On a wet June day in 1997, a party of archaeologists met at the Swan in Hoxne to celebrate a short letter that changed how we understood our origins. John Wymer organised this commemoration of the Suffolk landowner John Frere who had written 200 years before to the Society of Antiquaries in London, about flint "weapons" that had been dug up in the Hoxne brickyard.
Not only did Frere recognise these stones as human artefacts, he was also the first to conclude they belonged to a "very remote period indeed' even beyond that of the present world".
Wymer devoted his professional life to the study of these artefacts, the handaxes of the Lower Palaeolithic. No one has ever been more knowledgeable or more enthusiastic about these simple stone tools. He knew they held the key to unravelling the story of our technological evolution and he pursued them from the gravel pits of Britain to the caves and fossil dunes of South Africa.
More than once Wymer described them as "enigmatic", since handaxes persisted, unchanged, for over a million years, and yet their precise function in the hands of our earliest ancestors remains tantalisingly out of reach. His answer was to shun speculation and place them in a much-needed geological context. This he did in a series of groundbreaking books that began in 1968 with Lower Palaeolithic Archaeology in Britain.
Palaeolithic archaeology is a demanding science. It requires detailed knowledge of Pleistocene (ice age) geology and the ability to extrapolate from small, often poorly provenanced samples, to the bigger story of human origins. The key to the brilliance of Wymer's fieldwork lay in his dedication to detail, captured in his exquisite technical drawings, and his exceptional ability to order and describe concisely. Listening to him, the mystery of how river terraces form and incorporate archaeological materials always made sense.
John Wymer received no formal archaeological training. Instead, he learnt his craft from his parents during their visits from the family home at Richmond in Surrey to the gravel pits along the Thames. Their most memorable discovery came in July 1955 when, aged 27, John found the third pieceofa400,000-year-old skull in a disused gravel pit at Swanscombe in north Kent. It had, he recalled, "the consistency of wet soap" but fitted neatly to the pieces found elsewhere in the pit 20 years before. Now regarded as Homo heidelbergensis, this remains the only fossil skull from the British Isles of any significant Pleistocene age.
His pursuit of handaxes and their makers led in 1956 to a job at the Reading Museum where he was well placed to undertake Palaeolithic research. But he also helped redesign the galleries, described the Moulsford gold torc, and in the early 1960s excavated the classic Mesolithic site at Thatcham.
In 1965 Wymer was recruited as field-work director by the University of Chicago. He led excavations at Hoxne and Clacton in England and at the giant coastal cave of Klasies River Mouth in South Africa that produced huge riches of stone artefacts and some human fossils. …