Palaeolithic Yorkshire – Acheulian handaxes

Introduction

The Palaeolithic period, in spite of the scarcity of finds and the understandably greater emphasis placed on sites and finds in the south and east of the UK, is not without discoveries from the north-east of England characteristic of the period. Primarily dependent on the successive advance and retreat of ice sheets during the Pleistocene epoch, the approximate northernmost limit of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic settlement based on the evidence of recorded inland (as opposed to coastal or marine) finds and sites just grazes the southeast of the county, taking in most of modern Holderness and the Yorkshire Wolds in a stretch from Spurn to Flamborough Head.

One of the most diagnostic artefacts of the period is the Acheulian handaxe, named after the type-site of St. Acheul in France where they were first recognised in the 1930s. The Acheulian handaxe is the veritable icon of the Lower Palaeolithic. Since they are found from North Wales to southern Africa and from Iberia to China, it is possible to talk of an Acheulian world which lasted for at least one million years. Lower Palaeolithic ‘Acheulian’ hand axes in the UK date from the second half of the Hoxnian interglacial period (approximately 225,000-200,000 BC) though more recently it has been claimed that Acheulian technology lasted until about 100,000 BC.

The key British find-site is Hoxne in Suffolk, which gives its name to the UK version of this period, the Hoxnian.

Not surprisingly, as examples of some of the earliest human tools, much has been written about the significance of handaxes for understanding human evolution. Various authors have seen in them vital evidence for the discussion of early hominids with respect to the development of language, technological capacity, hand-to-eye co-ordination, choice and exploitation of raw materials, sexual selection and cognitive evolution, to name but a few.

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Acheulian handaxe: South Gare, Redcar (Lower Palaeolithic 700,000-100,000 BC)

Acheulian handaxe finds in Teesside and Yorkshire: In 2008, this story was brought into sharp local focus with the discovery of a fine bifacial handaxe near Redcar, found at Paddy’s Hole on the west side of the South Gare Breakwater, which forms a sea defence on the south side of the River Tees. The find was reported to Tees Archaeology, the Local Authority archaeological service for the area and deposited at Middlesbrough Museum.

Specialist examination of the artefact by Mark White, then at the Dept. of Archaeology, University of Durham, has led to its interpretation as part of a Lower Palaeolithic handaxe which makes it the first Palaeolithic artefact to be recovered from Teesside.

The Redcar find is by no means the only Acheulian handaxe to have been found in the NE, nor are they unknown in Yorkshire. Finds in our region, especially north of the Humber, are particularly significant as they effectively represent the northernmost limit of their distribution in the UK, with only stray finds further north, as at Redcar and on the Scottish coast. Hull Museum has a fine example of an unworn Acheulian bifacial axe on display fashioned from a pale grey flint found at the head of Austin Dale, Hotham Carr, East Yorkshire and thought on stratigraphic and other evidence to date from the Middle Pleistocene c. 130,000 BC.

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Acheulian handaxe: Hotham Carr (Lower Palaeolithic 700,000-100,000 BC)

Lacking precise stratigraphical evidence, though in all probability Acheulian, are eight further hand-axes or handaxe fragments. The nearest finds to Hotham are in the 1970s from Ken Hill Pit, a working gravel pit at Keyingham, east of Hull and at least one good handaxe flake from Burstwick in 1930. An ovate handaxe made from a naturally perforated flint nodule was found near Rossington, a few km south-east of Doncaster, in South Yorkshire. Further finds are from Rose Hill and more recently Hickleton, both near Doncaster, another at Hatfield Woodhouse to the north-east, another further south near Bawtry, sadly now lost, and again to the north at Stanley, near Wakefield. The remarkably close inland concentration of 5 finds within a circle barely 20km in diameter around Doncaster suggests a clear Lower Palaeolithic presence in the area. Returning to the coast, a small handaxe was found some years ago at Huntow near Bridlington. However, for a comprehensive picture of the Palaeolithic on both sides of the Humber and in the north of England generally, readers are directed to consult the classic survey produced by John Wymer and his colleagues for Wessex Archaeology.

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Acheulian handaxes: Doncaster area finds

Given the rise of sea-levels following the melting of the Devensian ice sheets at the end of the Pleistocene and the filling in of the North Sea basin, finds of Acheulian handaxes along the UK’s North Sea coastline or from the bed of the North Sea itself are not that unusual. In 2009, a remarkable haul of 28 flint hand-axes, dated from around 100,000 BC, were dredged in gravel from the North Sea in an area 13km off Great Yarmouth, along with the bones and teeth of several mammoths.