The Priest Who Loved Fossils

How Hastings inspired Teilhard de Chardin in his Spiritual Quest

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is not so well known today, but go back to 1968, and ‘The Summer of Love’, and his name was everywhere, the go-to theologian and philosopher of the counter-culture. There was a list of essential books that all aspiring ‘weekend hippies’ were meant to read at the time; Herman Hesse “The Glass Bead Game”; Carl Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections“; Alan Watts “The Way of Zen“; Aldous Huxley “Doors of Perception” and Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man”. There were, of course, many others, but these were the ones that stick in my mind. I think that I read most of them, but I remember that the Phenomenon of Man was too esoteric for my simple mind and I never got beyond the first few pages.

Of course, he was always the unlikeliest of new age rebels and his star eventually faded. Nowadays, fewer people are acquainted with him and for many years the scientific community dismissed him as a charlatan. He reappeared on my radar more recently, when I discovered, after I moved down to East Sussex, that his formative years as a priest and a palaeontologist were spent in Hastings between 1908 and 1912 at a Jesuit Seminary in the north of the town. It was during this period, as he searched for fossils at ‘Pett Level’ and ‘Fairlight Cove’, that Teilhard de Chardin developed the theories and beliefs that would last a lifetime.

Teilhard de Chardin in his later years

What was also just as fascinating to discover was his close friendship with a certain Charles Dawson, he of the notorious ‘Piltdown Man’ fraud and long term resident of Hastings. Here was a story too good to miss and I was hooked.

It is a strange thought, a French Jesuit Roman Catholic Seminary in non-conformist East Sussex. However, it came about as a result of ongoing hostility from the French Government towards the Jesuit order, from the 1880s onwards. Unlike France, late Victorian and Edwardian Britain had a fairly tolerant attitude towards Roman Catholicism and, as a result, from 1883 until 1926, the Jesuit order established a presence in Hastings.

After occupying various properties in the area, in 1905 they purchased Ore Place, an old Manor House in 14 acres of land, which they proceeded to add to over the years. It was here at Ore Place that Teilhard arrived in 1908, a 27 old novitiate, to complete his preparations for the priesthood and where he spent his next 4 years, finally being ordained a priest in 1911.

Ore Place in early 20th century (Photo from the Geoff Wolfe collection – Copyright 1066online)
Postcard of Ore Place after 1926, when it was sold by the Jesuit Order to the Society for African Missions

Sadly, Ore Place was demolished in 1986, to make way for a housing estate. The only evidence of this once grand place are some of the original medieval ruins, slowly disappearing under foliage, nearby to the Old St. Helens Church, another of Hasting’s secret jewels. 2

The remaining ruins of the once grand Manor House as at June 2021

While training in Hastings, Teilhard pursued his life-long love of fossil hunting and at Fairlight Cove and Pett Level he found the perfect place for his obsession. Pett Level, seen below, is an area of very unstable cliffs and treacherous quicksand. However it is also a fascinating area, a site of great geological interest including numerous fossils, dinosaur footprints and an 8,000 year old sunken forest visible at low tide. 3

Theilhard loved this period of his life and looked back at his time in Hastings with great fondness. And the more he searched the area for his fossils, the more he became convinced of the truth of evolution, which he later stated “haunted my mind like a tune” . It was also during this period that he studied the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, whose ideas had a profound influence on Teilhard’s later evolutionary theories.

He had soon amassed a large collection of fossils, including ferns, fish and dinosaurs, many of which were later donated to both the’ Hastings Museum and Art gallery’ 4 and the’Natural History Museum’, where a number of his discoveries are named after him. Below are a selection of fossils from the Teilhard collection at the Hastings Museum including plant fossils and reptile scales, teeth and bones (Photographs courtesy of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, Museum reference numbers and descriptions are included beneath each photograph)

During his time in at Ore Place, Teilhard became acquainted with Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist and palaeontologist, who lived in Hastings and was something of a celebrity in the rarefied world of fossil collecting, having made myriad finds and discoveries. As a young fossil hunter, the older Dawson with his considerable experience and reputation would, no doubt, have made a strong impression on Teilhard.

