Making Deep History: zeal, perseverance, and the time revolution of 1859

A few days ago I saw a notice that said ‘BeGambleAware’. It warned of the dangers of addiction, but it could have referred to the author of this book. Readers of Current Archaeology will already be aware that Clive Gamble, who recently retired from Southampton University, is one of the leading authorities on the Palaeolithic period. Making Deep History is a new venture and a striking development of his earlier research. It concerns the lives and work of four people who played a central role in the demonstration of human antiquity. The moment of discovery was in 1859, the year that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. After an inevitable period of uncertainty and debate, their vision of the past was widely accepted. The book shows how it happened.

Their achievement has not attracted the attention it deserved, for it was overshadowed by the reception of Darwin’s great work. Part of the ensuing debate was played out in the letters column of The Times. The discoveries were due to three Englishmen, John Evans, Joseph Prestwich, and John Lubbock, and a French polymath, Jacques Boucher de Perthes. On a visit to French gravel pits, they were able to demonstrate that flint handaxes were associated with the bones of extinct animals. They had to be immensely old.

All four men had other interests and their research was carried out between their professional commitments. Unable to devote themselves full-time to scholarship, they recruited their long-suffering families as editors and illustrators. Evans manufactured paper, and Prestwich imported wine. Lubbock worked as a banker, before he was elected to Parliament. Boucher de Perthes, who had been a Director of Customs, was the author of a sensational novel and 48 other books. They shared the zeal and perseverance celebrated by Gamble’s title.

This entertaining book traces their biographies and the impact of their ideas – 162 years after their original discovery it does belated justice to the ‘time revolutionaries’.

Making Deep History: zeal, perseverance, and the time revolution of 1859, Clive Gamble, Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 978-0198870692.
Review by Richard Bradley.