Plateau Man in Kent.

W. J. Lewis Abbott

Natural Science 1894


[257] The further back we push our studies of man, the plainer it becomes that a more comprehensive and at the same time more simple definition of the word "anthropology" must be allowed than is some times given. Anthropology is not a science of structure and function simply, but of man as an object of natural history, so that man's ontology and phylogeny must be studied like that of any other animal. Unfortunately, we are so prejudiced by preconceived ideas as to his dropping from the clouds in a highly civilised state, that anything claiming more than a very limited amount of development for him is ill-received. Anthropology has thus been but grudgingly allowed to embrace even Palaeolithic man; and all sorts of theories have been invented, in the face of hard facts, to minimise the number of centuries that have passed since Palaeolithic times. We have still with us the venerable champion of Palaeolithic man–Professor Prestwich, who almost single-handed fought for our progenitors in the valley of the Somme. Since those days, however, this science has made remarkable strides; not only has it made its strongholds impregnable, but it has found it necessary in many parts to extend the dominion of the genus Homo away into the geologic past to a degree that was previously undreamed of. Nor has this been done at the expense of the State or by official observers. Month by month, year by year, a body of work has been plodding along in various parts, gaining here a little and there a little, to which a new importance has occasionally been given by the more detailed work of the Geological Survey. In our own Thames area we have had workers like General Pitt Rivers, .Messrs. Spurrell, Worthington Smith, Allen Brown, Greenhill, and Shrubsole, to whose names may be added the less known but nonetheless deserving one of H. Lewis. Then we have had collectors and philosophers in wider fields, such as Sir John Evans, Sir John Lubbock, and several others. During this time it has been conceded that a division might be made in the science, under the head of Prehistoric Anthropology or Prehistoric Archaeology. So long as the study is confined to Neolithic, or even later Palaeolithic man, these terms night be allowed to stand; for, so long as our discoveries are confined to river-drifts some hundred feet above present water levels, it is just possible that no great changes in the surface have [258] taken place, such as we should require any great amount of geological knowledge to understand. But recent discoveries show that the science does not begin with the archaeologist, but with the geologist and the palaeontologist, when we come to deposits upon existing watersheds, or others which bear no relation to them, or yet others 400 or 500 feet above these, it is obvious that the subject has entered the domain of Geology. For the principal of these latter discoveries especially in Kent, we are indebted to the undaunted energy of Benjamin Harrison, a tradesman in the little village of Ightham between Maidstone and Sevenoaks.

It is now over thirty years since this indefatigable observer began making a collection. From time to time the echoes of the great thought-movements of the day reached this sequestered little village, but they were to Harrison as handbills dropped from a balloon; be was entirely shut out from the scientific world. His struggles and his perseverance; his fighting against want of encouragement and sleepless nights; his early risings and tramps to some spot four or five miles away, so as to be there at sunrise, and to hunt before opening his shop: all these are matters to be read with a relish only when the hero is no more. But, however Harrison's labours might have suffered from want of. sympathy, they were soon rewarded by interesting finds. The house of his ancestors happened to stand in the old Valley of the Shode; relics of Palaeolithic man found not far from his own shop soon whetted his appetite, and stimulated his researches. He carefully searched almost every inch of the adjoining country in the Holmesdale Valley, adding, as he went along, not only to his finds, but bit by bit to his store of knowledge, until he had managed to pull himself abreast of many of the scientific opinions of the day. Then he chanced to come upon a very beautiful palaeolith (Fig. 1), some 70 ft. above the bed of the Shode, which set his mind at work in another direction, and one in which it must be conceded he received but little encouragement for a long time. From the first Harrison had kept a strict account of his finds, numbered them, sketched them into books, the position of their occurrence on the 6-inch map of the district, and made notes upon them as they presented themselves to his mind. As he contemplated the skilful work of this weapon, the question suggested itself–"Is it possible that this represents man's first essays at flint working? 'If so, what a dexterous creature he must have been born; in fact, he must have dropped from the clouds nearly perfect. But is it likely? Is it at all probable that man's evolution began with so highly-worked a flint weapon?" To which his reason answered: "No! If, then, this is not one of the first, then where must I look for his earlier attempts, but to the more unwasted conditions, to the gravel patches lying about the present watersheds?" Nor were his labours in these places in vain, for he soon found a number of implements, which, in point of workmanship, were inferior to the majority of those in the valley, and, therefore,–from an evolu[259]tionist's point of view–might be considered to be older. There was one thing, however, that hardly fell in with his expectations, and that was, that in the valley there were implements of a type identical with those on the hills. But when he came to compare these two groups, he found that those of the hills were fresh and somehow sharp, while those of the same type in the valley were, without exception, more or less water-worn. Here, then, was the explanation. The implements of this character found in the valleys were derived from the hills; and this idea also explained the existence in the valleys of several other things, such as erractics foreign to the locality, and types of implements still rougher than those of the Hill-men.

