. Sir Roderick Murchison, an eminent but glacially austere geologist, dismissed him as “an old fashioned gobemouche—very credulous and easily imposed upon.”

In 1859, Joseph Prestwich (left) was a wine merchant searching for the clinching evidence of great human antiquity, while John “Flint” Evans (right) was a paper manufacturer, widower, and coin collector.

But there is more to the story than English scientific rigour that allowed these weekend geologists to turn speculation into fact. They were bound by a geological bond, a practical passion that created strong networks based on friendship. Dr Hugh Falconer, Prestwich’s older friend, was a palaeontologist and, crucially, part of Darwin’s circle. Among their geological friends they counted John Lubbock, Darwin’s young neighbour and scientific protégé. And unlike Boucher de Perthes, a lifelong bachelor, they were supported by forceful, scientifically-minded women; Falconer by his niece Grace McCall, who married Prestwich in 1870, and Lubbock by Nelly Hordern, regarded by Darwin’s correspondents as smarter than her husband.

Connections counted. Their geological bonds threaded together the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Prestwich and Evans presented their evidence to both societies and published in their monumental journals. The photographs, taken in Evans’ words “to corroborate our testimony,” of the moment they discovered a stone hand-axe embedded in gravels containing ice age beasts were a masterstroke. Seemingly an unvarnished statement of the geological facts, but also gilding the ancient past with the excitement of cutting-edge Victorian technology.

The moment of discovery on 27 April 1859 at St Acheul, Amiens. The quarryman points to the stone tool embedded in ancient river gravels. Charles Lyell wrote of this photograph that it was “very valuable…conveying the undisturbed nature of the mass of gravel overlying the flint implement which nothing else short of visiting the place itself would do.” (Image via Bycro, CC BY-SA 4.0)

What they overturned was bad geology. Teaching that humanity was no older than 6000 years was an equivalent geological nonsense to saying the sun went around the earth. That age was calculated over many centuries by mythographers, among them Isaac Newton and Archbishop Ussher of Armagh. For Evans and Prestwich, it was a case of shifting the chronology for humanity from the leaves of the Bible to the layers of time. Prestwich and Evans’ goal was to show that human history had to be measured by a geological rather than Mosaic (the adjective from Moses) timescale. But estimating how long that timescale might be was, for them, unwarranted speculation. Now we have science-based dating and know the Amiens hand-axes are 450,000 years old, an age beyond anything imagined by the two persevering businessmen.Authenticating the stone tool was Evans’ task. Before 1859 he was unaware of such roughly knapped axes. Here, as historian of science Jenny Bulstrode has pointed out, his paper business helped as did a disputed patent involving his profitable envelope-making machine. Evans may have lost the case, but the forensic scrutiny of design and edges it entailed gave him a vocabulary to apply to validating ancient flint tools as human handiwork.

Did their revolution need Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published later the same year? No, and although they shared his interest in geology, Prestwich and Evans did not employ natural selection to bolster their time revolution. Instead, they followed Herbert Spencer’s progressive history where, over time, simple forms invariably become complex ones. Neither did the established or evangelical churches present much opposition. Newspaper reports were generally enthusiastic precisely because they had overturned what many recognised as bad geology. Above all it was a time revolution without triumphalism. They were scrupulous in giving full credit to Boucher de Perthes and the others who recognized that stone tools stood as a proxy for the rare skeletal remains of our remote ancestors. There was no flag waving for British science.

The layers of time at the Jardin d’Archéologique in the suburb of St. Acheul, Amiens. It was in a gravel pit near here that Prestwich and Evans made their discovery in 1859 that started the time revolution in human history. (Photo by Clive Gamble.)

Their quick-fire time revolution still reverberates. In 1859, pre-history was a shiny new science; in Evans’ phrase, “un-written history,” a bridge between archaeology and geology. But they also opened a chasm between unwritten and written history, evidence from artefacts and texts, which has proved difficult to close. Ever since, our earliest pre-history has stood apart from the rest of the human story that begins with the literate civilisations. A fitting tribute to their time revolution would be to drop the “pre-” and recognize that what makes human history in deep time is no different to any other time.

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