Turning geology into archeology: how two businessmen changed the face of time

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On the afternoon of April 27, 1859, two hat-capped businessmen standing in a gravel pit outside the French town of Amiens were about to change history. Joseph Prestwich and John Evans had brought with them a photographer, scientific witnesses, and a lot of zeal and perseverance to answer a long-standing question: How old was mankind? They weren’t the first to ask the question or seek its answer; not far away, in the small town of Abbeville, Jacques Boucher de Perthes, the first antiquarian of the Somme, had been trying since 1841 to convince the skeptics of this scientific truth. But his claims for stone tools lying next to the bones of extinct animals, such as mammoths, woolly rhinos and hippos, have been ignored.

Why did John Evans and Joseph Prestwich succeed where others had failed? The usual answer is that Boucher de Perthes, aged 71 in 1859, was insanely eccentric, possessed a butterfly mind, and had been ordained for academic obscurity because of where he lived. Such traits did not help his cause. Sir Roderick Murchison, a prominent but icy austere geologist, called him “the old-fashioned, very gullible and easily imposed flycatcher.”

In 1859, Joseph Prestwich (left) was a wine merchant seeking irrefutable evidence of great human antiquity, while John “Flint” Evans (right) was a paper maker, widower and coin collector.

But there is more to the story than the English scientific rigor that allowed these weekend geologists to turn speculation into reality. They were linked by a geological connection, a practical passion that created strong networks based on friendship. Dr. Hugh Falconer, Prestwich’s older friend, was a paleontologist and, most importantly, was part of Darwin’s circle. Among their geological friends, they counted John Lubbock, Darwin’s young neighbor and scientist protege. And unlike Boucher de Perthes, a long-time celibate, they were supported by energetic and scientific women; Falconer by his niece Grace McCall, who married Prestwich in 1870, and Lubbock by Nelly Hordern, considered by Darwin’s correspondents to be smarter than her husband.

Connections mattered. Their geological ties formed the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Prestwich and Evans presented their evidence to both societies and published in their monumental journals. The photographs, taken in Evans’ words “to corroborate our testimony”, of the time they discovered a stone hand ax embedded in gravel containing Ice Age beasts were a masterstroke. Apparently an unvarnished statement of geological facts, but also a gilding of the ancient past with the excitement of cutting-edge Victorian technology.

The moment of the discovery on April 27, 1859 in St Acheul, Amiens. The quarryman shows the stone tool embedded in ancient river gravel. Charles Lyell wrote of this photograph that it was “very valuable … conveying the untouched nature of the mass of gravel covering the flint tool that nothing but visiting the place itself would do. “. (Image via Bycro, CC BY-SA 4.0)

What they knocked over was bad geology. To teach that mankind was no more than 6,000 years old was geological nonsense equivalent to saying that the sun circled the earth. This age was calculated over several centuries by mythographers, including Isaac Newton and Archbishop Ussher of Armagh. For Evans and Prestwich, it was about shifting the chronology of humanity from the sheets of the Bible to the layers of time. The aim of Prestwich and Evans was to show that human history should be measured by a geological rather than a mosaic time scale (the adjective of Moses). But estimating how long that timescale might be was, for them, unwarranted speculation. Now we have science-based dating and know that the Amiens hand axes are 450,000 years old, an age beyond anything the two persevering businessmen imagined. Authenticating the stone tool was Evans’ task. Before 1859 he was unaware of the existence of such rough-hewn axes. Here, as science historian Jenny Bulstrode pointed out, her paper business helped, as did a disputed patent involving her profitable envelope machine. Evans may have lost the case, but the forensic examination of the design and the edges it involved gave him a vocabulary to apply to validate ancient flint tools as human work.

Did their revolution need Darwin’s About the origin of species, published later the same year? No, and although they share his interest in geology, Prestwich and Evans did not use natural selection to support their time revolution. Instead, they followed the progressive story of Herbert Spencer where, over time, simple shapes invariably become complex shapes. The established or evangelical churches did not present much opposition either. Newspaper articles were generally enthusiastic precisely because they had overturned what many considered bad geology. It was above all a temporal revolution without triumphalism. They were scrupulous in giving full credit to Boucher de Perthes and others who recognized that stone tools were a proxy for the rare skeletal remains of our distant ancestors. There was no flag for British science.

Layers of time at the Archaeological Garden in the suburb of Saint-Acheul, in Amiens. It was in a gravel quarry near here that Prestwich and Evans made their discovery in 1859 that sparked the time revolution in human history. (Photo by Clive Gamble.)

Their rapid-fire time revolution still resonates. In 1859, prehistory was a new and brilliant science; in Evans’ expression, “unwritten history”, a bridge between archeology and geology. But they also opened a chasm between unwritten and written history, artifact and text evidence, which proved difficult to close. Since then, our earliest prehistory has stood out from the rest of human history that begins with literate civilizations. A fitting tribute to their temporal revolution would be to drop the “pre-” and recognize that what makes the history of mankind in deep times is no different from any other time.


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