300,000-year-old stone tools found in Britain

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Archaeology have made an intriguing discovery in Kent, England. They conducted excavations in preparation for the construction of the Maritime Academy School in Frindsbury and unearthed a significant collection of prehistoric stone tools. These artifacts, found in deep Ice Age sediments on a hillside above the Medway Valley, provide valuable insights into early human activity in Britain.

The team, hailing from UCL Archaeology South-East, uncovered approximately 800 stone tools estimated to be more than 300,000 years old. These artifacts were buried within sediments that filled a sinkhole and an ancient river channel. The findings, documented in their research published in Internet Archaeology, shed light on a fascinating period of human history.

Among the discoveries were two remarkably large flint knives referred to as “giant handaxes.” Handaxes are stone tools crafted by knapping both sides, resulting in a symmetrical shape with an elongated cutting edge. These tools were likely held in the hand and employed for tasks such as butchering animals and slicing meat. The two largest handaxes found at the Maritime site exhibit a distinctive design, featuring a long, finely worked pointed tip and a considerably thicker base.

Senior Archaeologist Letty Ingrey from the UCL Institute of Archaeology remarked, “When these tools measure over 22cm in length, we consider them ‘giants.’ In this size range, we discovered two such handaxes. The largest, an enormous specimen measuring 29.5cm, ranks among the longest ever found in Britain. These ‘giant handaxes’ are typically found in the Thames and Medway regions, and they date back over 300,000 years.”

The discovery of these significant stone tools offers valuable insights into the early prehistoric era in Britain and adds to our understanding of ancient human populations and their technological capabilities.

ASE Senior Archaeologist Letty Ingrey measures the largest giant handaxe. Credit: Archaeology South-East/ UCL

The enormous size of these handaxes poses a fascinating conundrum regarding their practical use. It is difficult to envision how they could have been wielded and utilized effectively. It is possible that these tools served a purpose beyond practicality, perhaps having a symbolic or ceremonial significance—a testament to strength and dexterity. Presently, we lack a clear understanding of why such immense tools were crafted and which early human species were responsible for their production. Nevertheless, this site presents an exciting opportunity to unravel these mysteries.

The site in question is believed to belong to a period in early British prehistory when Neanderthals and their cultures were emerging, potentially coexisting with other early human species. The landscape of the Medway Valley during this era would have been a wild expanse characterized by wooded hills and river valleys, inhabited by red deer, horses, and other less familiar creatures like the now-extinct straight-tusked elephant and lion.

While previous archaeological discoveries from this time period, including another remarkable “giant” handaxe, have been made in the Medway Valley, this particular excavation is the first large-scale endeavor of its kind. This offers a unique opportunity to glean deeper insights into the lives of the individuals who crafted these tools and inhabited the region during that time.

ASE Senior Archaeologist Letty Ingrey inspects the largest handaxe. Credit: Archaeology South-East/ UCL

According to Dr. Matt Pope from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the excavations conducted at the Maritime Academy have provided an invaluable opportunity to study the development of an entire Ice Age landscape dating back 250,000 years. The research team, comprised of specialists from UCL and other UK institutions, plans to undertake a comprehensive scientific analysis to unravel the significance of the site to ancient communities. Through this analysis, they aim to gain insights into why the site held importance for early humans and how the stone artifacts, including the notable “giant handaxes,” aided their adaptation to the challenges of the Ice Age environment.

The team is currently focused on the identification and examination of the recovered artifacts. This process will contribute to a better understanding of the creators of these tools and their intended purposes.

Additionally, Senior Archaeologist Giles Dawkes, also from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, is leading the investigation of a second noteworthy discovery at the site—a Roman cemetery. This burial site, which dates to a period at least 250,000 years later than the Ice Age activity, is believed to have served as the final resting place for individuals between the first and fourth centuries AD. These individuals may have been associated with a suspected nearby villa, possibly located around 850 meters to the south of the cemetery.

One of the handaxes at the point of discovery on site. Credit: Archaeology South-East/ UCL
Archaeologists excavating at the Maritime Academy School site in Frinsdbury. Credit: Archaeology South-East/ UCL

During the excavation, the research team uncovered the remains of 25 individuals, with 13 of them having been cremated. Among the buried individuals, nine were found accompanied by personal belongings, including bracelets, while four were interred in wooden coffins. Additionally, in close proximity to the burials, collections of pottery and animal bones were discovered, suggesting their association with feasting rituals that took place during the burial ceremonies.

While archaeological investigations have extensively focused on Roman buildings and structures, cemeteries have received comparatively less attention. Therefore, the discovery of this particular site holds the potential to provide new insights into the burial customs and traditions of both the inhabitants of the villa and the nearby town of Rochester during that period.

Jody Murphy, Director of Education at the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, expressed great appreciation for being part of this extraordinary discovery. The Maritime Academy and the Thinking Schools Academy Trust take pride in their connection to the local community and the region, with a strong emphasis on the history of Medway. They eagerly anticipate leveraging this unique opportunity to educate and engage their students about these findings, creating a lasting legacy in honor of those who lived before them.

Source: University College London

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