John Frere Discovers Prehistoric Tools in England

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John Frere Discovers Prehistoric Tools in England


John Frere (1740-1807) was an English landowner with a modest political career and enough of an interest in archaeology to join the London-based Society of Antiquaries. He discovered a group of chipped-flint objects in a brick-earth quarry near Hoxne in 1790, and described them in a June 1797 letter to the Society as "weapons of war, fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals." What made the tools remarkable, first to Frere and later to others, was that they lay beneath 12 feet (3.66 m) of undisturbed soil and gravel, below (and thus older than) a sand layer containing shells that appeared to be marine and the bones of a large, apparently extinct mammal. Frere concluded that the tools and their unknown makers belonged to a time long before humans were thought to have existed. Frere's interpretation of the stone tools challenged current ideas about of the early history of the human race and set the stage for the evolution of a new understanding over the next 60 years.


Frere's letter to the Society of Antiquaries, read before the society in 1797 and published in the 1800 issue of its journal, was hardly an intellectual bolt from the blue. It presented revolutionary interpretations but rooted them in well-established, widely accepted scientific principles.

Frere could, for example, assume that his readers would readily agree that the objects he found were stone tools, shaped by human hands. The decline of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas during the seventeenth century had put an end to the once-popular belief that such objects were formed, where they lay, by the "generative powers" of Earth itself. It made far more sense, within the mechanical view of nature popularized by René Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), to conclude that objects that looked like stone axe heads were just that. The human origins of such objects were, by Frere's day, regarded as self-evident. Frere knew that he could display a picture of one, call it a human artifact, and go on to more complex issues.

Frere could also assume his readers' acceptance of the idea that the oldest layers of sediment in the sequence he described would be at the bottom and the youngest at the top. That premise, too, was an idea from the late seventeenth century that scientists of the late eighteenth century regarded as axiomatic. First formulated by Danish clergyman-scientist Niels Stensen (1638-1686), the "law of superposition" was originally used as a tool for understanding the relative ages of rock formations. By Frere's time, it was also being used by paleontologists to determine the relative ages of fossils. Frere could, once again, allow his chain of reasoning to remain implicit, knowing that his audience would understand it. He could simply assert, without further explanation, that the tools must be older than the shells and bones in the bed of sand above them.

Frere could, finally, assume his readers' belief in an old Earth that had undergone both geological and biological changes since its origin. European scholars had, as late as the late seventeenth century, maintained that the human race was 6,000 years old (a figure deduced from Old Testament genealogies) and Earth (based on a literal reading of Genesis) only days older. This view of a young Earth created in essentially its modern form slowly crumbled, however, over the course of the eighteenth century. Geological and paleontological evidence for a long, eventful Earth history accumulated steadily, and liberal interpreters of scripture suggested that Genesis should be read as poetic metaphor rather than detailed reportage. The consensus that emerged by Frere's day gave Earth itself a long history in which its flora, fauna, and landscape had changed radically and perhaps repeatedly. It continued, however, to assign the human race an age of about 6,000 years. It was this durable belief that, Frere believed, the discoveries at Hoxne called into question.


Frere's letter sank without a trace in the sea of turn-of-the-century archaeological literature, generating little excitement either at its 1797 reading or its 1800 publication. The letter's long-term conceptual impact, on the other hand, was enormous. It introduced revolutionary ideas that were elaborated and reinforced by others over the next six decades until, in the early 1860s, they became the foundations of the new field of prehistoric archaeology.

Frere's letter made two substantive claims. The first, that the tools had been made by "a people who had not the use of metals," reflected the general consensus of eighteenth-century archaeologists that nobody capable of working metals would make tools of stone. The conceptual revolution that Frere set in motion lay in the second claim: that the tools and their makers belonged to "a very remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world." Frere's readers would have understood "beyond ... the present world" to mean "before Earth's flora, fauna, and landscape looked the way they do now." That claim challenged the established archaeological ideas of the time in three important ways: methodological, chronological, and religious.

Eighteenth-century archaeology centered around the collection of beautiful, striking objects and the interpretation of written inscriptions. Archaeologists tended, as a result, to pay far closer attention to the remains of advanced urban civilizations (the Greeks, the Romans, and, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, the Egyptians) than to those of less sophisticated "barbarian" societies. This preference was partly aesthetic and partly practical. Urban civilizations produced more interesting, more durable, and more attractive artifacts, but the fact that they were nearly always literate meant that a wealth of information about their politics, economic trends, and religious beliefs could be found in their writings. Understanding anything about a society incapable of recording its thoughts in writing seemed, by comparison, a hopeless and unrewarding task.

