John Evans, Joseph Prestwich and the Stone That Shattered the Time Barrier

Article excerpt

Expert witnesses

It all began in a railway carriage. Two businessmen, travelling to the Kingston Assizes in Surrey, nodded to each other as strangers do, but did not strike up a conversation. They were expert witnesses appearing for different sides in the Croydon Water Question; a legal test case that boiled down to who owned the underground waters of London (Mather 2008: 83-4). Joseph Prestwich (Figure la), the older by 11 years, represented the water suppliers. As the train rattled along under full steam he would have seen landmarks from his pioneering geology of the London Basin. But water was not his business. His family ran a profitable wine importers. Geology, however, was his passion.



Sitting opposite him was John Evans (Figure 1b), who at the time (which was most likely 1854--although in later life he could not recall the year exactly (Prestwich 1899: 105)) worked in his father-in-law's paper factory at Nash Mills, Hemel Hempstead. He was appearing for the mill owners in the case. Geology was one of his interests but coins more so.

Their journey was wasted. The trial was adjourned that day and in the afternoon they again found themselves sharing a carriage on the way back to London. This time they spoke. The common bond was geology and so began a close friendship that lasted 40 years until Prestwich's death. Between them they would lead and contribute to all the major Learned Societies of London. They shaped nineteenth-century science not only by what they achieved as scholars but by what they contributed as Presidents, Treasurers and Council Members at a time of great institutional changes (MacGregor 2008). Only Prestwich would hold an academic post. He retired from the wine trade in 1872 and two years later became Professor of Geology at Oxford. Both were knighted, Evans in 1892 and Prestwich just before he died in 1896.

So, this was how the most famous pairing in the history of archaeology started. Prestwich and Evans, Evans and Prestwich, the order depends on the author's interest in either archaeology or geology or is simply a nod to seniority and the alphabet; a double act to match Watson and Crick in molecular biology. Their achievements in the spring of 1859 earn an accolade in every textbook and history of the subject. 'The discovery of the Old Stone Age was the most sensatianal of the mid-nineteenth century' (Evans 1956: 286) which although written by Evans' daughter sums up the general sentiment, while Kenneth Oakley (1957: 199) writing in Antiquity's Special Evolution Number noted that 'the year 1859 was, as we now see, one of the turning paints in human thought'. Even without the publication of Darwin's On the origin of species on 24 November, our two expert witnesses during their visit to northern France did something that made that year special in the history of science; quite simply they broke the time barrier and established human antiquity (Grayson 1983; van Riper 1993).

So why re-visit such a well known story? The standard account runs like this: 'In April the following year [1859], the eminent British archaeologist John Evans and the geologists Joseph Prestwich and Charles Lyell visited the site [St Acheul]. Baucher de Perthes' claims were at last officially recognized' (Bahn 1996: 85). But what is well known is not always well understood. This story has been told so often that it has become garbled--Lyell was not present in April and Evans, as we shall see, was not yet eminent. The account continues, ' The 'annus mirabilis 'of 1859, a milestane in the establishment of human antiquity, also saw the publication of Charles Darwin's On the origin of species'. In a sentence the interest shifts from archaeology and geology to biology.

What has become a rather stale report in the history of archaeology needs to be more widely appreciated as a seminal test case in the history of science. …