Photographs from the Drift

Clive Gamble writes about the discovery of two famous photographs in the Geological Society’s archives.

Two of the most famous photographs in the history of archaeology have come to light in the archives of the Geological Society. These are the pictures of the Fréville Pit at St Acheul, Amiens, France, which were taken on the afternoon of Wednesday 27th April 1859, recording the moment that Joseph Prestwich (1812-1896) and John Evans (1823-1908) found in-situ evidence for great human antiquity.

Photograph of the Fréville Pit at St Acheul, Amiens, France

The French quarry worker on the right is pointing to the location of the flint.

Sticking out from the gravels was the edge of a worked flint tool – the first to be recorded and witnessed in-situ. The first photograph shows a French quarryman [terrassier] pointing to a hand-axe, a tool known locally as a langue de chat (cat’s tongue) after their similarity to a popular French biscuit. The second is a close-up of the same implement horizontally embedded in the river gravels of the geological Drift, as it was then called.

Prestwich would write, “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 John 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.)

Close up view of the handaxe in situ

Close up view of the hand-axe in situ

The photographs were shown to the Society of Antiquaries on 2nd June 1859, and to the Royal Society a week earlier. The paper’s two referees, Sir Charles Lyell and Sir Roderick Murchison, both wrote about their importance and demanded they be published. But this never happened. Copies of the two photographs were given by Prestwich to each of the societies but both sets have since disappeared. Prestwich’s original manuscript is preserved in the library of the Royal Society, but the page where the picture should be is a blank with just a blob of glue remaining.

The only other known set of the photographs was re-discovered in 1978 in the Amiens library. The photographer, the local architect and antiquary Charles Pinsard, had left the City of Amiens his meticulous descriptions of its buildings, street by street in 72 large volumes handsomely bound in red leather. The two photos are in volume 43, firmly stuck to the page surrounded by his copperplate writing describing the days’ events.

And now over forty years later another set has come to light in the Geological Society. The archivist found them in the Society’s Joseph Prestwich collection bound alongside an offprint of his Royal Society paper published in 1860. They are in extremely good condition and exactly the same size as the set in Amiens. The Geological Society discovery shows that several copies were made and shared around like a carte de visite.

In 1859 photographs could not be reproduced in journals and yet carried great weight when making a scientific case and answering one of archaeology’s biggest questions – human antiquity.

Clive Gamble, FSA. Author of the forthcoming book Making deep history: zeal, perseverance and the time revolution of 1859 (OUP 2021)

Photographs from the Drift