But now the physical features of the country perplexed him. He had evidently got to something older than the oldest existing vestige on the Counterscarp; and the question was, where to look for the earlier home of man, in a period before the genesis of this last physical feature, and when the land-surface was probably 700 feet higher than at present. This surface, said he, must have been continuous with the chalk plateau ; and upon the elevated ground of the latter, in its most unwashed parts, we must look to find the earliest traces of man in our district. Then commenced an inch-by-inch survey of the whole plateau for a distance of eight or ten miles; and here his labours were rewarded by considerable finds, at first, perhaps, a little disappointing. He soon discovered that here were to be found some implements exactly similar to the later palaeoliths of the Holmesdale valley. His ruder forms were also represented, especially in the deep valleys which cut into the plateau, while the "old brown" deeply-stained flints occasionally found in the valley below were now found in great profusion all over the surface, especially in some places where the land was higher and had been curiously less denuded. Unfortunately, however, not a single section was to he seen upon the whole of the interesting area. Careful searching of the surface, of slight excavations for mangold trenches, of holes for trees and posts, and the deepenings of dew-ponds, and here and there of a well-section, not only showed the existence of the "old brown" flints, quartzites, cherts, and other erratics, but revealed the remarkable fact that the former had been picked up and worked perhaps on one edge, used, sharp edges being abraded in the using, then thrown down again; and further that all this had taken place before the flint entered into the remarkable deposit which so altered the surface of the stone, and changed its colour to that characteristic dark brown.

Here Harrison was sure he had evidence of an earlier form of culture or even of intelligence. The tools were used tools rather than shaped implements. But from the want of sections and in visibility of beds in juxtaposition it is at present impossible to state positively the exact age of the deposit in which these tools received their colouring. Sometimes they are Eocene pebble flints split by frost, [260] worked from one side only, at others they are nearly picked up promiscuously, the working appearing always on the side to a good hand grip. There are no oval hammer-stones such as were used in Palaeolithic times, and consequently bulbs of percussion on flakes are very rare. Frequently the flints are striated exactly like some of those in the glacial beds of East Anglia. From these rude used flints numerous groups of implements diverge the well-known types of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages. Just as our palaeontologists saw the progenitors of our present ungulates in very dissimilar Eocene forms before the connecting links were discovered, so Harrison saw in his early finds the prototypes of later implements. For years he sought to make his finds known to the scientific world but his converts were few. However, as time went by, spurred by his own assurance and the incredulity of others, he increased his collection amazingly. He also distinguished groups of different forms, some of which were most curious. Form, however, was nothing to Plateau man; two objects alone presented themselves to his intelligence, a hand-grip, and a usable edge. Nor was he as yet the victim of one-handedness, left-handed forms being almost or quite as numerous as right. In all his early workings he worked from one side of the flint, which he did sometimes with one hand and sometimes with the other, as is evinced by the reversed workings.

While collecting this material Harrison was brought into contact with many well-known scientific men. On one occasion he was introduced to a celebrated archaeologist bearing a name classic in geology, who, as Harrison began to speak of Palaeolithic man, blurted out in his characteristic way, "Of no interest; prove nothing; in fact prehistoric archaeology is played out; my old friend Boucher de Perthes proved all that could be proved." Rather disheartening this, but perhaps better than the action of another set of critics, who, while admitting some of the better finished weapons when shown separately, assumed a position of open hostility to the subject both in season and out of season. Among the various scientists who encouraged him mention might be made of Messrs. Montgomery Bell, F. C. J. Spurrell, and Grant Allen, Dr. A. R. Wallace, and Dr. James Geikie.

