This flint Acheulean handaxe is from the Maritime Academy site, Kent, England. It likely dates to ca. 300,000 BP. It was found during archaeological salvage excavations in 2021 and is among the largest handaxes discovered in Britain.
The artefact is curated at the University College London, Institute of Archaeology, Archaeology South-East, catalogue no. RF 53.
This handaxe measures 29.6 cm long, making it the third-largest known from Britain when described in 2023. Handaxes with a narrow, elongated shape are classified as ‘ficrons’. This example is a Type M ficron. It was made on an elongated nodule of flint. The handaxe is described as ‘relatively fresh’ with minimal signs of transport by water, despite its discovery in a sand and gravel deposit. The faces show different levels of staining, suggesting that the artefact was exposed on the surface for some time before burial. It was found 1.2 metres below the modern ground surface. The handaxe tapers markedly in section, from a thick butt partly covered in cortex, to a relatively thin distal end. The archaeologists who described the handaxe suggest it was made by soft-hammer percussion flaking. The handaxe was broken by machinery during mechanical excavation. Detailed dating has yet to be carried out at the Maritime Academy site, but the handaxe likely dates to around 300,000 years ago.
‘Giant’ handaxes challenge preconceptions of what these tools were for, as these examples are too long and heavy to easily use as a hand-held cutting tool (this example weighs 1.6 kg). Indeed, they are much larger than most handaxes made during this period. Archaeologists have speculated that the hominins who used them were larger than modern humans, or that the handaxe was secured in the ground and materials were passively cut against the sharp edges. Some have suggested that their unwieldy size argues for a symbolic role rather than a practical one: making a tool this size demonstrates a toolmaker’s strength and skill. The manufacture of exceptionally large handaxes may have been restricted to narrow time period, and they may have been the product of a discrete population of hominins.
By ca. 600,000-700,000, hominins began expanding out of the Iberian peninsula and crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into the region of modern France. Famous handaxe sites in France include the type site for the Acheulean, St Acheul, in gravel deposits on the Somme River; Terra Amata, in Nice on the French Riviera; and La Noira, on a tributary of the lower Loire River. By 500,000 BP, Acheulean hominins were living what is now southern Britain (the English Channel did not exist at this time), most notably at Boxgrove in West Sussex, which preserves the best-preserved Late Acheulean handaxe-making localities so far discovered. Acheulean handaxe are found widely across the southern UK, including the famous finds at Hoxne, and a large modern sculpture of a handaxe commemorates the artefacts found in the Barnfield Pit near Swanscombe.