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.   

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.

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