Proud Boys in the Background

Archivist Ian Gregory unveils another glimpse in to the past:

Every now and then, as I number and re-number photographs in our collection, one will catch my eye. It happened the other day as I catalogued a group photo from 1902. Men and boys have gathered round a collection of fossil animal bones. They sit or stand by a quarry face, similar to one where both my grandads once worked.

DERSB-2005.3.546

Two figures at the back hold my attention. They are young boys, probably in their early to mid-teens. One has a hand on his lapel while the other has both hands behind his back. Their faces are a little blurred, but their postures indicate pride. Did they help in recovering those bones? Were they the first people to have seen them for millennia? Were they excited? Nervous? Did someone order them to help or had they volunteered? If ordered then I think they came to enjoy their task.

In those days most people left school at the age of twelve. How much did these boys understand about the excavations? No one would’ve known that humans evolved in Africa or that dinosaurs had feathers and so on, not even the men in suits who presumably directed operations. Then again, Darwin’s theory of evolution was already well established in the academic community. Perhaps these two boys had already heard something about it. If not then the people leading the dig could have told them of it.

My mother was at school in the 1930s and she told me that subjects like religion were taught in a simple way, even then. Pupils learned little about non-Christian belief systems. Yet neither she nor her friends were Creationists, they all accepted that the earth is millions of years old. Perhaps when you work long hours at physically demanding jobs you haven’t time to ask too many questions. I suspect that my two youths were in that situation of the time. My grandparents certainly were. That said, when help with an excavation was needed, experts often called on local people who had never been to university as there was no one else available. The said locals must’ve picked up some knowledge.

What did the future hold for those proud looking youngsters? Did they resume backbreaking labour? Did they try to find out more about the past? Or did an accident or the First World War end their dreams too soon? I don’t know, but if that day in 1902 they swaggered on their way home, then it’s quite understandable.

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