By Norman Hammond, archaeology correspondent.
ONE OF the last memorials of the millennium has been unveiled, to the man who two centuries ago had the temerity to suggest that the human race might be many millennia older than the Bible claimed. John Frere, a Suffolk squire whose family still live in the area, was an unlikely precursor of Darwin and Huxley, but he was simply using his eyes and his common sense.
The monument, at Finningham church in Suffolk, proclaims that Frere, "from his discoveries at Hoxne was the first to realise the immense antiquity of mankind". It is adorned with a replica of one of the 300,000-year-old flint handaxes that sparked that realisation. He noticed them in 1797, as he was passing through Hoxne on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, not far from where a Roman treasure was found eight years ago.
Although they were much less striking than the Roman gold and silver, Frere, a 47-year-old Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, immediately recognised the handaxes as of human workmanship. He also scrupulously noted where they had been found, 12ft down "in a stratified soil" below several other deposits which he recognised as having been deposited by a river or under the sea.
Since the Hoxne site was slightly raised above the surrounding country, he realised that many centuries of erosion had followed a similarly long period of deposition, and wrote to the Society of Antiquaries to present both his intriguing conclusions and several examples of the handaxes themselves (which can still be seen in the society's museum at Burlington House in Piccadilly).
The axes were "fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals", he said, a practical application of the idea of the Roman author Lucretius that an "age of stone" had preceded those of bronze and iron. More radically, Frere proposed that the tools dated from "a very remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world" - in other words, that they had been made before the Creation attested in the Bible.
Such notions of "deep time" were no longer heretical, but explicit claims backed up by empirical evidence were. Oddly, the Society of Antiquaries heard, and in 1800 published, Frere's paper without it occasioning comment. It was only half a century later that Darwin's contemporaries, seeking corroboration in Britain of the exciting early man finds made by Boucher de Perthes in northern France, found that John Frere had already done the job; now his intellectual heirs have ensured that this pioneer of prehistory is properly commemorated.
TO ANTIQUARIAN JOHN FRERE DEDICATORY PAGE
TO ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON FRERES
TO FRERE PEDIGREE BY BURKE
TO PEDIGREE OF JOHN OF SWEFFLING BY HORACE AND ARTHUR HOWARD FRERE
TO FREER/FRERE GENEALOGY RESEARCH DIRECTORY