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2015-04-10 10:10:05   •   ID: 1230

The master knappers from the Aisne: Elongated Handaxes

Figure 1
Figure 1: This is a lanceolate handaxe, an old quarry find from the Aisne, made of quartzite and about 22 cm in length. Even larger lanceolates from this area, unfortunately undated, have been described by Harper Kelley (see external links).

Such large "Masterpieces" were occasionally found in Western Europe, like the artifact in Figure 2, made of flint and also from the Aisne Valley. Although rare, such Giant Handaxes may have transported a special socio-cultural meaning- not understandable for us any more.

Some handaxes were made much more elongate, than the average bifaces in Acheulian ensembles. As Gowlett recently suggested, it is improbable that this happened by accident: the elongation had to be "constructed". In one approach, very common in Africa, a large preform or blank is struck by the maker as a single flake, and then trimmed to its final form (Large Cutting Tools; LCT).

The other major approach, common in Europe, is to work the piece from a nodule, often on flint. A series of strikes roughs out the handaxe which may then be thinned in a time consuming process.

Again, it is not easy for the maker to maintain the length, and it is obvious that this cannot be done without a specific intention. Excellent raw materials found in large nodules or blocks are the prerequisite of large handaxe manufacture.

From a functional point of view, elongated shapes demonstrate a better ratio of cutting edge to overall weight than less elongated shapes, although this is at the expense of a higher likelihood for knapping failures and breaks to occur during manufacture.

The influence of raw materials is most important at the beginning of the process of façonnage, but later steps are more dependent on reshaping and the knappers’ skills. If there were a mental template and the desire for symmetry involved in the creation of handaxes remains an open question- the pros and cons have beeen discussed in much detail during the last 30 years.

Figure 2
A good example of an large handaxe is known from Kathu Pan in the Northern Cape, South Africa, and dated by association with tooth-plates of the extinct Elephas Reckii  to approximately 750 k.a. BP. This handaxe is fully symmetric and measuring about 27 cm in length. See here: 1715

Large handaxes and cleavers, often with a lenght of ca 20 cm, are the halmark of many Middle Pleistocene Acheulian sites in the Rift valley, as already described in this blog.

At the Masek Beds, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, were found five finely shaped handaxes in white quartzite, measuring about 27 cm in length and were dated between 600 and 400 k.a. Superposed drawings of their outline shapes show them to be almost perfect matches.

Mary Leakey described them as “elongate, with delicately trimmed tips…. In spite of the material being coarse grained, and intractable, these tools have been elaborately trimmed over both faces…. The close similarity in technique, size and form suggests the possibility that they may have been the work of a single craftsman”.

Older publications highlight the large handaxes (“gigantolithes”) from the Maghreb  and the Sahara. Most of them are suggested to be dating < 400 k.a. - but intact deposits with radiometrically dates are still very rare. See here: 1447

The famous Furze Platt hand axe is dated to MIS 8-10 and was found in 1919. It weighs 2.8 kilos and is 30.6 cm long. Another large handaxe is known from Shrub Hill, UK and is dated to MIS 9 has a length of 29 cm.

An important archaeological dig at Cuxton in Kent, dated most probably to MIS7 (250 k.a. BP) uncovered a sharply pointed 31 cm handaxe. The Handaxe was preserved together with a large Cleaver and is in almost mint condition and displays exquisite workmanship in addition to its extreme size. For these handaxes, see the external links.

It seems improbable that such large and heavy weighted Tools were made for practical use- therefore a symbolic background could be a possible explanation.