Breaking the Time Barrier: Clive Gamble Revisits the Moment at Which Archaeologists Realized That Human Prehistory Was Far Longer Than Biblical Scholars Had Imagined; and Links This to Today's Debates about the Antiquity of the Human Mind with Its Capacity for Self-Aware Thought

Article excerpt


On a spring afternoon in 1859 two successful English businessmen were about to make history in a gravel pit in northern France. Joseph Prestwich, at forty-seven the older by eleven years, had a day job in the wine trade. But his passion was unravelling the geology of northern Europe; tracing the history of glaciations by mapping surface deposits with the evocative name of 'the drift'. His younger companion, John Evans, had tremendous energy and a most impressive set of side-whiskers. Roman coins were one of his archaeological obsessions and he had earlier bought some found by workmen in this pit on the outskirts of Amiens on the Somme River. He ran the paper company in Hertfordshire that his wife, Harriet Dickinson, had inherited. She had died the year before leaving him with five young children. The eldest, Arthur, would later inherit the family fortune and make his name discovering the Minoan civilization of Crete.

What had brought Prestwich and Evans together on May 2nd, 1859, was a quest for something much older than the Bronze Age and numismatics. Their interest lay seventeen feet below the ground surface and four-and-a-half feet up from the base of the river terrace cut into the chalk slope. Sticking out of the gravels was the unmistakable edge of a worked flint tool. They were so excited by this find that they had asked for three representatives of the Societe des Antiquaries de Picardie to be present as witnesses and, moreover, arranged for a photographer to record the discovery.

The remarkable photograph that resulted captures the moment in the history of archaeology when the time barrier to a human antiquity of geological proportions was conclusively broken. But even so who is pointing to the flint and who is sitting in the wheel-barrow remains a bit of a mystery; the lack of side-whiskers seems to rule Evans out and neither figure matches pictures of Prestwich. Perhaps they are two of their French colleagues Pinsard, Dufour or Garnier?


The flint itself was never illustrated, perhaps because as Prestwich recalled, 'this implement is rougher and more imperfect than the generality of the specimens ... It is an unfinished implement'. Only the best-looking artefacts were made into published plates, a costly process. No doubt the flint sits today, unremarked upon, in a museum drawer along with the many handaxes the men collected and bought from the workmen that day and on later visits.

Evans and Prestwich were excited not because they had found a stone tool, many hundreds of which were already known, but because it was the first recorded and witnessed in situ. This one was poking out of the same gravels that had yielded bones of extinct animals such as mammoth and woolly rhino. It was undisturbed until Prestwich prised it out, noting carefully that its thickest edge was inner-most, making it impossible for someone to have pushed it into the gravels.

Prestwich had been alerted by another geologist Dr Hugh Falconer that the discoveries in Abbeville and Amiens by the collector Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868) might be what were needed to prove beyond doubt the association of ancient humans and extinct animals. Boucher de Perthes, now an old man of seventy-one, had been collecting handaxes and making notes on their geology for many years. He had put forward a theory in 1847 that these flint tools were evidence of ancient man in Europe. But he had lost his credibility for his exaggerated claims for ancient flint sculptures of horses, bears and humans. In fact these were all naturally shaped flints.


On May 1st, Evans endured a rough crossing from Folkestone to Boulogne to join Prestwich that evening to meet Boucher de Perthes in Abbeville. They spent the morning of May 2nd touring the pits in the town and examining the large collection of artefacts amassed by their host. …


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