Darwin among the Archaeologists: The John Evans Nexus and the Borneo Caves

By Sherratt, Andrew | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Darwin among the Archaeologists: The John Evans Nexus and the Borneo Caves


Sherratt, Andrew, Antiquity


The two decades from 1860 to 1880 were one of the most formative periods in the emergence of modern attitudes to scientific inquiry in England, in what were later to become the specialized disciplines of the natural and human sciences. At this high point of Victorian prosperity a small group of scholars established both the principal questions for future research, and the character of the institutions which were to pursue them, in increasingly professional ways, during the following century. Most of the men (for it was an overwhelmingly male community) who were involved with these developments had independent means, either as inherited wealth or as a result of their own involvement in business affairs; and in consequence they were less restricted in pursuit of their interests than many of their successors who occupied paid positions in scientific institutions and universities (Levine 1986; cf. Chapman 1998). Many, indeed, were notable polymaths, and the committees which convened to organize the prosecution of a range of inquiries on topics of natural history and broadly anthropological or archaeological questions were composed of the same set of recurring names. This short note records one such episode in 1878, towards the end of that favoured period, which brought together some names which are famous in the narratives of their own disciplinary histories, and illustrates the social and financial ties which linked them.

John Evans and the Victorian scientific community

(Sir) John Evans (1823-1908, FRS 1864, KCB 1892) was typical of the knowledgeable amateur participation made possible by a successful business career as a paper-maker (Evans 1943). Beginning with an interest in numismatics (and especially the pre-Roman coins of Verulamium, near to his factory at Nash Mills in Hertfordshire), he published a pioneer article on Celtic coins in 1849, a major work on the subject, The Coins of the Ancient Britons in 1864, and an application of Darwinian natural selection to numismatics in 1875; but he had already been a Fellow of the Geological Society since 1857, and even published original observations on the brain of Archaeopteryx in 1865. However, his reputation as a natural scientist stemmed principally from his involvement (with his friend (Sir) Joseph Prestwich, then a wine-merchant but later Professor of Geology at Oxford) in making known the discoveries made by Boucher de Perthes in the Somme gravels around Abbeville during the 1850s. Both Englishmen had connections with France through their respective business dealings. Prestwich was particularly concerned with Pleistocene (`drift') deposits and their extinct faunas, Evans with antiquities; so that reports of the association of flint artefacts with elephant and rhinoceros bones aroused their curiosity and led to their famous trip with other members of the Geological Society in May 1859 when they observed the association directly (Grayson 1983; Van Riper 1993; Coye 1997). Prestwich's paper reporting these observations to the Royal Society that month was matched by Evans' paper on the flints to the Society of Antiquaries in June, following a meeting at Nash Mills with its Director, (Sir) A.W. Franks of the British Museum (Evans 1860; 1862; Prestwich 1861). Evans also gave a verbal account of the flints at the Royal Society meeting, to an audience which included Sir Charles Lyell, Roderick Murchison, T.H. Huxley, Michael Faraday and Charles Babbage -- a cross-section of the Victorian scientific elite.

This occasion, crucial to the acceptance of a high antiquity for humanity, was the foundation of Evans' reputation in the scientific community, and led to lasting contacts -- especially with Lyell (originally a lawyer before turning to geology) and Huxley (a rising star in London scientific circles), but also a growing involvement with fellow-antiquarian (Sir) John Lubbock (later Lord Avebury), member of a prosperous banking family and later a Liberal politician, now best known for his archaeological work (and notably his book Prehistoric Times of 1865). …

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