Natural (pre)history

I’m stretching a point here, but if you can cut me some slack I hope you’ll think it’s worth it.

A couple of years ago my brother in law was turning over the topsoil in his garden in Daventry whilst talking to my Dad, when the old man spotted an interestingly shaped stone in a spade full of soil. They retrieved the stone and this is what they had found:

Acheulian hand axe

We originally thought it was an axe head, but the size and shape and the way it fits so neatly into the palm of my hand made me think it may be a hand axe. My Dad took it to the local council finds department to find out its true identity and the lady there told him she thought it was an axe head dating back around 10,000 years, which is right at the end of the Stone Age, but she would send it to the relevant experts and get it properly identified.

Some weeks later a report arrived from the experts and it turned out to be even more amazing than we first thought. It transpires it is what is known as an ‘Acheulian’ hand axe, so called because the first known example was discovered in the town of Saint-Acheul near Amiens in  northern France. It was knapped from a piece of flint using a deer antler during the middle palaeolithic period, between 250-400,000 years ago. The marks created by working the stone are clearly visible in the photographs above and have been beautifully depicted by a scientific illustrator in the report.

It has been crafted so one side is fairly flat compared to the other and all the weight is at the fat end which fits into the palm of the hand making an exquisitely fit-for-purpose handle with cutting edges running along both sides to the tip. It shows signs of having been reworked so I imagine it must have been a good one, and the edges are still sharp – after many millenia.

The cutting edges of both sides are still sharp

The use of these axes dates back 1.5-2 million years, to the overlap of Homo erectus species with archaic Homo sapiens, so it is possible this tool was made by a member of a pre-human species, and they have been used to trace the spread of hominids away from the birthplace of humanity in Africa. The design of this one dates it to the later part of the palaeolithic period at a time when Homo heidelbergensis was evolving divergently into H.neanderthalensis and H.sapiens – us.

H.sapiens dates back  approximately 100-200,000 years and H.heidelbergensis approximately 400-600,000 years. So the dating of our hand axe suggests it was probably made by H.heidelbergensis.

How many woolly mammoth were skinned and butchered by this?

The axe is made of flint, a sedimentary rock found in limestone formations and is a cryptocrystalline form of quartz, formed by compression at relatively low temperatures and pressures. Flint is normally a dark glassy colour but the colour of our axe is yellowy brown because it was discarded into water in Northamptonshire, where the underlying rock strata are formed predominantly of ironstone. The acid conditions in a bog rich in iron has thus caused the stone to absorb iron onto the surface giving it its unusual colour. Interestingly, the flat end where the tip has been broken off is not yellow, suggesting the tip was broken off more recently when it was no longer exposed to iron.

The next person to handle this amazing tool since a member of the Homo heidelbergensis species was my Dad. Which I think is an incredible notion!

So even though this is not contemporary natural history I think there is a place for it in a blog about nature. I hope you agree!



8 responses to “Natural (pre)history

  1. Hi. ! From ” Squirrel Basket ” I decided to take a look at your blog. This Hand Axe your brother discovered is superb, what a fab find. I am an archaeologist and have done much field walking but not come across anything which thrilled me, except some Bronze Age arrow heads and fragments of ancient pottery which I talk a lot about on my blog. I will come back and peruse more of your enchanting posts.

    • Hello Rita, welcome to the Naturephile – isn’t that axe a jaw dropper! My daughter took it to school last week to show her class as part of their human evolution lessons and it went down well there too, which is terrific because I want as many kids to see it as possible!

      I hope you enjoy my posts and I shall take a trip to your blog too and immerse myself in some proper archeaology!

  2. What an amazing find, Finn!

    • Isn’t it awesome? When we first got it dated we were told it was around 10000 years old and we were gobsmacked, we thought ‘Wow, Stone Age’. And then the proper dating came through and we couldn’t believe it, but it’s such a lovely thing to hold, incredibly fit-for-purpose.

  3. Pingback: Turn of the century | The Naturephile

  4. Indeed an amazing find, it looks terrific and as one talking head said in the BBC History of the World in a 100 Objects these were the Swiss Army knives of their day. BTW you say it fits neatly into your hand but it would be good to have some sort of indication of scale on one of your pictures.

    Talking of the Beeb’s 100 Objects project you can add your own object to this list, see

  5. That’s an amazing, really special, find!

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