Book review: William Boyd Dawkins, the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting: Three Men in a Cavern, by Mark Wright

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Jon Trevelyan (UK)

William Boyd Dawkins is an immensely fascinating character, who dominated British geology during his time, and yet is mostly forgotten today. He received a professorship and a knighthood, along with many top awards, and yet Mark Wright, in this excellent biography, describes him as “a liar and probably a cheat”.

During the Victorian age, work began on excavating caves in an effort to begin to understand the Pliocene and Pleistocene (and, in particular, the presence of early man at these times), and Dawkins was at the forefront of these efforts. He was involved in many excavations in which huge numbers of animal bones and flint tools were discovered, and, through his books and self-promotion, became famous in doing so.

However, his methods were, even by Victorian standards, slapdash and he relied heavily on memory rather than his notebooks, which, tellingly, tended to record his expenses rather than the relevant facts of the dig. When confronted by academics, he lied, blustered, bullied and referred to the authority of others rather than facts. He got things terribly wrong and yet he was undoubtedly a success. Importantly, in the excavation of Robin Hood Cave in Cresswell by him and others, two finds were made – one of a sabre-toothed cat tooth and the other a carved bone with a picture of a horse – which caused a scientific controversy that means that, to the extent that Dawkins is remembered today, he is implicated scientific fraud.

Mark White’s coverage of the life and times of William Boyd Dawkins tries to untangle this strange character. Clearly a liar, he was also a man of social conscience (notwithstanding the obvious superiority he felt towards the working classes) and was immensely popular with this friends, if not his enemies. Such contradictions make this a fascinating read. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as it moves towards a denouement of the scandal.

The author is Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at Durham University, specialising in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of Britain and in the history of Palaeolithic archaeology; and has written many articles and books on these topics.

William Boyd Dawkins & the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting: Three Men in a Cavern, by Mark Wright, Pen and Sword Books Limited, Barnsley (2017), 302 pages (hardback), ISBN: 978-1473823358

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