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Lower Palaeolithic 700000 - 200000 BC

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Thanet handaxes -
a closer look

Thanet Reach Westwood
Asda Westwood
St. Mildred's Bay



Artefact scales in centimetre divisions


Thanet handaxes - a closer look

A map of the handaxe find-spots covered in the text below

Map of the Thanet handaxe find-spots covered in the text below

Where two handaxe images are shown they are of both sides of the same object.
Thanet Reach today

Thanet Reach today

Thanet Reach Business Park, Westwood

This site has proved incredibly important for Thanet’s early Prehistory, producing rare evidence of both Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity (see the Mesolithic gallery).

This area of Broadstairs has also provided three of Thanet’s handaxes, all within 500m of each other.
A Pointed handaxe from
Thanet Reach


Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach


The pointed handaxe shown above and below is the only Lower Palaeolithic flint from Thanet that has certainly been discovered virtually in its original ancient soil deposit. The only other exception may be the Stone House handaxe. All the rest have been found redeposited in contexts which formed much later than those into which the tools would have originally been discarded.

The sharp-eyed driver of a mechanical digger spotted this handaxe while excavating foundation trenches through clay deposits several metres thick. This work was the subject of an archaeological Watching Brief conducted by Emma Boast, now the Director of Thanet Trust. Such is the power of the handaxe!

This tool has been perfectly preserved and is as fresh as the day it was discarded. It could date from approximately 200,000-500,000 BC plus. The tool is of a type called ‘Acheulian’, named after St. Acheul in France where the form was first recognised.
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Reverse of the Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach

Reverse of the Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach


Most of the Palaeolithic flint tool classifications have elegant-sounding French names because it was in France that a lot of the pioneering work on stone tools was conducted and published.

Britain was not left out however and contributed the classification ‘Clactonian’, which probably sounds equally romantic to the French.
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Small Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach

Small Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach


The slightly odd-looking tool pictured above and below is possibly a small Pointed handaxe. It was recovered from a spoil-heap at Thanet Reach Business Park.

The varying colours on the surface of the tool tell an interesting story. The yellow-patinated surfaces represent the original flaked facets of the tool. They sit alongside relatively recently flaked areas that show as the fresh, un-patinated black or brown natural colour of the flint.
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Reverse of the small Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach

Reverse of the small Pointed handaxe from Thanet Reach


It appears that this Palaeolithic tool was re-discovered by the later Prehistoric inhabitants of this site and reworked by them to bring the tool back into use. This happened hundreds of thousands of years after the original maker had finished with it.

Handaxes can show a general decrease in size over time, but the period known as the Hoxnian interglacial (see below) was a time that saw some very small handaxe-like tools produced. One cannot be certain that our tool was produced during this time however and so we should broadly date it from approximately 200,000-420,000 BC for now.
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Asda Superstore, Westwood
Twisted Ovate handaxe from the Asda Superstore, Westwood

Twisted Ovate handaxe from the Asda Superstore, Westwood
The Asda excavation in progress. Alan and June Hart kindly provide the scale

The Asda Superstore Westwood under excavation and construction

An Early Medieval Post-Mill base is in the foreground

This tool pictured above and below is a variant of the Acheulian type of handaxe known as a 'Twisted Ovate'. It is so named because the working edge is not straight but twists in an 'S'-shape around the circumference of the tool. It is the only recorded example of this type from Thanet.

Its beautiful golden colour is actually a chemical discolouring (patinating) of the original black colour of the flint, caused by the ground in which it was first buried. This process of patination has taken place over many thousands of years.
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Reverse of the Twisted Ovate handaxe from Asda Superstore, Westwood

Reverse of the Twisted Ovate handaxe from the Asda Superstore, Westwood
The area of the flint 'floor', set over a large infilled pit - perhaps the entrance to a flint mine?

The area of the flint 'floor' at Asda Superstore, Westwood

It sits atop a very large, in-filled pit (perhaps the entrance to a flint mine?)

The axe is not of classical form, having a slightly flatter base which is perhaps more typical of the later Middle Palaeolithic ‘Mousterian’ handaxes produced by the Neanderthals. Those tools do not have twisted edges however.

This axe was found in 1999 in excavations at the site of the Asda Superstore in Broadstairs. It came from a Later Prehistoric ‘floor’ made of flints which were laid several hundred-thousand years after the axe was first made.

It must have been rediscovered by the later inhabitants of what had by then become the Isle of Thanet and perhaps deemed particularly suitable for use in their floor, on account of its flat surfaces.

They would certainly have recognised it as a tool and perhaps had kept it for a time as a curio. Whether they had found it close to their settlement or collected it from further away is impossible to say, unfortunately.

All handaxes are difficult to date precisely, once they have been removed from the original context of their disposal. However this type most commonly occurs in the Hoxnian interglacial period, possibly around 360,000-420,000 BC.
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St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate
Ovate handaxe from
St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate


Ovate handaxe from St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate
St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate

St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate

The Ovate Acheulian handaxe shown above and below was found on the beach at St. Mildred’s Bay, Westgate in the late 1990’s. Its colourful patina is common to flints recovered from river deposits and may suggest that this example could have been preserved in an ancient river bed before coastal erosion brought it to the find spot.

Evidence for later settlement in this area in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman and Saxon periods has been recovered from the shifting sands and it is possible that the handaxe could have been brought here during one of these later periods, perhaps being picked up as a curio.

In this scenario a possible origin for the tool might be further up the coast at Bishopstone Glen, which is known in modern times as a place where handaxes can erode out of the cliffs.
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Reverse of the Ovate handaxe from St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate

Reverse of the Ovate handaxe from St. Mildred's Bay, Westgate


However, natural flints of identical patination can be found throughout St. Mildred’s Bay and this suggests that both they and this handaxe originate from an ancient Thanet stream which once flowed through this area of Westgate. Its remains can still occasionally be seen on the beach.

Again, this handaxe cannot be firmly dated, but would broadly date from approximately 200,000-500,000 BC plus.


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Acknowledgments

Thanks go to Webmeister Ges Moody for the map.


The text is the responsibility of the author; the photographs are by the author unless otherwise stated.


Paul Hart

Version 1 - Posted 30.03.05
Version 2 - Posted 10.04.06
Version 3 - Posted 14.05.06
Version 4 - Posted 25.07.06
Version 5 - Posted 21.10.06
Version 6 - Posted 16.12.06
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