Teilhard and Dawson spent many hours searching for fossils under the cliffs and in 1912 Charles Dawson started excavating in Piltdown Gravel Pit in East Sussex and had discovered, so he claimed, some pieces of a human like skull. During this period, Teilhard was present at a further digs when Dawson produced further pieces of the skull, which was to cause problems for Theilhard at a later date.

Dawson claimed in 1912 that he had discovered the missing link between apes and humans and together with Arthur Smith Woodward, the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, over several months and further digs reconstructed the skull and came up with the hypothesis that they belonged to a human ancestor from half a million years ago. Right from the start this claim was treated with great scepticism, but it was not until 1953 that enough conclusive evidence was amassed to prove once and for all that the ‘Piltdown Man’ was an elaborate forgery. By that time, Dawson was long gone, having died at a young age in 1916 of septicaemia.

Piltdown skull being examined, with Charles Dawson , 3rd to the left and Smith Woodward seated in white coat. Painted by John Cooke 1915.

For many years after 1953, as well as the main suspect Dawson, accusations were also levelled at Teilhard, Smith Woodward and various other peripheral figures, including, surprisingly, Arthur Conan Doyle, as being either the perpetrators of the fraud or part of a conspiracy.

Finally, however, a detailed study in 2016, using the latest scientific techniques, 5 came to the conclusion, that the fraud was carried out by one person alone, and that person was Dawson. Furthermore, it has now been proved conclusively that Dawson had been a serial offender, forging countless artefacts during his lifetime.

It appears that Teilhard was a totally innocent bystander in the most notorious scientific hoax of the 20th century. Knowing Teilhard’s later career, it seems inconceivable that he would have party to something so fraudulent.

Teilhard was ordained in the chapel in Ore Place in 1911 and the very next morning he held his first mass in the impressive Gothic St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Hastings old town. He left the seminary in 1912 and spent the next 2 years working in the palaeontology department of the French National Museum of Natural History, but during that time he made a number of visits back to Hastings, to take part in archaeological digs and to spend time at Ore place.

Then came the First World War, which changed everything, when Teilhard was drafted into the army as a stretcher-bearer. Following the war, Teilhard spent the rest of his life travelling the world, including spending over 20 years in China, participating in numerous geological expeditions, including the discovery of ‘Peking man’, one of the greatest archeological finds the 20th century, and, unlike ‘Piltdown Man’, totally genuine.

This was also when through his lectures and writing, that Teilhard came into conflict with the rigid conservative doctrines of the Catholic Church, which eventually forbade Teilhard from teaching altogether. During the 1930s, Teilhard wrote the two works that were to be his greatest achievement, ‘The Divine Milieu’ and the ‘Phenomenon of Man’, but so great was the hostility of the Catholic establishment to his ideas on evolution, that these books were not published until after his death in 1955..

‘Phenomenon of Man’ had an introduction by the distinguished biologist Julian Huxley, a great friend of Teilhard and although an agnostic himself, promoted many of Teilhard’s ideas, despite disagreeing with him on some of the more religious aspects of his work. The book was a publishing sensation and achieved great success, paving the way for its great popularity amongst the counter-culture in the 1960s, but was also roundly condemned by the Catholic Church, who maintained that position for many years, until a more liberal approach was adopted more recently.

Having talked about Teilhard’s life and influences it is now necessary to try and explain in a few sentences the crux of Teilhard’s theories and world view, a formidable task, but with my limited understanding, I will attempt the impossible. Teilhard believed that evolution began in the origins of the universe and that as life evolved from one-cell organisms into animals and then to homo-sapiens, who were able to acquire intelligence, a new layer of the biosphere (the global ecosystem composed of living organisms and the non-living factors from which they derive energy and nutrients) has been created called the ‘Noosphere’, which is a cognitive layer of consciousness or mind surrounding the earth, which will evolve over time, through the aid of science, and move towards something called ‘The Omega Point’, a supposed future when everything in the universe spirals toward a final point of unification and infinity.

