As a curator new to the collections at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, sometimes enquiries lead me to parts of the collection that I didn’t know were there, to look at objects I know very little about. A recent enquiry was whether we had any eoliths in our collection.
Eoliths were identified in the nineteenth century as pieces of chipped flint that had been worked by humans. They were used as part of a debate to ‘prove’ that humans were living in what is now Britain in the Plesistocene era 1.8 million years ago. They were seen as a missing link in tool lineage – simple tools that gave a ‘descent’ to more complex stone tools such as handaxes. The name eolith translates as ‘dawn stone’. They fed into a broader debate between English and French experts as to where ‘early man’ lived first, inferring it was to be hoped an English supremacy.
Today, many see eoliths as geological debris, formed by water movement and glaciation.
My experience with eoliths was quite limited, I’d read about them, but hadn’t really thought about them. So I thought I would share our compact eolith collection and my findings with you. They fall into four provenances. The largest group come from Kent. Then there are four from France. Single examples come from Aldborough and Cromer.
The Kent eoliths are particularly interesting as they belonged to the collection of Benjamin Harrison (1837 – 1921) who championed eoliths as evidence of human tool-making. He lived in Ightham and found many of his examples across the South Downs. Harrision was instrumental in deriving a classification for the eoliths. The classification he produced was dependent on presumed function of the ‘tool’.
It is this process of classification that is so fascinating today.
A selection of Leeds Museums’ eoliths are currently on loan to the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, for their new exhibition Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture.
Other inspiring blogs about eoliths come from Manchester Museum include: “Is it a bird?” and “Every Rock is a River”. Eoliths are seen as tools by some still today. A really interesting project has been undertaken at Kent University about the controversy of eoliths. What do you think?