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Finding Time for the Old Stone Age: a History of Palaeolithic Archaeology and Quaternary Geology in Britain, 1860–1960, by A. O’Connor
Oxford University Press. 2007. 463pp, 78 b&w illustrations, 37 tables. Hb. ISBN 978-0-19-921547-8 (£79.00)

Finding Time for the Old Stone Age provides a vivid overview of the research and debates which underpinned and surrounded the developing understanding of Britain’s ice age past (its Palaeolithic archaeology and Quaternary geology) between 1860 and 1960. While the key themes are the chronological frameworks and the classification of stone tool industries, the book’s particular emphasis is upon the individuals (both professional and amateur) and the institutions involved, the changing alliances and rivalries of the period, and the individual ideas (many of which are often currently seen as little more than historical curios) which waxed and waned in popularity over 100 years. In Palaeolithic terms the book is mainly concerned with what would now be referred to as the Lower and Middle sub-divisions (the ‘drift period’), with more limited references to the Upper Palaeolithic (the ‘reindeer period’). While the decision to end at 1960 (this date is effectively used as a proxy for the mid 20th century) may seem a little arbitrary, it actually makes good sense given the emergence of absolute geochronological methods around this time and the resulting move away from the use of archaeological artefacts as dating tools, an approach which had characterised much of the previous 100 years.

The book is dominated by its archaeological (artefacts and industries) and geological (sediments and fauna) issues, but while the chapters are broadly chronological in their progression it is noticeable, and greatly to the book’s credit, that none of them deal exclusively with one discipline at the expense of the other. Beginning with the state of knowledge prior to 1860 (exploring for example the contributions of Smith, Lyell, Buckland, and Falconer), the book explores the developing archaeological and geological frameworks from the second half of the 19th century in chapters 2–4. The work of, amongst others, Evans, Worthington-Smith, Spurrell, Prestwich, James Geikie, and Dawkins, is examined with reference to issues such as the widely-held perception of the Palaeolithic as a post-glacial phenomenon, the growing claims for interglacial episodes, and the appearance and applications of Gabriel de Mortillet’s industrial classifications. Chapters 7–10 explore the chronologies and stone tool industrial models of the first half of the 20th century (eg, the work of, amongst many others, Hinton & Kennard, Chandler & Leach, Smith & Dewey, Warren, and King & Oakley). Recurring themes in these chapters include the attempts to classify industries at both local and regional levels and to untangle the relationships between flake and handaxe-dominated assemblages, correlating the British deposits against the Alpine glaciations of Penck and BrŸckner, and the often problematic use of artefacts and industries as the basis for the chronological clocks of the British Palaeolithic and Pleistocene. In between the book’s earlier and later chapters it focuses upon the eolith debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (chapters 5 and 6), and the claims for and against these early (and today predominantly rejected) ‘artefacts’ of pre-Palaeolithic age. These chapters highlight the arguments between, and shifting allegiances towards, the key protagonists (eg, Harrison, Lankester, Moir, and Warren).

The book has many strengths, not least of which is its general readability: this is no mean achievement given the almost continuous and frequently complex interplay between the archaeological and geological evidence, the wide-ranging cast of characters and institutions involved, and the numerous chronological connections, both backward- and forward-looking. O’Connor is to be particularly congratulated for her attempt to write a history for this highly dynamic and fluctuating research era that is aimed at the general reader, and for trying to look beyond more general studies of past social and political biases. Her stated focus on the questions of ‘why did they think they were right’ and ‘why did some interpretations enjoy greater popularity than others?’ is pursued, mostly very successfully, throughout the book.

As outlined above, the book grapples very impressively with the details of the ideas and frameworks present during the 100 years after 1860, including their emergence and development, the roles of different individuals and institutions in their promotion, support/criticism, and disappearance, and the nature of the rivalries and alliances between both individuals and institutions. The order of the presented material is mostly logical (and this must have been a considerable challenge for the author, given that contrasting research strands were often developing alongside one another) and successfully draws the geology and the archaeology together. The book is clearly very well researched, making considerable use of the primary sources (which are also comprehensively and usefully referenced). Of particular note is the excellent use of letters to give valuable insights into personal (and institutional) perspectives and friendships. Furthermore there are colourful and entertaining vignettes and anecdotes throughout. My personal favourite is undoubtedly Kenneth Oakley’s postscript to his proposed scrapping of accepted river terrace classifications in 1935: ‘Sorry and all that’!

