Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Plus-sized in the Pleistocene

The BBC reports on some freakishly large, 250ky old handaxes of "exquisite, almost flamboyant, workmanship not associated with this period until now." They were found in a private garden, and they are discussed in the report by Paleolithic archaeologist Francis Wenban-Smith.

In truth, these bifaces are very striking, and the biggest one is over a foot in length. While the news report mentions that the handaxe was probably used to butcher prey, there's no mention of any use-wear studies to bolster this. To me, the handax looks too large to have been a wieldy butchering tool; the cleaver, though also very large at 18 cm. in length, is a more likely candidate for efficiently accomplishing such a task.

This begs the question of why these artifacts should have been so big and 'flashy.' As for size, an obvious answer might be the availability of large flint nodules in the site's vicinity. However, the handax and cleaver are the only two reported 'plus-sized' artifacts in that assemblage, suggesting they were, in fact, considered to be different. Without information on the other lithics, it's hard to say definitely if they're abnormally large for the local lithic resources.

Wenban-Smith also mentions that "Both handaxes come from next to each other which is an important point because it shows they were making different designs." This is significant, both in terms of its implications for the debate over a form-function link, and in terms of the implied mental capacities of the stoneworkers who made the tools, which would have been rather developed. As for the flashiness of the tools, that remains another open question, since without the rest of the assemblage to contextualize the two pictured artifacts, it's hard to say just how flashy they truly are, relatively speaking.

Looking forward to some well-illustrated pubished report(s) about these finds at Cuxton.

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