Having a Dig at the Past; Night & Day

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 15, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Having a Dig at the Past; Night & Day


Byline: LEWIS WOLPERT

Fairweather Eden by Michael Pitts & Mark Roberts Century [pounds sterling]17.99 There's no doubt the ancient Britons were much more intelligent than anyone could possibly have imagined. Discoveries at Boxgrove have presented us with a completely new picture of life in West Sussex half a million years ago.

This remarkable book tells in thrilling form the nature of these discoveries and their significance.

At the centre of the book are archaeology and Mark Roberts. Roberts' first survey of Boxgrove was in 1982 when he was a needy student at the London Institute of Archaeology, struggling to find money for beer and pencils.

Just a few years later, with money from English Heritage, he would dig with a team of students. And the passion of both professionals and amateurs - volunteers - for helping with the work is one of the many striking aspects of the book.

One of the special features of the Boxgrove site was that the layers which the archaeologists were interested in sat underneath commercially valuable deposits of gravel that were being removed, thus giving immediate and easy access to the wonderful material contained below.

Fossils have long captivated the imagination; in 1819, the Reverend William Buckland argued that fossil remains in a cave in Yorkshire lent support to the Biblical story of creation and the Flood. The theories of Buckland and other enthusiasts from the last century - before Darwin - are here beautifully interleaved with the Boxgrove saga. After Darwin the search was for the `missing link' between humans and apes. But even more important than the bones of such a link is the mentality of our ancient ancestors; was there, when it came to intellect, anything missing?

Hominids, our ancestors after the split with the apes, came to Europe round about a million years ago - a time when England and France were joined by a land bridge at their closest parts. The first evidence of modern human remains dates back only about 50,000 years, so what the hominids were doing for that million or so years is of the greatest interest.

Much of field archaeology is just hard work and requires considerable discipline. Everything has to be very carefully recorded; the context of each find is crucial. How exciting, then, that at Boxgrove a human tibia and two teeth (molars) should have been found in layers that were dated as being nearly half-a-million years old. The tibia was found by Roger Pederson, one of those dedicated amateurs who have played such an important role in field archaeology. He thought it just might be human, and the experts confirmed it. In May 1994, the discovery made headline news - `Europe's oldest man has been found in southern England'.

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