99. Man – A Million Years Old? Minute-books of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia

In 1908 this circular was sent out to over 100 people in East Anglia inviting them to join an “East Anglian Society of Prehistorians”. The Hon Secretaries pro tem (W.A. Dutt and W.G. Clarke) had had the idea three years earlier, while flint-hunting in Thetford, but had decided to wait until they felt there was sufficient enthusiasm to sustain a Society.

Circular advertising the proposed East Anglian Society of Prehistorians, 1908.  From the Prehistoric Society minute-books (ref PRE 1).

Circular advertising the proposed East Anglian Society of Prehistorians, 1908. From the Prehistoric Society minute-books (ref PRE 1).

Their timing was right.  After the inaugural meeting, at the Norfolk and Norwich Library on 26 October 1908,  over seventy members signed up, paying a subscription of 1/6.

East Anglia was the ideal place for the Society to begin.   The region is rich in flint, which occurs in bands in chalk, and was used by early humans for tool-making.  The people who joined the Society, like Dutt and Clarke, were driven by their enthusiasm for collecting such flint tools.  Most were not professional archaeologists, who were few at this time, but amateurs, from the leisured classes.  Among them, the first President, Dr W. Allen Sturge, who bequeathed 100,000 flints to the British Museum, and Miss Nina Layard, who was well-known for her work at Foxhall Road in Ipswich.

Advertisement for excursion to Brandon Saturday 17 July 1909.  From the Prehistoric Society minute-books (ref PRE 1).

Advertisement for excursion to Brandon Saturday 17 July 1909. From the Prehistoric Society minute-books (ref PRE 1).

The Rules of the Society, created in 1909, changed its name to the “Prehistoric Society of East Anglia” and outlined its objects: “the study of prehistoric man in East Anglia, facilitating friendly intercourse between prehistorians, disseminating knowledge and preserving records and remains”.  As our minute-books show, the Society had regular meetings in which members gave papers and invited comments on their finds.  There were also annual excursions, ending with a visit to Icklingham Hall for tea and a chance to see Dr Sturge’s wonderful collection.

It is noticeable how many press cuttings have been pasted into these minute-books.  The Society’s members were media-aware and confident in promoting their activities.  Their first volume of Proceedings was published in 1911.  Its ambitious print run (500 – there were about 100 members at the time) allowed them to send out many review and complimentary copies, bringing the Society to audiences beyond East Anglia.

Press cutting Man, a million years old.  Daily Chronicle 17 October 1911.  From the Prehistoric Society minute-books (ref PRE 1).

Press cutting Man, a million years old. Daily Chronicle 17 October 1911. From the Prehistoric Society minute-books (ref PRE 1).

What interested readers of the newspapers and the Proceedings was the great question: when did “Man” come into existence?  Society members believed they could prove modern humans lived in East Anglia much earlier than previously thought.  Their evidence?  “Eoliths”, stones which appeared to be crudely shaped by humans.

The most famous eoliths linked to the Society were flints found on 3 October 1909 by James Reid Moir beneath a “Red Crag” layer of shelly sand in an Ipswich brickworks.  This “Sub-Crag” location suggested that humans able to make tools lived in East Anglia during the Tertiary period – over a million years ago.

A tailor from a humble background, Reid Moir was a combative and ambitious character.  He publicised his ideas widely, writing to the Times and other newspapers, lecturing, seeking support from eminent scholars such as Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, and, of course, publishing in the Proceedings.

In proclaiming these eoliths as proof of “Tertiary Man”, Moir and other Society members were engaging with a great controversy of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Were eoliths actually shaped by Men or were the markings the result of natural processes?  The press cuttings in the minute-books show us how people were keen to believe that eoliths were man-made, partly out of national and regional pride: how exciting to think that the first “Men” were English when prehistorians overseas, especially in France, were claiming them.  (This was also a factor in the ready acceptance of “Piltdown Man” in 1912).

However, many contemporaries were not convinced by Moir’s flints, or by “Ipswich Man”, a modern-looking skeleton he found in strata pre-dating the Ice Ages.  The heated debate continued well into the 1930s.  It is now accepted by most archaeologists that Moir’s eoliths were created naturally  and cannot be used as evidence of early humans in Norfolk and Suffolk, while his modern human skeleton was just that: an “intrusive burial” which had slipped by the shifting of soils into a far older deposit.

Nevertheless the involvement of the Society in the eolith controversy brought it to new academic and popular audiences.  The debate expanded the scope of ideas about prehistory, moving human existence much further back into the past.  It also helped archaeologists and geologists develop modern scientific practice in seeking to understand sedimentary deposits and the processes affecting them, and how to distinguish artefacts from geofacts.

After the First World War, the Society began to attract the new generation of professional archaeologists. Its wider membership and national interests were recognised in 1935 by the dropping of “East Anglia” from its name. The Prehistoric Society remains a focus for all prehistorians in Britain and worldwide. We are delighted to have acquired their wonderful archive – this is just one of the stories it has to tell.

Postscript. Their evidence may have been flawed, but Moir, Sturge et al. appear to have been right about the timescale of human occupation in East Anglia: finds at Happisburgh lead archaeologists to conclude that early humans lived there 800,000-1 million years ago …

Sources
This account is based on the early minute-books themselves (PRE 1) plus extensive research in secondary sources. The story of the Prehistoric Society has been told in many articles and papers.  I found the following particularly useful in writing this post:

“The Prehistoric Society: from East Anglia to the World”, by Grahame Clark and “The Prehistoric Society, Prehistory and Society”, by Robert Chapman, in vol. 51 (1985) of the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

Stuart Piggott’s Presidential Address in vol. 29 (1963) of the Proceedings is insightful on the milieu of the East Anglian flint collectors and their connections with late 19th century romanticism.

Many contemporary articles by and about members of the Society are readily available online or via electronic subscriptions (I recommend University of Bradford staff and students use Summon to find these – we have access to a fantastic range of material concerning this story).  Several modern scholars have examined the eolith controversy and the work of James Reid Moir e.g.  Anne O’Connor in Finding Time for the Old Stone Age, David Matless in Written on Stone and works by Roy Ellen and Marianne Sommer.

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