Even with that simplistic explanation, it can be seen that it might not have been too popular with the Catholic establishment, discarding, in one go, the concept of original sin and heaven and hell. It can also be seen that it would be a concept, that would appeal to the alternative philosophies that were emerging in the 1960s,

However, it was not long before a backlash came from the scientific community, in particular Peter Medawar, the immunologist and Nobel laureate, who condemned Teilhard as a charlatan and stated that most of his work was nonsense. Others followed suit and it seemed as though his scientific credibility had been permanently damaged.

His greatest influence at that time appeared to be in the Arts and, unsurprisingly, many science fiction writers used his concept in their stories of the world in the far distant future. But his ideas also had an impact on more mainstream writers such as Don DeLillo whose novel ‘Point Omega’ takes a number of ideas, as well as the book title from Teilhard.

An artist who was obsessed with Teilhard and the Omega Point theory was that eccentric surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His 1959 painting The Ecumenical Council is said to represent the “interconnectedness” of the Omega Point, and shows various images blending into each other. to illustrate this.

The Ecumenical Council by Salvador Dali, Dali Museum, Florida

But after many years, something strange is beginning to take place. After being ridiculed for years by the scientific community, Teilhard’s star appears to be on the rise again. Take his theory of a vast ring of consciousness surrounding the world ‘The Noosphere’; does that remind you of something in today’s world, it is of course the World Wide Web and the Internet. Perhaps Teilhard was more prescient than had been previously thought.

And in the field of Astrophysics, which is beginning to uncover a universe resembling ‘Alice in Wonderland’, some of his concepts are beginning to gain ground. A mathematical physicist called Frank Tipler has developed a theory based on Teilhard, where he attempts to reach the same Omega Point of Infinity, using the laws of physics, and envisaging a future in which Artificial Intelligence will have the sum of all human knowledge, in other words will become, in effect, ‘God’.

This is all heady stuff and way beyond most people’s comfort zone, so perhaps we need to come back down to earth and in particular to Hastings. In 2008, Hastings remembered the arrival of its illustrious visitor to the town a hundred years previously, with a blue plaque ceremony at the site of Ore Place, followed by a commemoration at St. Mary Star of the Sea, where Teilhard had held his first mass as a priest.

It has been said that Teilhard was “perhaps the man most responsible for the spiritualization of evolution in a global and cosmic context” and this is perhaps his lasting legacy. It seems that the twenty first century has finally caught up with the extraordinary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to the man himself. Just before he died, Teilhard wrote movingly of his time in Hastings that:

I found extraordinary solidity and intensity then in the English countryside, particularly at sunset when the Sussex woods were charged with all that “fossil” life which I was hunting for, from cliff to quarry, in the Wealden clay. There were moments, indeed, when it seemed to me that a sort of universal being was about to take shape suddenly in Nature before my very eyes.

Footnotes

1 Header Photograph – This is a fossil containing a unique plant frond ‘teilhardia valdensis, discovered by Teilhard and named after him, found at Fairlight and gifted to Hastings Museum (Photograph courtesy of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery)

2 Old St Helen’s Church – This Grade II listed Ancient Monument is purported to be the oldest building in Hastings and is one of Hasting’s best kept secrets, dating back to the 11th century and possibly before. This now derelict structure and small churchyard is wonderfully secluded within the Ore place housing estate and will be the subject of a future article on this web-site.

3 Pett Level – Pett Level, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is a strange and somewhat eerie place, where countless fossils and bones of long extinct mammals and fish lie. It is therefore, no surprise, that artists have been attracted to the beach, theatre director Jonathan Miller filmed the beach scenes for his 1966 TV film of Alice in Wonderland here, with John Gielgud playing the Mock Turtle. However, the most famous use of Pett Level was as a backdrop to David Bowie’s iconic video of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, I have watched this video many times and had never realised the location, however it is intriguing to know whether Bowie, the polymath, was aware of Teilhard de Chardin and his connection to the beach. I suspect Teilhard would have been just the sort of person that would have piqued Bowie’s interest.

4 The Hastings Museum and Art Gallery – This excellent museum is another hidden gem of Hastings and is an exemplar on how a local museum should operate. I would urge anyone visiting Hastings to set aside some time to view their fascinating collections and exhibits.

5 For further information on the conclusions reached by Scientists in 2016 on the Piltdown fraud, a very good article can be found in ‘Science Magazine’ dated Aug 9th 2016

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

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