Posted by: georginaferry | March 28, 2010

Hands across the ages

Hand axes from Oxfordshire: the one on the left is between 300,000 and 400,000 years old, the others between 200,000 and 300,000

Along the east side of the Upper Galleries is a display on the geology of Oxfordshire. The county has an abundance of geological strata that are rich in fossils, from invertebrates such as ammonites to dinosaur bones.

But as I showed my sister and brother-in-law around the museum this morning the find that made me catch my breath was not a fossil. It was a small collection of flint hand axes from around 300,000 years ago, found by workmen as they built villages and suburbs close to Oxford. These stone tools, teardrop-shaped, were made  by people of the old stone age, formally known as Homo erectus, though Oxfordshire’s layers of sediment have not yet revealed any of their bones.

Each axe has a wide, blunt base for grasping, and a double-edged blade, worked to a sharp edge on both sides so that it can be used either way round or in either hand. You can imagine how they might sit in your palm, weighty but well balanced.

To make such a tool, the makers must first of all have known what they wanted it for: cutting wood, or butchering dead game, for example. Then they must have sought out the best material for the job: a flint outcrop, from which they could smash a piece of approximately the right size. Using another stone, they would then accurately strike flakes from the edges, working until they had a sharp blade and a pleasing shape. The flakes themselves might have been useful as scrapers or other fine cutting tools.

More than this we don’t know. Such tools have been found throughout much of Africa, as well as in Europe and Asia. Were they made by specialist toolmakers and exchanged for other goods? Or did everyone make his own? Some of those found in Africa are so large that they could not have been useful and may simply have been status symbols, like a Porsche or a Rolex.

The Oxfordshire hand axes in the museum are a sensible size. Men and women will have used them as they worked to make their living. What were those people like? They were not modern humans like us, not even the same species. But the tools reveal that they could think and plan as well as use their hands and stick to a difficult job until it was done. Did they speak? Or sing while they worked? Look at the axes, imagine making one yourself, and you suddenly feel a direct connection back to those first creators of human culture.

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