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Joseph Prestwich and the Valley of the Somme

Portrait of Joseph Prestwich, [1896-1897]. Archive ref: GSL/POR/13.
Joseph Prestwich (1812-1896), the son of a wine merchant, was educated at University College London and spent 40 years in the family business before accepting the Chair of Geology at Oxford University. Prestwich worked on the Quaternary of England, Belgium and France, and on the Tertiary of South East England, where he established the stratigraphy of the clays of the London Basin.

Prestwich was treasurer of the Society’s Brixham Cave Committee and, after Hugh Falconer’s death in 1865, wrote the detailed final report of the excavation (finally published in 1873).

Despite being present at some of the flints’ excavation at Brixham Cave, Prestwich still harboured some doubts. He was concerned that perhaps there could be other natural explanations why the flints and animal remains were intermixed, perhaps as a result of an earthquake or even an influx of water.

Valley of the Somme

In November 1858, Hugh Falconer was in France where he visited the private collection of Jacques Boucher de Perthes. De Perthes (1788-1868) was a customs officer and amateur archaeologist who found in Abbeville, France, the jaw of a fossil elephant alongside a primitive axe in 1841. The French scientific community refused to accept his claims, despite his finding similar juxtapositions in other areas of the Somme Valley. Yet Falconer was convinced not only of the antiquity of the flints but also in the veracity of de Perthes’ claims. He therefore urged Prestwich to visit the sites in question. 

In April 1859 Joseph Prestwich, accompanied by his close friend John Evans (1823-1908), travelled to France to meet with the now aged de Perthes. He showed them around his collection and took them to the various gravel pits in the area where the flint tools had been discovered. It was whilst visiting a site in Abbeville that he received a telegram stating that another flint tool had been found at Saint-Acheul, near Amiens and had been left in situ for Prestwich’s inspection. On 27 April 1859 Prestwich and  Evans returned to Saint-Acheul to see it for themselves. Such was the momentous occasion, photographs were taken of the site before the flint’s removal.  Prestwich was at last convinced. In his paper, presented at the Royal Society on 26 May 1859, he wrote:

Quarrymen thumb
Flint in situ
In the photograph on the left, a French quarryman is pointing at the location where the flint tool was found. The photograph on the right shows it in situ. Taken 27 April 1859. Archive ref: LDGSL/800a. Click to enlarge.
“It was lying in the gravel at a depth of 17 feet from the original surface and 6 1/2 feet from the chalk. One side slightly projected. The gravel around was undisturbed, and presented its usual perpendicular face. I carefully examined the specimen, and saw no reason to doubt that it was in its natural position, for the gravel is generally so loose that a blow with a pick disturbs and brings it down for some way around…I carefully examined the ground above, and could detect no trace of any artificial disturbance. Each bed followed its natural course above the place where the flint implement was imbedded, and the lines of division of the upper brown gravel and clay, of the light-coloured sands, and of the lower gravel, were continuous and unbroken.”   From Joseph Prestwich, “On the occurrence of flint-implements: associated with the remains of animals of extinct species in beds of a late geological period, in France at Amiens and Abbeville, and in England at Hoxne", ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society', vol 150 (1860), pp291-292.

Prestwich notebook
Joseph Prestwich's field book from April 1859 recording the flint's discovery.  Archive ref: LDGSL/794/N14a.  Click to enlarge. 

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