This flint Acheulean handaxe collected from West Tofts, Norfolk County, England, in 1911. A fossil of a Cretaceous bivalve mollusc, Spondylus spinosus, is located centrally on one face.
This handaxe is striking because of the fossil bivalve preserved in the cortex. Some archaeologists believe the handaxe was deliberately flaked around the fossil, reflecting an aesthetic sense by the hominin who made the tool. The archaeologist Kenneth Oakley advocated this interpretation, which has been repeated by a number of researchers since. A more parsimonious argument is that the arrangement was fortuitous. Cortical surfaces are often unflaked on the proximal (or ‘butt’) ends of handaxes, probably to make them more comfortable to use; this handaxe is unusual in having a fossil in the unreduced area, but the inference that this was deliberate is unwarranted. The fossil is within a depression, and flake propagation would inevitably terminate at the margins of the depression, giving the impression that the fossil is deliberately ‘framed’ by flaking.
Images of the West Tofts handaxe are widely reproduced as an one of the earliest examples of ‘art’ in the archaeological record. In 2018 the handaxe featured in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s exhibition First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone. The exhibition was described as the ‘first museum exhibition to present ancient handaxes and figures stones as works of art’.
The handaxe is curated at the University of Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Accession No 1916.82/Record 2.
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.