December 9, 2023

Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Archeology have uncovered a collection of 800 stone artifacts dating back more than 300,000 years. The find includes one of the largest hand axes ever unearthed in Britain.

Archaeological excavations at the new Paleolithic site at Flinsbury Manor Farm in Kent began in early 2021, before the site will be developed into a new school called the Maritime Academy.

Excavations of sediments thought to be part of a Middle Pleistocene-era tributary of the Medway River unearthed a trove of stone artifacts, including two large flint handaxes.

One of the tags, marked “Registered Find 50,” was up to 230 mm (9 in) long, but its tip was missing. The Registered Find 53 was impressive though, with a length of 296 mm (11.6 in) and a thick gun end replaced by a “crafted” blade-like tip with a dimpled profile and sharp edges , making about half the length of roughly symmetrical tools.

biggest "giant hand ax" Excavations at sea from different angles
Different angles show the largest “giant hand ax” unearthed at sea

South East Archaeology / University College London

For reference, Maritime No. 53 is believed to be the third largest handaxe ever found in Great Britain, with the undisputed champion being “big hatchet” Found at a site in Furze Platt, Berkshire, it was reported to be 395 mm (15.5 in) long.

“We describe these tools as ‘giants’ when they are longer than 22 centimeters, and we have two tools in this size range,” said Letty Ingrey, a senior archaeologist on the team. “The largest, at 29.6cm long, is one of the longest axes ever found in Britain. ‘Giant handaxes’ like this are commonly found in the Thames and Medway regions and date back to more than 300,000 years ago.”

At that time, the area was home to “wooded hills and river valleys,” with wild horses and red deer among the natives, and possibly even such creatures as straight-tusked elephants and lions. Handaxes were likely used to butcher animals or cut meat, although the UCL researchers do suspect that this particular ‘ficron’ beast – a handaxe with a “distinctive symmetrical, elongated tapered tip” – was employed in this way up.

“These hand axes are so big, it’s hard to imagine how to hold and use them easily,” explains Ingrey. “Perhaps they fulfilled less practical or more symbolic functions than other tools, clearly demonstrating power and skill.”

Currently, this is still an unknown. The team hopes that further examination of artifacts found at maritime sites will help to learn more about why such large tools were made, and to identify which early human species tapped on the edges of tools.

The large flat stone visible in the foreground is one of the handaxes found at the Manor Farm site by University College London South East archeology researchers
The large flat stone visible in the foreground is one of the handaxes found at the Manor Farm site by University College London South East archeology researchers

South East Archaeology / University College London

Dr Matt Pope, from University College London, said: “The excavations at the Maritime Academy have provided us with an invaluable opportunity to study how the entire Ice Age landscape was formed 250,000 years ago.” A scientific analysis program involving experts from University College and other UK institutions will now help us understand why the site was important to ancient people, and how stone artifacts, including the ‘giant handaxe’, helped them adapt to ice age-challenging conditions.”

Interestingly, a second find was also found at the same site, in the shape of a Roman necropolis between the first and fourth centuries AD. The remains of 25 people have been found, about half of which have been cremated. Nine were buried with personal belongings, and four were buried in wooden coffins. Shards of pottery and animal bones, thought to have been part of a funerary feast, were found nearby.

source: University College London