In the meantime Harrison had been continually in touch with Professor Prestwich for several years; and as soon as the Professor's leisure would allow he traversed the whole or principal parts of the scene of Harrison's discoveries under his guidance, and from time to time studied these new evidences of a greater antiquity of man. To those who know Professor Prestwich's conservative tendencies and his predisposition to close in the period during which man has been on earth, it will at once be clear how strong must have been the evidence for him to turn round and become the champion of the cause. We well remember the eventful evenings at the Geological Society and the Anthropological Institute on the occasions of the reading of the [261] Professor's on this subject, when the old adage "history repeats itself" was once more verified; for assuredly the Somme finds were never scouted with such contempt as were the poor plateau tools. It is, perhaps, only right to say that we were among the majority. We remember well the impression made upon us by a specimen, which the Professor afterwards figured (Quart. Joun. Geol. Soc.. . . xlvii, pl. viii, fig. 4); but even from this we admit we were obliged to withhold our assent, and we should think none the less of any who did the same in absence of seeing a series of these things. Fig. 3 shows this to be simply a naturally broken piece of flint with the bark on one side, the right top edge being also a natural break, while nay of the flakes struck from the other part are such as might, under exceptional circumstances, be produced in the vicissitudes of gravel making. But, upon closer examination, we notice that the whole of the left edge is worked from the flat side, and that it was formed by some score of blows. Moreover, we see that the resulting edge, till it reaches the butt, lies all in the same plane, and is at a constant angle to the flat side, which implies that every blow must have been administered at the same angle to the surface struck. Anyone who has had a few years' practice in the working of flint would readily admit that this flint was held in the right hand and the blows administered with the left. Further, when we come to the butt, we find that a slight twist exists in the flint, and accommodating it to the grip of the hand, changes the angle at which the blows were received; consequently the rest of the flakes came off at a lower angle. Now arises the question of mathematical probabilities and the possibilities of "Nature" working in this manner. Could natural forces have administered all these blows on one side, at each time in the right place, when the whole surface of the flint was exposed, and on each occasion at the right angle although there were ?? degrees to choose from? Could natural forces have maintained the blows at a constant angle from the point of the implement till the butt was reached, and then have maintained them at another angle all round the butt? Would all the blows have been struck from the flat side, except where a prominence occurred, and have then been struck from the other side? Finally, would they have attacked the projecting ridge on the top right edge, with the result of turning out a usable implement, however rough? The improbability of such a coincidence of natural blows is so extreme, that though we may regard the shape of the stone as three-parts the work of Nature, we are obliged to ascribe the remaining part to the agency of man.

That Nature suggested this outline to man, or, in other words, that man discovered it nearly quite at hand, we have not the slightest doubt. In Fig. 2 we have an example with even less work, but when placed with the others, its position in the series is evident. We have but little faith as a rule in illustrations of these rude forms; the specimens must be seen, and the physical properties of flint, the laws


2/3 Nat. Size. W. S. Tomkin Del.


2/3 Nat. Size. W. S. Tomkin Del.

[264] of force, and the vicissitudes of gravel making, thoroughly understood. In this tool a half pebble is again employed, and from the flat side the whole of the right edge is worked, being struck at a very low angle and made to correspond with the opposite edge. And here again, as in the preceding, the flakes from the point to the commencement of the butt are in the same plane, or at the same angle; and with the change of grip to operate upon the butt, the angle becomes correspondingly changed. A few flakes removed from the left edge, extending about half of its entire length, complete the bilateral symmetry. In Fig. 4 we have got a step further, on judging by the specimens before us, several steps. Nature, however, still claims the greater part of the work. The large flake from the base is due to the action of frost, but antedates the work on the edge, so that it is practically worked on one side for seven-eighths of the edge, the blows being delivered in different zones and at different angles. On the other side Nature claims a greater share, about one-quarter of the surface being occupied by the natural bark, and about another third by frost-bite; but in this we are introduced to workings on both sides of the edges, which mark a decided advance upon the early workings from one side only. Fig. 5 shows a still further advance; a great deal of the natural bark is still left, but there are decided attempts towards a thickening of the butt, and a tapering from above and below towards the point. Unfortunately, the ancient artisan found he had got too much material to finish with ease and did not quite understand the angle at which flint breaks; but he had the right idea in his head, and probably was far more successful than in this case before he gave up implement making. In Fig. 6 we have a greater advance; the bark is still retained for the base, but the latter is well thickened. Most of the blows, however, were delivered from one side, giving rise to a plano-convexity. This is about the quality of skill achieved by the Hill-men. Fig. 7 marks a still further advance, being chipped all over, and is only one of many specimens which are found in the hill group and occasionally in the valleys.

