Archaeologists in southeastern England have discovered a prehistoric handaxe so big it would have been almost impossible to wield as a cutting tool. The handaxe is about 300,000 years old and is the third largest ever found in Britain.
A team from Archaeology South-East, UCL Institute of Archaeology, excavated Manor Farm in Kent ahead of construction of a new school (the Maritime Academy, which has given the finds their name). The team unearthed more than 800 Paleolithic stone artifacts in deposits of fluvial sediment from a prehistoric tributary of the River Medway. Several of them were handaxes and two of them were giants of a form known as a ficron, characterized by a rounded thick base tapering to a long, finely-worked tip. One is 23 cm (nine inches) long but missing its tip. The other is 29.6 cm (11.6 inches) long and intact. It is 11.3 cm (4.4 inches) wide at its widest point.
Senior Archaeologist Letty Ingrey (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “We describe these tools as ‘giants’ when they are over 22cm long and we have two in this size range. The biggest, a colossal 29.5cm in length, is one of the longest ever found in Britain. ‘Giant handaxes’ like this are usually found in the Thames and Medway regions and date from over 300,000 years ago.
“These handaxes are so big it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been easily held and used. Perhaps they fulfilled a less practical or more symbolic function than other tools, a clear demonstration of strength and skill. While right now, we aren’t sure why such large tools were being made, or which species of early human were making them, this site offers a chance to answer these exciting questions.”
The foot-long Maritime Academy ficron is in excellent condition with minimal abrasion and is larger than any of the other stone artifacts found in its bed of fluvial sand and gravel. Given those features, archaeologists believe it was found basically where it was deposited instead of having been battered over a long river voyage. Face 2 was a little more abraded and stained than Face 1, indicating the handaxe had likely spent a significant stretch of time Face 2 side up.
While archaeological finds of this age, including another spectacular ‘giant’ handaxe, have been found in the Medway Valley before, this is the first time they have been found as part of large-scale excavation, offering the opportunity to glean more insights into the lives of their makers.
Dr Matt Pope (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: “The excavations at the Maritime Academy have given us an incredibly valuable opportunity to study how an entire Ice Age landscape developed over a quarter of a million years ago. A programme of scientific analysis, involving specialists from UCL and other UK institutions, will now help us to understand why the site was important to ancient people and how the stone artefacts, including the ‘giant handaxes’ helped them adapt to the challenges of Ice Age environments.”
The discovery has been published in the journal Internet Archaeology. Other notable Maritime Academy finds will be published in later papers.