The Palaeolithic – Part 3: the things people made and used

Archaeologists are, of course, very interested in the things that people in the past made, used and eventually disposed of. We have just a sample of these things to give us clues to life in the deep past, but even these few objects have been of tremendous help to us, particularly when they have been interpreted in conjunction with other information such as environmental data.

Unequal distribution

The Palaeolithic in Britain lasts for over 700,000 years and during that time there were several periods when the ice sheets covered much of northern Britain. As a result, there are few records of artefacts for many northern counties. West Yorkshire, for example, has only little more than a dozen finds dating to the Palaeolithic, nearby Derbyshire has almost 100, whilst Norfolk has over 200 Middle Palaeolithic handaxes alone, and Swanscombe has produced thousands.

The overwhelming majority of the artefacts we have from this period are either stone tools, or the waste created during their manufacture. There are very few exceptions to this, so we’ll deal with these first!

The Clacton Spear

One of the most exciting finds made so far has been the “Clacton spear”. It was discovered during quarrying in 1911 and is made of yew. It has always thought to have been of a very old age, but has recently been radiocarbon dated to 450,000 years BP (http://piclib.nhm.ac.uk/results.asp?image=001066). Although it is called a spear, it is thought that it might also be the tip of a lance – up to 2.5m in length. Similar, more complete examples have been found in Schöningenin Germany, and these confirm it was certainly used for hunting larger animals.

pebble tools
Fig 1. Pebble tools. Image by Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stone tools

During the course of the Palaeolithic there have been many changes in the types of stone tools used by our ancestors and we will show you just a few of them here. The earliest tools yet identified are known as ‘pebble tools’ and are shown here in the image on the left.

This type of tool dates back almost 2.6 million years. They are part of what is called Oldowan culture or technology after the Olduvai Gorge in E Africa where they were first found. These simple tools have been found at a number of sites in Britain since the arrival of our early ancestors, including Boxgrove in what is now West Sussex. As you can imagine, they were limits to what they could be used for – typically hacking and cutting.

Handaxes

By Johnbod (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fig 2. Handaxes from Hoxne (Norfolk) and Gray’s Inn (London)Johnbod (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The most common stone tool from prehistory is the handaxe. Why you might ask? Well, for one thing it was incredibly useful and could be used to cut meat, skin, a carcass, bore a hole, stab, chop and more! These tools were in use for hundreds of thousands of years, so they must have been effective, but over time they did change shape. Earlier handaxes such as the one shown in Fig. 2 are characterized by a sharp, angular appearance.

As time passed there was something of an ‘evolution’ in the shape of these tools and they became more rounded such as those in Fig 3 below. There are examples of some of these rounder handaxe finds online, for example Norfolk Museums Service show one of the Happisburgh handaxes which are among the oldest tools found to date in Britain. It is thought they date to 700,000 years ago!(http://norfolkmuseumscollections.org/collections/objects/3681464286.html)

Neanderthal tools

By the ‘middle’ of the Palaeolithic age over 250,000 years ago our Neanderthal ancestors had reached Europe and it is possible they had also reached Britain. There are only a few sites which record the presence of Neanderthals here – one of these was found at Lynford in Norfolk and some of the finds can also be seen here on the Norfolk Museums website (http://norfolkmuseumscollections.org/collections/objects/3800316139.html). The museum service also produced a useful pamphlet which accompanied an exhibition which can be downloaded (http://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/view/NCC084244).

Another Neanderthal site in Britain is Pontynewydd Cave. Excavations here produced some 50 small, pointed handaxes. In addition archaeologists found what they call ‘prepared cores’ – these are the remains or core of a flint nodule which shows evidence of a particular technique or method of production. There were also flint flakes and other tools, many of which point to how the inhabitants subsisted, as these are the kinds of artefacts that were used for working animal skins and wood, or they may have been used in spears or cutting implements. Some of these tools had been subjected to heat. Although it is impossible to say whether this was intentional or not, it allowed archaeological scientists to use a process called thermoluminescence to date them to about 225,000 years BP.

Fig. 3 Middle Palaeolithic tools found in Derbyshire a) hand axe and b) scraper (after Bramwell, 1973)
Fig. 3 Middle Palaeolithic tools found in Derbyshire a) hand axe and b) scraper (after Bramwell, 1973)

Given the time-frame of the Palaeolithic it is difficult to give a concise story of the changes in stone tools and their implications in such a short introduction. Over the course of almost a quarter of a million years there was a slow transition from reliance upon a single tool – the handaxe – to the production of a whole ‘tool-kit’ with specialised pieces being produced for specific tasks. Specialists in lithics technologies (stone tools and how they are made) have created typologies which group together these changes and refer to them as ‘industries’ or ‘cultures’. These are very often named after a location where a new technique of tool production was first noticed e.g. Clactonian (Clacton in Essex) or Creswellian (Creswell Crags). Such changes can be seen both across Britain and Europe with only minor differences apparent. Many of the stone tools from this period, which have been found at Creswell Crags can be seen on the museum’s website. If you follow this link you can see images of the objects and also details of many other aspects of the Palaeolithic and Ice Age at the Crags (http://www.creswell-crags.org.uk/Explore/exhibition-objects.aspx). By the end of the Palaeolithic around the end of the last ice age there was more evidence of changes in stone tools.

In an accessible account of the period Chris Butler’s 2005 book Prehistoric Flintwork will give you an clear idea of the type of tools people of the time were making and using. We recommend it! The story of stone tools and other things made by our ancestors will continue in our blogs/pages covering the Mesolithic – make sure you check them out too!

Cave Art

Perhaps the most sensational finds from the Palaeolithic have occurred in the last 15 years. Until 2003 it was though that Palaeolithic ‘art’ in Europe was confined to the mainland, but a discovery at Creswell Crags changed all that. So significant was this and other finds that we are going to have a separate page devoted to it – please keep a look out for it!

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