Frere's analysis of the Hoxne site suggested a radically different approach to archaeology. Taking the illiteracy of the toolmakers as a given, he inferred what he could from the tools themselves and from their geological and paleontological context. The information he gleaned by these methods—a rough sense of the toolmakers' relative age and a few glimpses of their culture—were trivial compared to what a classicist could wring from a single Roman inscription. By doing it, however, Frere showed that archaeology could ally itself with geology and paleontology as well as the old classical disciplines of Greek, Latin, and ancient history. That new alliance would, in time, become a defining feature of prehistoric archaeology.

Eighteenth-century archaeologists' focus on literate urban civilizations meant that their study of Western Europe effectively began with the Romans. They acknowledged the existence of pre-Roman peoples but paid little attention to them. In Britain archaeologists' understanding of the pre-Roman "Celtic Period" was a patchwork quilt of disconnected facts: snatches of description from Roman writers' accounts of conquest, catalogs of burial mounds and artifacts, and speculations on mysterious stone structures. Information as basic as the extent and internal chronology of the period remained a mystery, and discussions of the Ancient Britons' lives and culture often owed as much to fantasy as to fact. Few archaeologists found this level of uncertainty troubling. Absent evidence to the contrary, most assumed that the Celtic Period had been a brief, unimportant prelude to the culturally diverse Roman, Saxon, and Norman eras that followed it.

Frere's conclusions about the Hoxne site suggested a very different picture. The stone tools he described belonged to a people far less advanced than those who fell before the Roman legions. Frere had, moreover, placed the tools and toolmakers from Hoxne much further back in time than the Celtic Period had ever been thought to extend. Frere, in his brief letter, implied that the pre-Roman history of Britain ("prehistory," a more concise and versatile term, would not be coined until 1851) was longer and more culturally diverse than his colleagues had supposed. This revised chronology encouraged—even demanded—closer and more rigorous study of Britain's pre-Roman inhabitants.

The religious implications of Frere's arguments were more abstract than the chronological and methodological ones but carried more cultural freight. The belief that Earth's flora, fauna, and landscape were created specifically for humans had a long history and a central place in Judeo-Christian thought. It reinforced ideas about human uniqueness, human dominion over nature, and the providential nature of God's design of the natural world. Its power was such that it was reinterpreted, rather than discarded, as scientists' ideas about Earth history changed. Seventeenth-century scientists argued that Earth was only days older than its human inhabitants because, created for human use, it served no purpose standing empty. Eighteenth-century scientists, who saw the human era as the last brief segment of Earth's long history, argued that the first humans did not appear until Earth had taken on its modern, "finished" form and was ready to receive them. Frere's placement of his toolmakers on an Earth not yet in its modern form (and so "unfinished") demanded, if taken seriously, that the venerable old idea be rethought once again.

John Frere did not single-handedly overturn the prevailing belief that humans were little more than 6,000 years old. Nor did he single-handedly create the discipline of prehistoric archaeology. He set both processes in motion, however, by approaching familiar data from a novel perspective. By doing so, he established a line of thought and investigation that reached a climax 60 years later. The belief that humans had lived "beyond ... the present world" was established beyond reasonable scientific doubt in 1859, and the new field of prehistoric archaeology came into its own by 1865. Both had their roots in Frere's willingness, in 1797, to reexamine old assumptions.


Further Reading


Bahn, Paul G., ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Bowler, Peter J. The Norton History of the Environmental Sciences. New York: Norton, 1993.

Grayson, Donald K. The Establishment of Human Antiquity. New York: Academic Press, 1983.

Heizer, Robert F., ed. Man's Discovery of His Past: Literary Landmarks in Archaeology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Piggott, Stuart. Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination: Ideas from the Renaissance to the Regency. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. Men Among the Mammoths: Victorian Science and the Discovery of Human Prehistory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Periodical Articles

Frere, John. "An Account of Flint Weapons Discovered at Hoxne, in Suffolk." Archaeologia 13 (1800): 204-205 [reprinted in Grayson (1983), 55-56, and Heizer (1962), 70-71].

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John Frere Discovers Prehistoric Tools in England

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