With regards to its presentation the book is well illustrated. The various portraits often provide suggestions as to the characters and motivations of the individuals concerned, and the artefact illustrations are also, mostly, useful additions to the text. There is an excellent use of tables throughout the volume to illustrate the different and changing geological and archaeological frameworks: their contrasts and the connections between the geology and the archaeology are particularly well served. The included glossary is useful (especially for the more general reader), if perhaps a little short, while the brief biographical notes for the key individuals from the era are also of value (again particularly for the general reader). The book is also mostly very well produced, with few typographical errors.

Despite the book’s many strengths there are however also some weaker aspects. Most notably, many of the geological and archaeological frameworks and debates discussed in the book have been extremely important for both the broader development of the two disciplines and for the appearance of terminologies and labels with which we are still grappling today (eg, regarding the discussions of Clactonian interpretations in chapter 9, see also White 2000 and McNabb 2007). In light of this (and while fully recognising that one of O’Connor’s explicit aims was not to write a book aimed at practising scientists, or one that was over-concerned with current interpretations) I would nonetheless like to have seen a greater attempt to relate selected individual events and episodes against current archaeological and geological understanding and practice where appropriate, in order to highlight the importance of this earlier research era. The investigations into the geology of the Thames Valley for example could have been contrasted and compared with the recent work of Bridgland (1994) and Gibbard (1985; 1994) amongst others. The absence of these links is particularly surprising given the often detailed treatment of the later 19th and early 20th centuries’ debates and discussions, to levels suggestive of an intended specialist readership.

Leading on from the above point, and despite the author’s clear statements in the introduction, I was sometimes still a little unsure as to whether this is a popular science book for the general audience or a review of the historical context for current practitioners. Indeed in places I think it is rather more of the latter, not least because the details of Quaternary geology and Palaeolithic tools and industries are frequently rather arcane to the non-specialist, and require a degree of prior knowledge for their full understanding. In short there is something of a betwixt and between element to the book, and that is unfortunate.

In terms of the book’s organisation and structuring there are occasional points within individual chapters where short sections seem not quite to fit in and to be rather ill-at-ease with the material that surrounds them. Reading these sections I was sometimes left with the strong sense of the author having agonised over whether or not, and where, to include the material described there-in. As a consequence, the text does not always flow quite as seamlessly as it might. From a presentational perspective there are one or two slightly odd aspects: the keys for maps 1 and 2 include ‘site’ descriptions such as ‘Hull’ and ‘Cambridge’ for example.

Yet despite these shortcomings, this remains a fascinating, well-researched, and mostly very well written book, and one which tells an intriguing story. It is perhaps better suited to the specialist reader (I would contrast it for example with the recent writings by Deborah Cadbury (2001) and Simon Winchester (2001) concerning Gideon Mantell and William ‘strata’ Smith), but it is by no means inaccessible to a more general audience. Most importantly Anne O’Connor is to be greatly congratulated for drawing together a wealth of primary source materials and for steering a predominantly clear course through so many of the rivalries and friendships, arguments and alliances, and changing perspectives which have in many cases been long forgotten and ignored by modern practitioners in Palaeolithic archaeology and Quaternary geology.

Dr Rob Hosfield
Dept. of Archaeology, University of Reading


Bridgland, D.R. 1994. The Quaternary of the Thames. London: Chapman & Hall

Cadbury, D. 2001. The Dinosaur Hunters. London: Fourth Estate

Gibbard, P.L. 1985. The Pleistocene History of the Middle Thames Valley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gibbard, P.L. 1994. The Pleistocene History of the Lower Thames Valley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

McNabb, J. 2007. The British Lower Palaeolithic: Stones in Contention. Abingdon: Routledge

White, M.J. 2000. The Clactonian Question: On the Interpretation of Core-and-Flake Assemblages in the British Lower Palaeolithic. Journal of World Prehistory 14(1), 1–63

Winchester, S. 2001. The Map that Changed the World. London: Penguin Books

Review submitted: December 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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