THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL RECORD
In June 1797, the Society of Antiquaries of London received a short communication from John Frere, a Norfolk landowner (Frere 1800). The gentlemen members of the Society had been meeting since the beginning of the eighteenth century ‘for their mutual improvement in the Study of Antiquity and in the History of Former Times’, although sadly those gentlemen present at that June meeting seemed unable to grasp the significance of what Frere told them (Evans 1956, 104 & 202-203). Frere’s communication concerned the discovery of some ‘flint weapons’ (Figure 2.1), a discovery that he described by using what archaeologists have come to accept as the basic methodological assumptions employed by field archaeology'. By so doing Frere was able to explore the profound significance of the discoveries that he communicated to the Fellowship of the Society.
The flint implements had been recovered from a quarry-pit dug for clay extraction at Hoxne in eastern England, and Frere described the implements as being ‘fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals’. Having been found at a depth of some four metres in clays, and below a layer of sand and shell, he also reasoned that this sequence would ‘tempt us to refer them to a very' remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world’ and buried by deposits that ‘may be conjectured to have been once at the bottom, or at least the shore, of a sea’ and below strata containing ‘some extraordinary bones ... of some unknown animal’ (Frere 1800, 204).
The logic involved in Frere’s reasoning is important. He accepted that the stone implements were humanly produced, an acceptance based, we must assume, partly upon analogies drawn with the collections that Europeans had accumulated during their destructive encounters with the non-European communities who were employing stone-based technologies (Daniel 1964, 38-41), and partly upon the regularity of the form of the implements, implying the execution of an intentional design in their production, and which Frere presumably equated with human activity. The timeless characteristics of the human presence were therefore recognisable amongst this material, and we must also assume that it was the shape of the implements that prompted Frere to suggest that they were intended to function as weapons. Frere’s reasoning therefore employed a commitment to humanity as being a single and behaviourally distinctive form of life, and where the functionality of the artefacts produced could be ascertained from their form. Having thus accepted that the objects had been formed by human manufacture, the implications of their recover)', stratified within fluvial deposits and below the bones of presumably extinct animal species, were clear: those humans had lived a very long time ago.
The reasoning that Frere employed to understand the significance of these findings must have drawn upon ideas that were in circulation at that time, and these provided the basis for three important claims that continue to be made by archaeology. First, that the presence and the activities of humans are recognisable historically by the distinctive form of their material products, the function of which might still be ascertained from their shape. Neither depend upon the current presence of humans themselves and their verbal testimony. In Frere’s case, recognition of the now absent humanity came from the form of the flint implements. The assumption was that all humans, at all times, have made things intentionally, and that those intentions remain understandable to us simply because the form of things attests to the purpose for which they were designed. If this reasoning holds, then it would mean that we should be able to understand why other people either made, or did, certain things, despite the absence of those people from the field of our enquiry, and despite the considerable distances in time and in cultural beliefs that separate us from them. It is a claim based upon the assertion that a single form of humanity has existed throughout its history. The second claim was that the things people made, and the ways, and the technologies, that they used to make them can be observed to have changed over time. Thus, whilst people have remained the same kinds of people their behaviours have nonetheless changed. In Frere’s view, for example, there was a time in which people ‘had not the use of metals’. The third claim was that the sequences of deposits in which these objects were found provided two kinds of additional information. One was that the relative sequences in which different materials were deposited, with one above the other, ran from the earliest to the latest. The other is that the kind of environment that resulted in the formation of those deposits, such as the shore of a sea that Frere had proposed in the case of some of the Hoxne deposits, could be reconstructed based upon a uniformity with present-day processes. Although Frere’s speculation of a time ‘beyond that of the present world’ is ambiguous (it might imply his commitment to the existence of an antediluvian age), he nonetheless accepted that the geological processes of formation must have remained constant over time (Daniel 1950a). This so-called ‘principle of uniformitarianism’ was established by the late eighteenth century and was formalised with the publication of Lyell’s Principles of Geology between 1830 and 1833.
FIGURE 2.1 One of the handaxes reported upon by Frere from Hoxne, Suffolk (Frere 1800).
These three volumes, which laid the basis for accepting the geological antiquity of the earth, had a considerable impact upon the thinking of Charles Darwin.
The uniformitarian principle that ‘the key to the past lies in the present’ evokes the existence of timeless and mechanistic processes that have always linked certain kinds of productive processes to a particular kind of product. The suggestion that the physical processes of production are recorded by their products has been of fundamental importance to the development of archaeological, as well as geological, reasoning. It has allowed archaeologists to assume that the form of archaeological materials is the product of a mechanism of transformation that had occurred in the past in the same way as it would occur today, and that the nature of such a process is recorded in the form taken by the material. Uniformitarian reasoning also allowed geological deposits to be read as recording the earth’s tectonic processes, and the processes of rock and soil erosion and deposition. It has been upon a similar basis that humanly produced artefacts have been read as recording the mechanistic processes involved in their making by the transformation of raw materials, and where those processes of production were directed by factors that are believed to have been possessed by, or to have acted on, humanity as a whole.
Frere’s reasoning was therefore based upon the claim that historical conditions and present conditions share a number of common processes that render the former understandable by analogy with our own experiences of the latter. Thus, the conditions by which sand and shells are deposited along a sea-shore comprised processes that are assumed to have remained uniform over time. In addition, the symmetry of the flint implements and the flake scars, which attest to the mechanical ways in which this symmetry was created, are taken to imply a purposeful designer, and Frere accepted that such a designer was a human rather than an animal or a mythical being. This assumption would not be widely contested today, and it implies that human behaviour is recognisable in virtue of the ways that its products attest to their purposeful design, and purposeful design is treated as a quality associated with human action. Thus, whilst we might doubt Frere’s assertion that the implements were designed to act as weapons of war, we are nonetheless likely to accept that they were intended for some purpose, such as butchery of a carcass. But if we equate human intentions with purposeful design, and thus with the regularity of the form of the things created, then what are we to make of other regularities that are manufactured by other species? This was a question that Marx raised when he noted that:
[a] spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. (Marx 1867, 127)
Marx offered the powerful, and widely accepted, assertion that humanity is distinguishable from the rest of the natural world by virtue of its possession of a particular kind of cognitive ability, one that facilitates a process of forward planning in the initiation of an action. If this generalisation were indeed to be accepted then the handaxes from Hoxne would presumably have been ‘raised in imagination’ before being flaked into reality.
The claim that long-term human history can be traced in terms of a technical development in the making of objects, running from the use of stone to that of metals, was formalised in the nineteenth century by the eventual adoption of the sequence of the three ages of Stone, Bronze, and Iron (Rowley-Conwy 2007). And in 1859, the same year that saw the publication, in its first edition, of On the
Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Darwin 2009 ), John Evans and Joseph Prestwich read a paper to the Royal Society in London in which they accepted the implications that Boucher de Perthes’s recover)' of stone tools from deep within the gravels of the Somme had for the presence, and thus for the considerable antiquity, of human beings. John Frere was therefore part of the long intellectual revolution that occurred between the late eighteenth and midnineteenth centuries which resulted in seeing the world, and humanity’s place within it, not as the products of momentary and relatively recent creations, but as the products of long-term processes of geological, behavioural, and biological development. Humanity’s place in nature was largely established through archaeological procedures.