In selecting from Harrison's collection a half-dozen specimens to illustrate the whole evolution of a type, we are aware of the great gaps that exist between each specimen figured, and of this we are more conscious from the large number of specimens presenting the intermediate characteristics now before us. We cannot expect to prove the evolution, but merely to show the relation of one form to the other. Study of the specimens, however, shows clearly enough that we have here an unbroken sequence of development. In some cases, such as hollow scrapers and bone-splitters, quality of work and condition of material alone separate the Plateau from the Neolithic forms. There are numerous other extensive groups into which the Plateau tools can be divided, in which the archaean character is only surpassed by constancy of form and recurring numbers. What the uses of some of these tools could have been is as great a mystery [265] as would have been a fossil boomerang had its use died out with Palaeolithic man.

Coming now to the reality of Plateau man, the question, to our mind, is a very simple one. It matters not to us whether many of the cherished treasures of Benjamin Harrison are the work of Nature. We are certain that very many hundreds of them are not. Even if of the 2,625 collected, the odd five can be shown to be the work of man, and their stratigraphical position established, then Plateau man becomes a real being, to whom the modern world was first introduced by the Ightham shopkeeper. At the time of Professor Prestwich's paper the horizon of these implements was not susceptible of exact definition; since then a number of important finds have been made and facts discovered which will go a very long way to settle the question of age. But we dare not enter upon this question now, although we hope to do so shortly, and to prove Plateau man to have been Pliocene

There is also another great work which Harrison has accomplished at the suggestion of Professor Prestwich since the papers of the latter on this subject. At the date of these papers, the Hill-men were not clearly defined, and implements found at certain heights were associated with them. This group of implements was first noticed by Mr. F. C. J. Spurrell, and he called them the Cave Group ("Palaeolithic Implements found in Kent," Archaeologia Cantiana, 1883). But, so far as we remember, Mr. Allen Brown was the only to notice that they were of far more modern facies than those of the Hill-men. These have since been proved to have been the work of the Rock-shelter men, and for the purpose of making the necessary excavations the British Association have made grants of money to Mr. Harrison. Anyone who visits this spot will admire the skill displayed in his mode of procedure. Since the occupation of these shelters, the configuration of the country has been so altered that ground just in front of them, which one would naturally expect to

prove fruitful, was not worth working; but, seeing an unwasted ridge about two hundred yards off, Harrison successfully excavated it, obtaining some fifty implements and six hundred flakes. On this ground, and round about the shelters, he had found remains for many years. The implements of this period constitute a distinct in which the work is of the highest quality ever reached before Neolithic times, indeed the skill displayed in one of the specimens is so great that, when first submitted to Professor Prestwich, despite its shape and altered surface, he was doubtful as to its claim to be called Palaeolithic. Many years ago a superb weapon was found in a garden near Sevenoaks Station, beautifully polished all over, which in outline was exactly similar to one of Harrison's finds drawn out half as long again. One of Harrison's specimens, of the Rock-shelter group was illustrated by Mr. Spurrell(loc. cit. ). Especial reference may be made to this, as it helps to [266] bridge the gap between Palaeolithic and Neolithic implements. It has usually been considered characteristic of Palaeolithic implements that they were used on the point as thrusting tools, and that the broad cutting edge was an essentially Neolithic feature. But in the implement there is a soft spot near the point, and through this a hole has been somewhat irregularly drilled. A point intended for use would hardly have been so weakened; the hole, however, might have served to fasten the flint into a haft of some kind, thus leaving the broad end for a cutting edge, as in Neolithic weapons.

These indefatigable labours of Harrison have thus established the existence in the neighbourhood of five distinct stone periods, although not necessarily separated by a great hiatus, each characterised by special groups of implements. They are as follows:–(a) The usual neoliths on the surface; (b) The superior late palaeoliths of the Rock-shelter or Cave-men; (c) The ordinary river drift types of existing valleys and watersheds; (4) The Hill group, above existing watersheds; and (5) The Plateau group which antedate the present structure of the Weald. Of course, it is only natural to expect to find the implements of all the later periods in various positions in the valleys of the plateau. One thing, however, of extreme importance remains, and that is, that there are large tracts of plateau drift from which all traces of deposits of Palaeolithic age have been entirely removed, if indeed they ever existed on them; and in these patches the old Plateau forms are found, to the total exclusion of the Palaeolithic types, although the most diligent search has been made for the latter, both by Mr. Harrison and other workers. This disposes of the weightiest argument against the separation of the two races, namely, the idea that the old rude Plateau specimens were the rough work of Palaeolithic man dropped upon the surface. It is greatly to be regretted that the necessary funds are not forthcoming to carry out a thorough system of excavations upon the plateau, and to trace the relations of this drift to the undoubted Pliocene beds of the neighbourhood, which we are quite sure would confirm Mr. Harrison's discoveries.


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