The Earlier Paleolithic Occupation of the Chilterns (Southern England): Re-Assessing the Sites of Worthington G. Smith

By White, Mark J. | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Earlier Paleolithic Occupation of the Chilterns (Southern England): Re-Assessing the Sites of Worthington G. Smith


White, Mark J., Antiquity


Boxgrove in Sussex has been in the headlines for its human bone ('the first Englishman'); more to the research point is its superb in-place deposits of debris from handaxe-knapping. This is a timely moment to look once again at the reports of Worthington G. Smith, who a century ago recognized, amongst the scores of sites with river-rolled handaxes, rare deposits of a more informative character.

Palaeolithic sites in the Chilterns, and Worthington G. Smith

Between 1887 and his death in 1917, the noted antiquary Worthington G. Smith (1835-1917) maintained careful surveillance over some 14 working brick-pits near his home in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, southern England. His tenacity and dedication were rewarded by the discovery of several outstanding earlier Palaeolithic sites - notably Caddington, Round Green, Gaddesden Row and Whipsnade - each yielding a significant, primary-context Acheulean assemblage (Smith 1894; 1916; R.A. Smith 1918). The sites were of such high quality that, following Spurrell (1880a; 1880b), Smith was able to conjoin hundreds of artefacts, occasionally reconstructing long reduction sequences. When, in 1968, Derek Roe listed only five in situ Acheulean sites in Britain,(1) four had been discovered by Smith (Roe 1968a). Today, only a handful of other sites, such as Boxgrove (Roberts 1986) and Hoxne (Singer et al. 1993), need adding to this list; reiterating the value of Smith's research.

While there have been attempts to re-locate three of these sites (Sampson 1978a; Wymer 1980; Bridgland & Harding 1989; White et al. forthcoming), it is remarkable that Smith's work has not received greater attention. Gamble (1996) detects an inferiority complex amongst those who work in the British Palaeolithic; a problem fuelled by frequent and unhealthy laments about the Victorian origins, and hence questionable analytical value, of many British sites. Most often this pessimistic attitude unjustly includes those Victorian antiquarians who actually deserve homage for the calibre and rigour of their work. Noteworthy among this small group is Worthington Smith.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Smith emphasized the value of entire assemblages, retaining even the smallest debitage (e.g. Smith 1883). His records (Smith n.d.) show that he visited the productive brick-pits extremely frequently - even during the summer break in digging (cf. Cox 1979) - and trained workmen to recognize artefacts, so that even in his absence minimal material was lost (Smith 1904). He supervised rudimentary excavations, often 'cleaning back' exercises at Caddington, and although his recording system did not use three-dimensional co-ordinates, he took care to record find details and to describe the geology. He always marked the date on which he found each piece, information which may have corresponded to (sadly missing) journals (cf. Dyer 1959; Bagshawe 1967), and noted the depth and stratigraphic position of most finds made in situ. Much of this information is still available, primarily in his unparalleled List of Palaeolithic implements (n.d.: hereafter LPI) and the folios which contain invaluable maps, sections, illustrations and excellent photographs of the working pits. Moreover, these bountiful records represent only a fraction of Smith's original archive, as much was destroyed by fire during the Second World War (Sampson 1978b). In short, Smith's research represents a pinnacle of Victorian antiquarian endeavour. Highly respected by his peers (cf. Harrison 1928; White 1953; Bagshawe 1967) he was, in 1902, awarded a civil list pension of [pounds]50 per annum for 'services to archaeology' (Dyer 1959; 1978).

High praise is well deserved, yet we must add the caveat that Smith made fundamental errors which today mar our understanding of these sites. Owing mostly to the rough, commercial nature of the evidence available, to the contemporary theoretical models, and to his habit of working from photographs of sections, Smith's view of the geology of his sites was seriously flawed, thus leaving his final interpretations open to question. …

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