A trueVictorian monster
The 19th century’s unequalled vertebrate palæontologist was also a rubbish archæologist and very partial to venomous anonymous reviews
William Boyd Dawkins and the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting Three Men in a Cavern Mark John White Pen and Sword 2016
In popular culture, Cave Man was a threetrick pony: he hunted mammoths; hauled longhaired women into caves; and fought sabre-toothed tigers (or Tyrannosaurus
rex). There is evidence for one of these ‘facts’ in The
Mammoth Hunters (part of Jean M Auel’s series of wellresearched novels, ‘Earth’s Children’; there is even a cave lion attack). The others, though long-lasting, are more fanciful.
These fancies were built upon the investigation and collection in the 18th century, but mainly 19th and early 20th centuries, of artefact and bone finds in the caves of Europe and America, and fossil hunters’ initial attempts to explain them within a framework that initially lacked any understanding of the true length of geological time, of multiple glaciations and of basic taxonomy and taphonomy (the changes to bones and artefacts after burial). The finds became an end in themselves, a competition (between museums) and their interpretation needed to become ever more impressive to the literate, neo-Darwin/ post-Darwin general public that was eager for the next great find. (There are direct parallels with 19th and 20th century dinosaur bone collecting and collectors).
Prof William Boyd Dawkins (1837–1929) was a peerless vertebrate palæontologist. He may well have known more about cave bones than anybody else in the second half of the 19th century, and is justly remembered for his contributions in that field. But he was a true blue heroic Victorian monster, and as savage as any hyena or the scimitartooth cat that contributed to the shredding of his reputation and legacy. Boyd lived through the critical transformation from trophy hunting and randomised cave sacking to controlled digging where microprovenance and context became kings. By accident not design he remained, despite being employed by the British Geological Survey for seven years, an appalling field geologist/field archæologist; they had to remap some of his areas – he exemplified the need for precision, truth and accurate recording in any excavation.
In 1876 he was present at, indeed partly claimed to have found, two of the most spectacular Ice Age cave finds in Britain, at Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border, namely an engraved sketch of a horse’s head and the canine tooth from a scimitartoothed cat (sabre-toothed tigers are unknown from Europe; in celluloid and pulp fiction they inhabited La La Land. They are not even tigers, but belong to the aptly sunny Californian-sounding genus Smilodon).
Even for Boyd Dawkins, this was chutzpah writ large! However, within a few years this amazing piece of wellplaced good fortune (the right finds by the right person) turned into a bane as the finds’ locality, timing, context and provenance were challenged in exchanges that pre-echoed the later Piltdown Man Hoax – challenges and counter challenges that included public lectures in Manchester and London, ‘anonymous’ letters to the national papers and learned societies, ‘lost’ invitations, harsh book reviews and three-hour lunches. Dawkins’s case was not helped by his refusal to clearly answer criticisms, by missing critical diaries, pages torn from others, and changed entries in field notes. All due to carelessness or deceit/hubris, or a combination – who knows?
It is difficult to feel sorry for the man; his ‘anonymous’ review of Darwin’s Descent of
Man likened it to a novel, and Darwin was not alone in being scorned and dismissed. Lesser men were more fiercely mauled and sidelined as Dawkins tried to out-Trump every slight and enemy. But inexorable karma is best served cold.
Prof Mark White unearths Boyd Dawkins’s life in great detail (except for his last years when he became an economic geologist of some note and worth, involved in the exploitation of the Kent Coalfield and the Victorian attempt at a Channel Tunnel) in a straightforward and neutral style, but makes the story, the man, Manchester and the intellectual times totally compelling. This is non-fiction ‘faction’ at its best. Was Boyd Dawkins a fraud, a dupe or incredibly lucky? White’s last chapter weighs up the alternatives and… but it would be a pity to spoil a classical Victorian mystery story by revealing the ending. Read, enjoy and be mildly scandalised by this man, his milieu and meals. It is one of the most enjoyable biographies of any Victorian/ Edwardian scientist written in the last couple of decades.
Read it and be glad that academic science is a bit less of an Old Boys’ Club now. Rob Ixer
Cry Havoc Volume 1 – Mything in Action Simon Spurrier, Ryan Kelly, Nick Filardi, Lee Loughbridge, Matt Wilson, Simon Bowland, Emma Price Image Comics 2017 Pb, 160pp, illus, notes, £13.99, ISBN 9781632158338
is not the first appearance of the Barghest in a comic (that honour goes to Wonder Comics in 1948), yet it is easily one of the most accomplished. Simon Spurrier, a masterful storyteller, turns his attention to the complexities of folklore with the story of Lou, a London busker who is bitten by something she thinks is a werewolf, but isn’t. Then everything changes. The story could be summed up as simply as that, yet there is a lot more going on here. First, how Lou’s story is presented. Rather than a linear beginning, middle and end, the three sections are told alongside each other. Even though the whole comic is drawn by the same artist, Ryan Kelly, three colourists (Nick Filardi, Lee Loughridge and Matt Wilson) worked on the comic to give each part of the story its own character. This is tied together by the design work of Emma Price.
Spurrier has a feel for the nuance in folklore, and as the story brings in elements from Norse myth or Japanese folktales it never feels forced or crowbarred in.
On one level Cry Havoc is a visceral story about someone transformed into a beast from the shadows, dropped into a conflict they don’t understand. On another it is an exploration of story and folklore in the 21st century. At turns bawdy, graphic and tender, it takes the reader along and never talks down to them.
Of particular interest to the fortean will be the annotations at the back of the volume, where Spurrier outlines inspiration (such as the Black Dog of Newgate, and the delightfully terrifying Penanggalan) and decisions taken during the creation of the comic.
Cry Havoc is an example of how storytelling in comics can be distinct from either novels or film, and will appeal to many who read this magazine. Steve Toase