S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Sollas, Professor William Johnson (archaeology)

Born: 30 May 1849, Birmingham, England.
Died: 20 October 1936, Oxford, England.

William J. Sollas, British geologist and anthropologist, studied at the Royal College of Chemistry and the Royal School of Mines, London, before entering St John's College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the degree Master of Arts (MA) in geology in 1873. He was elected a Fellow of the college in 1882. During 1873 he published his first four papers, all dealing with the Upper Greensand formation at Cambridge, its fossils, flints, and included rock fragments. From 1873 to 1878 he worked as a university extension lecturer, then became curator of the Bristol Museum while also lecturing in geology at the University College, Bristol, to 1880. He was appointed professor of zoology and geology at Bristol in May 1880 and subsequently became professor of geology and mineralogy at Trinity College, Dublin (December 1883-1893), petrologist in the Geological Survey of Ireland (1893-1897), and professor of geology and palaeontology at the University of Oxford from 1897 to his death in 1936.

Sollas was an expert on fossil and modern sponges and published widely on this subject, including a revised classification of fossil sponges and descriptions of new species. His "Report on the Tetractinellida [now Tetraxonida, an order of fossil sponges] collected by HMS Challenger during the years 1873-1876" appeared in the Report of the scientific research of the voyage of HMS Challenger... (Vol. 25, 1888). In 1896 he led an expedition organised by the Royal Society of London to the island Funafuti in the south Pacific Ocean to test theories of coral reef formation by boring. A number of his 180 or so publications dealt with a variety of other subjects, such as the origins of fresh-water fauna, the origin of flints, and the petrology and mineralogy of Irish igneous rock complexes. Other publications by him were a book of essays on The age of the earth and other geological studies (1905, with further editions to 1912), and The rocks of Cape Colville Peninsula, New Zealand (2 vols, 1905). He developed a "diffusion column" to separate mineral grains and micro-fossils of varying specific gravities by flotation in liquids of graded density.

One of Sollas's earlier papers, "On some Eskimo bone implements from the east coast of Greenland" was published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute in 1880. Later he became an authority on palaeolithic peoples, his most important work in this field being Ancient hunters and their modern representatives (London, 1911, with further editions to 1924). In this work he described the palaeolithic cultures of Europe and claimed to be able to identify their cultural and genetic descendants in modern hunter-gatherer groups of the world, based on perceived similarities in material culture. For example, he regarded the Aborigines of Australia as descendants of the Mousterian culture, the South African Khoi as descendants of the Aurignacian, and the Inuit as descendants of the Magdalenian. He appeared to be fond of contentious issues and engaged in an acrimonious debate with the keeper of the Natural History Department of the British Museum over the authenticity of the [fake] Piltdown skull. He regarded it as genuine, probably in part because its large braincase, ape-like jaw and human-like teeth were in line with his belief that human dentition developed before the human jaw. From about 1920 he became eccentric and erratic. Later he was accused (on scant evidence) by his successor at Oxford of having been the perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax.

Sollas became a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, serving as president of Section C (Geology) in 1900 and as a member of its council from 1900 to 1903. In 1905 he visited South Africa to attend the joint meeting of the association with its South African counterpart and on 16 August, in Cape Town, read a paper on "The continent of Africa in relation to the physical history of the earth". This paper was a speculative account of the assumed distribution of the continents on a pear-shaped early earth. He claimed that the centre of the continent at the broad end of the pear was in the middle of the present continent of Africa. After the meeting he collected stone artefacts at Riverton, on the Vaal River north of Kimberley, and presented them to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Sollas was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (in 1889), the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Geological Society, serving as president of the latter from 1908 to 1910. He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Dublin, Bristol, Oslo and Adelaide.

List of sources:
British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting... South Africa, 1905. London: John Murray, 1906.

Debus, A.G. (ed.) World who's who in science. Chicago: Marquis, 1968.

Mitchell, P. [Biographical data on collectors who contributed archaeological material to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford]. Personal communication, 17 April 2004.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Compiled by: C. Plug